Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One
Limbo surprised a lot of people when it launched in 2010. The game combined dark visuals, intuitive design, and solid puzzles, and it quickly became a favorite in the early years of the indie boom. Here we are six years later, and the team behind that iconic title is back once more. Playdead's Inside is the grim follow-up to Limbo, and it does everything that game did even better. It's maybe not as impactful today as its predecessor was in 2010, but even so it's still a great game and a must-play.
This is one of the more difficult reviews I've written since probably SOMA last year, because there's so much to say about the game and yet so little I want to spoil. It'd probably be better if I just told you to go play Inside posthaste before any of it gets ruined for you. Still, I'll do my best.
Inside starts out just like Limbo. You're a young boy in a forest, and all you can do is move forward, or rather to the right. It's not long, however, before you encounter several threats in the form of men with flashlights and tranquilizer guns who chase you down and choke you out or simply shoot at you. All you can do in these scenarios is either hide and wait for them to pass by, or run away before they capture you. Of course, things get especially tough when you're tasked with outrunning vicious dogs.
The outdoor landscape soon gives way to a more industrial setting. You enter various laboratories and warehouses where you're surrounded by machines and crates and lab equipment. And just like the environment evolves from a brooding forest to an ominous factory, so too do the enemies into more sinister forces. You'll still run into the occasional lab worker or pack of dogs, but you'll also deal with even more terrifying adversaries.
Figuring It All Out
The puzzles of Inside start out quite simple. A lot of the early going mostly has you pushing and pulling blocks, flipping switches, creating platforms, and navigating underwater mazes. Yes, you can swim in this game, and eventually you can even…actually, I'll let you discover one of the cooler underwater features on your own.
Just before you reach the halfway point, Inside becomes a lot more complex. It introduces new gameplay elements that drastically change the way you solve puzzles. I won't go into too much detail, but there's a specific mind control device that paves the way for some really awesome moments. Before you know it, you're tackling multiple objectives and solving bigger, multi-layered puzzles. As dark as the game may be, its use of discovery and success will surely make you smile.
None of the puzzles of Inside ever get too daunting, though you're likely to encounter a few head-scratchers. I found myself stuck a couple of times, but when I figured it all out I wondered how I didn't see something so obvious right away. That's both a blessing and a curse, though, because these moments tend to feel kind of tedious. There are also multiple moments where you have to run back and forth repeatedly, which I felt took away from the overall seamless experience and felt unnecessary.
Thankfully, the few repetitive moments are just smaller parts of a few puzzles. Your actual progression isn't stalled by cheap difficulty or tacked-on challenges. In fact, Inside features a pretty forgiving checkpoint system, so you're never thrown too far back from where you left off before a dog rips out your throat, or you drown, or you meet some other grisly death.
A Beautiful, Horrific Work of Art
Despite the fact that Inside is a puzzle-platformer in terms of mechanics, it is very much a horror game. The haunting imagery, both in terms of environments and characters, is indicative of that. The finale itself is one of the most bizarre, unsettling moments I've ever witnessed in a game.
But aside from just being creepy, Inside is also beautiful. It's an atmospheric game that takes place in an awe-inspiring world. The majority of what you see is black, white, and gray but there are washed out splashes of color here and there. And the lighting is absolutely magnificent and does so much to further build upon the game's striking world. The elegant look of the game is complemented nicely with a minimalist sound design that consists of crisp sound effects and low, lingering themes.
As much as Inside looks like a work of art, it also tells its story artfully, relying on the environments around you to fill you in. Sadly, this doesn't always work in the game's favor. Like Limbo before it, Inside lets you interpret its story in different ways, which is fine, if a bit underwhelming. The ending itself is, unfortunately, kind of an eye-roller, even though it's not necessarily bad. I watch a lot of horror movies, and like so many of those films I noticed a similar buildup that led to a less-than-great payoff.
Ultimately, I can't stress enough how much I enjoyed my time with Inside. Throughout the course of its four-hour journey I was treated to a harrowing spectacle, brilliant puzzles, and incredible world design. No, this game didn't do for me what Limbo did all of those years ago, but it's still great in its own right and, mechanically and technically, is superior to Playdead's debut title. I may have just finished playing Inside, but I'm already eagerly waiting to see what Playdead does next.