It starts off with an escape. A small, innocent boy slides down a slope in a dark, dystopian landscape, and barely misses the sharp, glowing beam of the many spotlights. Dogs have been unleashed, and the frantic, aggressive barking can be heard echoing throughout the dark landscape. Masked men are searching high and low in every nook and cranny, all while hordes of captured humans are guided into massive trucks, to be taken far, far away.
This is the start of Inside, the new game by the Danish developer PlayDead, who previously took the world by storm with their excellent debut game, Limbo. Inside is a subtle, dark and obscure story about a disheartened world, which you need to move through, hide from and most importantly fear every aspect of. Everything is out to hurt you, and no one can help you. All you can do is stay on the move, and attempt to evade the ever growing darkness.
Inside is Limbo 2.0. It's not just a spiritual successor, in the sense that you can feel the previous game's DNA, no, we're talking the closest you could ever come to calling it a true successor to Limbo both artistically and mechanically. Inside is a 2D platformer with the occasional puzzle here and there thrown in for good measure, and it very often requires you to manipulate an object or two in a certain way in order to progress. The narrative itself is extremely subtle, and without even the tiniest shred of dialogue. The only thing you can do is watch very closely, analyse, and do the same thing the boy does - pay attention to your surroundings.
Inside oozes atmosphere from start to finish, and even manages to tell a deep yet simple story without a peep from the main character, overheard dialogue or text based communication. It's all read between the lines, but it does, however, leave a magnificent impression on the player. Actually, Inside gains massively by not being muddled with any unnecessary noise. The player's experience of the environments and the events of the game is central all the way through, and this more puritan approach makes you speculate - you're constantly being forced to make your own conclusions. Recently we played Deadlight: Director's Cut, and one of the more pressing issues with that story was main character Randall, whose constant monologue became like a thick layer of clingfilm over the actual narrative, choking all life out of it. Overexposure strangles all. Inside, like Limbo, never falls into this trap, and even though you never get the actual answers you seek, the suspense of being curious is the fuel that keeps you moving.
PlayDead must have some seriously talented visual artists and animators, because if you think Limbo was an incredible visual experience, then Inside will simply make your jaw drop. The design is purposefully edgy and simplistic, and like Limbo the colour palette is limited. This, however, does mean that the balance between lighting and shadow really gets the space to come into its own, and because of this, Inside often looks like a moving silhouette, a drawing. That makes the game a magnificent thing to behold, and we often had to stop just to relish the fact that we were a part of this beautiful yet sinister world. Inside's visuals sell the entire experience, it's as easy as that, and everything from the 1989-inspired robotic sentries to the dilapidated remains of what used to be modern civilisation feels completely at home within the game universe.
Like Limbo, there is no dialogue to find here, and even actual sounds are sparse. Like the narrative, less really ends up becoming more, the boy's footsteps in the empty husks of the industrial halls, the rain vibrating on the rusty tin drums on dark fields that echo with depth and character - when there's so little to listen to, you listen more carefully. The eerie music is not as constant as it was previously though, but it's actually queued to accompany you when the situation demands it. If you're suddenly chased by something sinister, the tempo will rise abruptly and the music quickly kicks into gear. We're still talking dark, pulsating electronic melodies here, but when you move through the environments, it's very often that your only company is the sound of your own footsteps, your own breathing. The feeling of isolation is constantly enhanced by the sound design, and the rare piece of music.
Inside is about the experience itself, the composition of these exquisite ingredients which combined makes for one harmonious whole, and that's why no single, separated part of the game is particularly advanced. This especially pertains to the game's mechanical structure. Yes, like Limbo there's a series of physics based puzzles, which among other things lets you control humanlike zombies via a special helmet, and direct them in certain directions. The entire structure is, however, purposefully simplistic, but never to the point where you feel disappointed. Like with Journey or Monument Valley, it's not the weight of the puzzles or the level of challenge that creates the entertainment, no, the entertainment and the investment in the experience announces its arrival in a much more subtle fashion. Inside is one of those games that creeps under your skin from the very first frame, and only lets you go hours after the end credits has rolled over the screen.
A number of the paragraphs in this review have contained comparisons to Limbo, and even though you do need to review a game on its own grounds, and see them as separate entities, Inside does look like its predecessor in a mostly positive manner, but there is a negative side. There's no doubt that this represents a quantum leap for developer PlayDead, but at the same time Inside does become overly familiar from time to time, and ever so often it does look like a direct sequel to Limbo, instead of something new that builds on the best elements of it. Truly, Inside is more ambitious, and does feel bigger, broader and like a natural extension of its predecessor, but it can sometimes feel like an echo from the past. Jumping with the main character feels identical to Limbo, as does the movement patterns, the puritan approach to dialogue and narrative, as well as the puzzle design. This is a not a complaint per say, because building a game on a base as solid as Limbo isn't a bad idea - it's just not as fresh as one could've hoped for.
This thankfully doesn't mean that Inside is any less magical, because we truly do have a platforming pearl on our hands here, which once again confirms that PlayDead is an indie force to be reckoned with within the industry, one that can create gaming experiences that unlike any other. Inside is a dark story about a dystopian future, and rarely has a game with this little narrative exposure felt so real. That speaks volumes of the studio's narrative and artistic ability. However, if you're expecting something completely different compared to Limbo, you'll likely be a little disappointed, but that still doesn't stop Inside from truly soaring, even above its illustrious predecessor.
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