Unintuitive level design and unresponsive controls headline the game's problems, but it's the utterly reprehensible save and checkpoint system that damages AMY the most.
Squint and you can see what developer VectorCell was trying to achieve with AMY. Survival horror has been a heavily under-represented genre throughout this generation of consoles, with staple franchises such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil taking a more action-driven approach. Tellingly, almost four years since release, Sony's experimental Siren: Blood Curse still represents the best foray into survival horror on PlayStation 3, crafting a tense but pivotally well balanced affair, with some strong stealth-action mechanics. AMY hopes to steal that crown, but falls disappointingly short in almost every area.
Fronted by Flashback legend, Paul Cuisset, AMY's frequently looked like a tantalising proposition in the trailers and media building up to its release. So much so, we declared the game one of our most anticipated downloadables just weeks ago. But what's evident mere minutes into the campaign is that the developer's done an outstanding job of pulling the wool over our eyes, because, as a game, AMY is not what we'd hoped for at all. And yet, it still sounds deceptively delightful on paper.
You play as Lana, a level-headed woman responsible for the well-being of an extraordinary child named Amy. Even if you don't have a strong understanding of horror movie plot staples, it's clear that something's not quite right with the titular child. From the offset we learn that Lana's taking the girl to a nearby science facility in order to undergo a series of tests, and she's also introduced as a mute. Plus she just genuinely looks scary. Something about the eyes.
AMY takes place in a kind of post apocalyptic future. A disease has infected much of the world's inhabitants, leaving behind a group of ruthless killers in pursuit of Amy and Lana. To make matters worse, Lana is infected by the disease too, but it quickly emerges that by keeping close to the little girl, Lana can reverse the effects of the virus.
Therein lies AMY's most intelligent mechanics. Lana can blend in with groups of the undead by letting the disease overcome her body, opening up some really tense stealth mechanics. Interestingly, she can also hold the hand of Amy, not just to guide her through the world, but also to judge nearby threats. Like ICO, the DualShock controller vibrates while you take hold of Amy's hand — quickening when threats are nearby and warning you to take cover from potential danger.
It's these kind of features that left us clamouring to get our hands on AMY before release, but while the concepts remain strong, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
AMY's biggest flaw is the manner in which it handles progression. Checkpoints are agonisingly rare, and chapters must be restarted from the beginning if you happen to turn off the game. It's clear that VectorCell wanted to maintain the sensation of tension throughout the experience, but the net result is one of frustration. AMY is a purposely slow-paced game — which is a trait we're fine with in isolation — but it results in massive repetition should you make a mistake and end up dying; something that will happen frequently throughout the campaign.
It doesn't help that AMY is totally unforgiving. Again, the sense of weakness adds to the suspense of the gameplay, but with so few checkpoints available, it can be scream-inducing when you accidentally wander into a foe that strikes you dead in a single hit. The gameplay ends up more maddening than frightening.
With such danger lurking at every corner, and a real genuine fear of losing progress, the flaws in the game's level design are accentuated to a larger degree. The game thrives on trial-and-error, punishing you if you dare to make a mistake. We spent about two days trying to overcome Chapter Two -- a level that's technically about 30 minutes long once you know exactly what to do; but the design is so unintuitive that it took us several times that. Sure, the limited feedback adds to the game's sense of mystery, but there needs to be some kind of direction in the design. Worse still, AMY just doesn't feel logical. We're still not sure why scanning a fire helped us to retrieve the DNA sample we needed to progress in Chapter Two, but it did.
To add to its problems, the game's also extremely finicky. A lot of the gameplay relies on collecting keycards and objects, but you'll need to be positioned perfectly in order to grab them, otherwise they'll just remain a lost part of the scenery.
Combat is similarly clunky, with Lana ill-equipped to handle firearms or projectile weapons. Most enemies you encounter will simply shake off any attacks you attempt, though there are some zombies that can be clubbed to death with a stick. Here you'll need to rely on the luck of the game's collision detection, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best as you desperately bash at the DualShock's face buttons trying to land a strike. The survival horror genre's never been particularly adept at implementing strong combat mechanics, but AMY feels more woolly than usual. There's definitely a way to maintain the tension of being underpowered without making the gameplay frustrating, but AMY certainly doesn't achieve it.
The puzzle elements don't fare much better either. With the gameplay focusing on the relationship between Lana and Amy there was plenty of scope for some interesting co-op scenarios, but AMY seems content with relying on basic puzzles in which you send Amy bundling through holes in order to collect key-cards and, bizarrely, hack computers. Each co-operative puzzle is concluded with a cut-scene close-up of Amy smiling that's more frightening than any of the monsters in the game.
The real puzzle is the game itself. Who thought it would be fun designing a series of levels that essentially rely on repetition and trial and error in order to beat? We know Dark Souls is a hot product at the moment — but even that game has some kind of underlying logic to it. AMY is just baffling.
Perhaps its strongest — and only asset — is the quality of its presentation. For a downloadable game AMY looks pretty good, and it captures a strong atmosphere. The artstyle has a thick European flavour, and while the environments are pretty small, they are generally packed with detail.
Sparse audio motifs add to the tension, with an unnerving crackling sound scoring Lana's transformation into a monster when she's not near Amy. The skulking snorts of the enemies don't come close to capturing the ghoulish babbling of the Shibito in Siren: Blood Curse, but still manage to get your pulse racing as intended.
Unfortunately, the high-quality visual presentation comes at a price, and AMY performs scandalously poorly. The frame-rate is offensively bad — to the point that we're curious how the game even got through QA — and the image is laced with tearing and other inconsistencies.
Given AMY's downloadable intentions and low price-point, the technical issues could probably be overlooked if the core gameplay was of a satisfactory quality. But it's not. The trial-and-error nature of the level design, and the heinous save and checkpoint system make it a game that's infuriating to play. A slew of fundamental design decisions ruin a collection of great ideas, and that's unfortunate. AMY is not a tense game, it's a frustrating one. But what's most disappointing of all is that beneath the shoddy execution, it had real potential.