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Among the Sleep is a first person horror adventure game out now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Alan Stock brings you this review for ComiConverse.
Game Review: Among The Sleep
Do you remember being a toddler? Waddling around, playing and sleeping all day. Smearing food over yourself and everything you touch, gleefully soiling yourself, free of all responsibility. Ah, them were the days, eh? And do you remember your creepy teddy talking to you, losing your mother and wandering nightmareish worlds being stalked by terrifying monsters? No? Not to worry, if you missed out, Among the Sleep has you covered.
This is a first person game with a difference – you see the world through the eyes of a two-year old. You can crawl, totter on two feet and climb, and of course as you’re tiny, everything in the environment looks huge. It’s a nice change from the norm. The opening introduces you to life at home, as your slightly creepy looking mother celebrates your birthday, and once in your bedroom a tutorial teaches you the slightly fiddly controls. Like many first person titles you can interact with and pick up objects in front of you invisibly, illustrated by a cartoon hand icon. Here though, it’s a bit jarring as if you look down, you can clearly see your own hands whilst doing so.
You soon meet your talking stuffed bear, Teddy, who’s apparently friendly but like mum looks a bit creepy. He acts as your guide in Among the Sleep and you can hug him for comfort, acting as a lantern in dark areas. As the intro finishes up, you enter a nightmare blurred with reality in search of your missing mother, and this sets the tone for the rest of the game. You explore a range of weird, fairytale environments, reminiscent of a dark Alice in Wonderland, interspersed with household objects and rooms. The artistic direction is good – great lighting and striking visuals with locales such as misty forests, dark households and swamps. There’s definitely shades of Scandinavian folklore from Norwegian developers Krillbite Studio here.
The game actively tries to creep you out, attempting to build atmosphere and it’s not long before you encounter a monster stalking you. You’d better hide or run when it appears, because if you’re caught, it’s Game Over. However, the game’s horror aspect (which runs throughout) never really hit the mark for me, perhaps it’s because I am a bit of a gaming horror veteran, but I only occasionally felt ill at ease. Monsters borrow the Amnesia: Dark Descent trick of blurred vision and screaming sound effect when you look directly at them, a pretty banal tactic these days, and there’s some cheap jump scares in there too. Most of the horror building and scare tactics here are very familiar but crucially they’re not that effective.
Although the atmosphere is quite good, you don’t really feel much at risk thanks to the linear environments where it’s obvious in gaming terms that nothing fatal can happen to you. When they do open out to reveal hidey holes it’s pretty obvious a monster’s about to show up. In part, the visual style also contributes, the dream world and rendering style feel more reminiscent of a platformer than a horror game, which often rely on realistic visuals. You also have Teddy as a companion most of the time, so you don’t feel alone. He also makes comments which hinder the atmosphere rather than help it, like “I don’t like this place”, or “We should be quiet!” (but there’s no way for you to make noise anyway). It’s a shame because although on paper a defenceless toddler in a nightmare world seems like a perfect recipe for terror, but Among the Sleep just doesn’t quite pull it off.
Perhaps the developers were relying on the horror aspect a little too much to drive the game, because whilst the unique perspective, art style and locales work well, Among the Sleep is let down by its gameplay. It starts promisingly enough, taking advantage of your character’s limitations. For example, to open a door you have to push a chair to it and then climb up to reach the door knob, and there’s a few decent puzzles like this throughout the game. Unfortunately, the form doesn’t continue. Most puzzles are basic and mostly fit into a linear “find key for lock” variety. There’s a fiddly inventory but you usually only have one item in it so there’s little problem solving. There’s other niggles too – such as instant deaths from falling into water or off ledges which are hard to see, inconsistencies with interactive objects and some control issues. Among the Sleep also suffers from a lack of player direction and doesn’t give clues on how to proceed which can often leave you scratching your head. Signposting through visual clues and environment design, which is usually how games like this give you subtle hints, is underused. At times you need to backtrack but without much indication to do so. Most of the environments are large and look samey (remember, you are a child and everything is huge) so they take a long time to navigate, crawling around aimlessly gets pretty annoying.
Monster sections don’t evolve much beyond hiding under objects and waiting for the threat to move on, or just running away. Ocassionally it works well with a few good tense sections but for the most part it’s quite mundane. For an original premise, the gameplay is entirely unremarkable besides the occasional use of the toddlers’ abilities. Among the Sleep feels like more of an interactive experience than a game, thin on gameplay and player brainpower – which is fine, but there’s not really enough meat on these bones for it to hold up as that alone. “Walkathons” as they’re known, usually make up for the lack of traditional gameplay through exploration, narrative and dialogue or puzzle solving, but Among the Sleep feels too light in all of these areas. Horror games often fail in this regard too but here the horror isn’t strong enough to make up for those shortcomings. However, your curiosity on what setting will come next and how the story will evolve does keep you going.
Being a toddler in a game is interesting, but it brings with it a slight dissonance. As a player, you can understand what’s being said to you by your mother and Teddy. As a player, you solve puzzles and navigate the world. But it feels a bit strange, like this is an adult trapped in a child’s body. The toddler wouldn’t be able to do any of these things so there’s a slight disconnect here. It’s very strange, because of course in other games you can play as anything, from aliens to animals, and the issue doesn’t come up. I think that here it could be because your character is portrayed as you would expect a toddler to be, gurgling responses and screaming at appropriate times, but it doesn’t line up with the reasoning and understanding presented in the game that only an adult could have. Because it’s first person, perhaps it’s also the disparity between what you should feel from being presented a child’s perspective in a nightmare (i.e. terror and confusion) versus your own adult mindset. Although it doesn’t really damage the game too much, I thought it was an interesting quandary.
Among the Sleep is a short game and can easily be finished in under three hours. As you stick with it, the story eventually becomes clear, tying everything together well at the end. It’s done quite cleverly and would almost excuse the banality of the gameplay, but doesn’t quite. This a good concept and looks great, and it’s nice to see original elements in this type of game. It’s just a shame that it’s not executed that well, the potential of being a toddler is slightly wasted and the horror elements don’t quite hit the mark, at least for me. Still, if you buy into the creep factor you’ll probably enjoy it, the story and environments are cool, and it’s short enough that it may be worth checking out. For me though, it’s nice idea that’s let down through the shallow gameplay – a missed opportunity.
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Among the Sleep is a nice concept and interesting story that looks great, but is let down through some dull gameplay and horror elements that aren’t that effective.