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Inside is out now on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Our very own Alan Stock brings you this review for ComiConverse.
Game Review: Inside
A warning – Inside is a game full of surprises and memorable moments. This review is going to be as spoiler-free as possible in order to preserve those for you, but I will talk about the game’s premise and a little about the starting section to give some context. These have already been shown in promotional screenshots and previews – but if you already think you’ll pick up Inside, I’d recommend skipping this review until after you’ve played it, to get a completely fresh experience.
Still with me?
Let’s delve into Inside’s dark world…
Inside owes a great deal to developer Playdead’s previous game Limbo; which was an excellent, dark and creative adventure, which was met with an outstanding reception from players and reviewers. This game is a spiritual successor and Limbo’s motifs are evident from the beginning of Inside. The game uses a minimalist artistic style, a dark, monochrome look with muted colours that’s complimented by incredible lighting. Like Limbo, you control a defenceless boy and navigate an environment full of nasty enemies which will end your life in a heartbeat. An ambiguous story and thick atmosphere also return, as does a 2D gameplay mix of platforming and puzzle-solving, with a dark, creepy tone. But Inside is hardly a clone of Limbo, although it takes many of the elements that made that game amazing, it’s as creative as its forebear.
You begin the game in a dark, misty forest, on the run from men who are hunting you using flashlights, trucks and aggressive dogs. The game drips with atmosphere, initially there’s no music – just the rustling of the leaves, chirp of crickets, the patter of rain and your own footsteps. Although your movement is locked to the left and right in a 2D plane, the environment’s fully 3D, so the forest stretches into the background, and enemies can move forward from here to become a threat. Playdead have kept true to their immersive roots – once again, there’s no on-screen display of any kind to distract from the atmosphere. It’s a great bit of design, the game communicates everything you need to know without icons, bars or numbers overlaying the action.
The actions you can perform are quite broad, but the controls are simple – you can only run left or right, and have 2 button controls – one to jump, and one to grab objects. In combination, these give you a range of moves, for example holding the grab button and Up at a shutter will pull it open. Your avatar, the unnamed boy, automatically grabs ledges from jumps and the platforming level design is forgiving. This is a game more about using your brain and timing than fine reflexes, although at times they’ll be tested.
Back in the gloomy forest, the hunters search for the boy. Inside reveals its dark side early on. If you mess up and they spot him, they’ll start shooting, or give chase – casually choking or drowning him when he’s caught. It’s extremely grim to watch as he struggles and lets out muffled cries as his life seeps away. Progress, and the dogs are released, and the brutality only gets worse – if they catch him, they’ll knock him down and simply maul him to death. These dark ways to die are just a taster of what the game has to offer, a multitude of fatalities awaits. Thankfully, checkpoints are very generous, so dying isn’t too harsh in gameplay terms, and you’ll often learn about threats simply by dying when you encounter them for the first time. But that’s alright, there’s a perverse fascination in seeing how you’ll die next, Inside has black-hearted humour (though you’re unlikely to smile) and the death scenes are lent extra oomph by Inside’s superb animation.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this game has some of the best animation around. It’s stylised but feels solid as you run around, the boy moving realistically according to his surroundings. The attention to detail is amazing – he’ll glance at points of interest as he passes, or flash quick peeks back at a chasing dog as he runs for his life. His chest heaves as he exerts himself but his breathing visibly slows after a while once you stop running. His bone-shattering falls are horrible to watch. The animation finesse extends to the rest of the cast – with other characters and animals even in the background captivating to watch. There’s loads of great touches, such as the ability to tell what characters are communicating through the animation alone, and the menacing way a hunter furtively glances from side to side as he chokes the life out of the poor boy.
The visuals elsewhere are a treat as well. This game is gorgeous, with wonderful art direction. The minimalistic art style uses simple models for the environment, but they are layered beautifully to give a real sense of depth. Great visual effects like dust motes swirling in sunbeams and superb lighting really add to the atmosphere. The locations are fairly diverse and the world feels authentic, with an attention to detail and a grand sense of scale in some areas. Inside is so good looking that you’ll often stop just to soak it all in. The artistic minimalism extends to the characters too, the boy himself is even faceless, which is a little weird at first – but this doesn’t diminish a sense of attachment to him and is more than an aesthetic choice as it ties into the game’s story.
Inside’s narrative unfolds as you progress through the continuous environment. There’s no speech or exposition to explain what’s happening. Instead the locations and events you witness allow you to piece together your own interpretation of the narrative and game world. Now, it’s impossible to talk in detail about these without spoiling the game, suffice to say you won’t be running from hunters in a forest forever. The unpredictability of Inside is one of its greatest strengths. It’s a game where you never know what to expect next. There’s a lot of brilliant and clever moments to experience, in both ideas and encounters. To its credit, when new concepts are introduced, Inside doesn’t over-milk them so ideas never outstay their welcome. The creativity that made Limbo such a good game has definitely not been lost in this quasi-sequel.
As for originality in gameplay, you won’t find anything too outstanding here. The puzzles are well designed, but aren’t too complex. Many of them revolve around timing or doing things in the right order. Expect to drag plenty of objects, pull levers, and do a lot of swimming. Although there’s some good brainteasers, you probably won’t be stuck for long and they’re arguably a bit too easy in places. The linearity of the game limits solutions to your location – as there’s little back-tracking you’ll often stumble across the answer just by continuing to explore the area you’re in. However, the constant originality in the puzzle settings and wrapping is usually enough to make up for this.
You spend other portions of the game simply exploring the game’s beautiful environment, or being chased by nasty things that want to kill you. The chase sections are mostly excellent and very tense, with a real sense of threat. The dogs are especially terrifying; growling and barking as they run you down, slamming against chain wire fences to try and reach you. Sound is used to great effect in these sequences, not resorting to cheap action music and instead focusing more on the unsettling sound effects to add to the tension.
Indeed, Inside’s audio is excellent, and the cherry on the atmosphere’s already dense cake. The character sound effects combine with immersive environmental audio, from echoey underground chambers to disturbing rhythmical machinery. Music is used minimally but effectively. It seeps into the audio almost unnoticed, usually with soft synths, adding extra ambience at key moments. There are also occasions where it cleverly layers in synch with the ambient sound effects during some brilliant sections.
So, Inside’s rich atmosphere and compelling gameplay combine to create a very immersive game that really sucks you in. I was so captivated I played through the whole game in a single sitting of around four hours. It’s possible to extend the lifespan by replaying from the start to find secrets you may have missed, a few of which I found on my playthrough. Unfortunately, by restarting you’ll lose much of the game’s impact, thanks to its strict linearity and the element of surprise being lost. Finding all the secrets unlocks a variant ending – which knowing PlayDead will not clear things up too much. The themes and story of Inside are quite ambiguous, at least superficially – but like Limbo, replaying and analysing the game in depth is bound to provide some answers and theories to the many questions you’ll have afterwards.
Even ignoring the intriguing story, Inside is so thick with atmosphere and full of surprises and novel ideas that it’s a must-play. Its dark and grim tone has disturbing elements that are genuinely creepy. You’ll be chomping at the bit to discuss its great moments with your friends – “have you got to the bit yet where… that was so cool!” – and you’ll be tearing out your hair waiting for them to reach THAT moment. Playdead have proved once again their mastery of the immersive adventure game, and Inside is another classic.
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A mature, dark and deeply immersive adventure dripping with atmosphere. Inside is a classic full of surprises and memorable moments.