Movie Sleuth gaming wiz, Justin reviews Inside.
I have been playing and analyzing games long enough to know what things draw me to a game, and which aspects keep me playing when other titles may have lost my interest. While I love a good story, and have appreciated story-driven game experiences much more as i've gotten old, what grabs my attention and keeps me playing above all else are in-depth systems and mechanical complexity. While I enjoyed my time with Inside, if you are like me and your interest is primarily piqued by systems and numbers, it might not be one to hurry up and play.
The sparingly used color stands out heavily in the washed out landscapes
Inside is very much a follow-up to Playdead studios’ 2010 game Limbo, in both aesthetics and mechanics. The player once again takes control of a mostly-faceless young person to explore and solve puzzles in the face of peril in a world of darkness. You start out taking control of the little guy as you move through a dark forest, and mysteries are abound from the very beginning with the setting and action. What you get with Inside is essentially more Limbo but, with the visuals and style polished to a mirror sheen.
The look and feel of the game is far and away the best part of Inside. The environment is dark and brooding, not unlike Limbo, but it trades the pure silhouette style for ‘2.5D’ settings with complex environmental layers and lighting. Each individual set piece uses the foreground and background to its advantage to make the environments feel massive and vibrant, despite being a game with a limited color palette and 2D side-scrolling gameplay. It is uncommon for me to stop in the middle of what I am doing just to admire the setting, but I often found myself losing track of my short term gameplay goals and just staring at the stark contrast and lighting in the environments. In the five or so hours I put into the game, I muttered “Xbox Take a Screenshot” to my Kinect more times than I have in the entire two years I have owned the console; telling of the power and beauty of the environments themselves.
Unfortunately, I cannot say I was as enamored with the gameplay as I was with the visuals. It would not do Inside justice to put it in the category of ‘dime-a-dozen’ puzzle platformers, but considering the hype and the pedigree I expected a lot more out of the gameplay. The puzzles feature some new and unique elements that I appreciate, but the majority of them were simple and unsatisfying to complete. It is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, but after playing both The Witness and The Talos Principle within the last year made even the most complex of puzzles in Inside felt laughably easy. You learn the new puzzle mechanics as you go and apply them in different ways, as any good puzzle game is want to do, but even after some late game revelations change up the gameplay, I never felt like there was a point where I was truly challenged. My character perished on occasion, gruesomely so at times, but I never felt like my deaths taught me lessons. The ‘ah ha!’ moments of puzzle solving satisfaction were never came, even when completing a previously failed objective. There are some optional puzzles to unlock secrets that tended to be more challenging which I appreciated, but they did not ultimately change my feelings about the gameplay as a whole.
Light is used to add depth and contrast to an otherwise bleak 2D game
There is a ‘story’ to Inside, but not in the sense of dialog or exposition. This explicit denial of background information is a narrative device that I like in games, and Inside uses it to well to give a sense of mystery and confusion in a satisfying fashion. There was rarely a moment where I wasn’t questioning everything that was going on, and the environments and actions of the player character tell a lot more about the world than any audio log or McGuffin. I would be disappointed if the story was more laid out than it is, I would not have been able to have the interesting conversations and theories behind the goings on of Inside. I think the story is trying to ask questions about the nature of why and how people play video games, but I’ll let you decide for yourself as the mysteries of Inside unfold.
I am glad I played it, and similarly glad that it inspired me to go back and play Limbo again a bit for this review, but I can’t help but feel disappointed overall. Limbo didn't feel like it had aged that well, and it’s hard to give a glowing review to a game so similar to its predecessor that’s nearly 6 years old. The words ‘brilliant’ and ‘masterpiece’ were thrown around in early reviews of Inside, and I think there are truly amazing things about it, but I wouldn't come to Playdead’s newest title if your idea of depth doesn’t involve dark settings and philosophical questions.
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Release Date: June 29, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: Xbox One