Always expect the unexpected
You ever have one of those dreams where it feels like you’re in a familiar place, but there’s just something off-putting and surreal about it, and you don’t quite know what? At one point, you find yourself surrounded by people, at first feeling comfort from finding human contact until you realize that, just like your surroundings, there’s something sinister about them, too. Then, you find yourself face to face with them in an elevator only to gaze upon their featureless faces and think, “Dammit, I’m having that Jacob’s Ladder nightmare again, aren’t I?” No? Just me? Well, personal night terrors aside, take that description and make it the backdrop to a puzzle/platformer, and you’ll have the gist of Inside, the latest entry to Playdead’s “boy meets cruel world” legacy.Now, I’m going to state here that this review is going to be purposefully as vague as possible. It’s not that there isn’t a lot to say about this game, because there’s plenty, but there are so many great moments that should be experienced firsthand that spoilers to any degree would be a real disservice to the game and gamer alike. With that said, lets dive into the story and the unavoidable comparisons to Limbo. The tale starts with a small boy making his way through the woods and progresses with him going deeper into a dark and mysterious world. And that’s about where the general comparisons stop, because other than a few nods and expanded concepts, like mind control, both games very much stand on their own. Even the strikingly grim art styles are considerably different, with Inside having noticeably more color to its own mindbending maze and characters.As for the gameplay, Inside’s controls are very smooth and responsive, with failed jumps often coming down to user error more than anything. They can feel almost sluggish at first but the emphasis on physics gives everything a bit more weight to it than most platformers, and it’s something players will likely adjust to early on. While platforming is still certainly part of the formula, puzzles and AI manipulation are more of the focus, though many situations call for each skill set. For instance, instead of just jumping out a window to reach a ledge, players may also have to work their way around something like vicious attack dogs or mysterious underwater creatures. There’s still a handful of simple physics based puzzles that involve moving a crate or something similar, but even obstacles like that tend to have an added depth to them in many parts and usually require a bit more thinking than you’d expect at first glance. As far as instant death traps go, they still exist, and players will likely find points that will require a few attempts, but if you simply take note of your surroundings before making any swift decisions, you’ll likely be okay. The aspect Playdead did a masterful job with, though, is how the game constantly plays with your expectations, with many scenes making you think you’re certainly going to die but at the last second you’ll somehow just barely survive.The art style and sound design are exceptionally crafted, specifically the sound that provides some of the best atmospheric effects I’ve heard in years. Playing through the game I switched between both surround sound headphones and my sound system, and each did a great job of immersing me in the world. Gunshots are startling, dogs closing in and nipping at your heels, rattling chain-link fences and the sound of rain are all mixed with realistic clarity that truly enhance the experience.
The graphics, art style and animations received just as much care and attention to detail. Color seamlessly bleeds its way into the otherwise dreary black and grayness of the world while realistic lighting effects not only look impressive but also help serve as subtle navigational hints. The animations are incredibly well done and little details like having the boy press up against glass to get a better look help give some personality to the character. As I mentioned in my nightmare ramblings during the opening paragraph, the featureless faces on characters really help sell the ominous mood the game is going for and further blur the lines between real and otherworldly.
And that’s about all I can talk about without getting into specifics. Even though the game is only a handful of hours long (3-4), there’s plenty of surprises and many things you’ll be left wondering about by the time the ending hits. There are some well hidden secrets to find throughout that will lead you to an alternate ending, but don’t expect it to make sense of everything. But that’s part of the appeal, and something Playdead did effectively in Limbo and built upon with Inside. It’s a game that’s not only very enjoyable to play, but one with enough mystery to it that it keeps you thinking inside the moment and out.