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SummaryWhat will you find?
The Good+ Amazing visuals and atmosphere
+ Lots of visual variety
+ Intuitive, clever puzzles
+ Intriguing narrative
The Bad- Some sections drag the pace down
- Overpriced relative to its length
The Bottom LineThe game opens on a young boy in a forest who begins journeying forwards through a dark and surreal landscape. Along the way, he solves numerous physics puzzles, avoids traps and encounters strange and vile creatures, most of whom probably want to kill him.
That was a very general description of Danish developer Playdead’s 2010 cinematic platformer, Limbo, but it could just as easily apply to their recently released followup, Inside. This game follows exactly the same recipe as Limbo, to the point where you could easily mistake it for a sequel if you didn’t know the game’s title. Playdead have added a few new ingredients to spice up the dish and give it its own distinct flavor, but by and large Inside serves up a very similar meal to its predecessor.
Story wise, Inside does away with the abstract (some might say symbolic) and fantasy aspects of Limbo in favor of a more straightforward science fiction tale. Despite this, or maybe perhaps because of it, Inside offers up a greater sense of mystery than its predecessor. It starts off with the protagonist being hunted by strange men with dogs. Later on, he infiltrates a laboratory where bizarre mind control experiments are being performed on children like him. What, exactly is going on? Who are the people doing experiments? What purpose do the experiments serve? What is the boy’s part to play in this? These questions are punctuated, and perhaps answered by an absolutely bonkers finale, to say the least. It’s no exaggeration to say that Inside has one of the craziest endings in the history of gaming, and people will be talking about it for years to come. I don’t think everybody will be on-board with where Inside ultimately goes, but it is vastly more fulfilling than Limbo’s non-ending. Personally, I loved it for both its inventiveness and sheer audacity.
Arguably the biggest difference between Limbo and Inside is the visuals. Both games have a very angular and jagged art style, but where Limbo was entirely 2D and black and white, Inside makes occasional use of color and is a 2.5-D game. Some of Inside’s puzzles and mechanics make use of the added z-axis, most notably during some of the high-octane chase sequences. While Inside does run in the Unity engine, its visuals are so much more polished than most games using the engine that you’d almost never guess. This is a gorgeous game filled with great use of particle effects, striking camera work, and effective lighting. Despite its use of primarily flat-shaded polygons, the game packs in a ton of detail. Animations, always an important part of a cinematic platformer, are procedurally generated based on physics, and they look fantastic. I especially like how the boy appears to almost trip as he lurches forward into a sprint. There’s a lot of variety in settings, from dark forests and rainy farms, to sun-dappled rooftops and underwater laboratories with reversed water. It’s always an intriguing game to look at. I love the game’s use of camera and perspective shifts to give the game a sense of scale and spectacle that was sorely missing from Limbo. The camera shifts also help to subtly guide the player during certain key moments.
Inside places a greater emphasis on stealth than Limbo had. Often times, you’ll need to avoid being detected by guards with flashlights or robots with spotlights. One particularly memorable sequence has the protagonist join the assembly line of children at the lab, where the player must walk and act as they do to avoid raising enemy suspicion. At the end of the sequence, the protagonist gets discovered, kicking off a chase sequence that includes what may be the most satisfying window jump ever featured in a video game.
Unlike Limbo, the protagonist is capable of swimming, though he can’t do it for very long. You’ll often need to jump in water to avoid enemies, grab an object, or fit through a passageway. Later on, you gain access to a bathysphere which allows for submarine-like travel and can dash to push and break obstacles.
The other major new mechanic is the inclusion of mind-controlled characters. You can jump into an orange-lit helmet to take control of multiple characters in the background. Some puzzles will have you switch back and forth between using a helmet and jumping over obstacles yourself. It all makes for even more complex puzzles than Limbo had. Some reviews online have said that Inside has easier puzzles than Limbo, but honestly, both games feel roughly the same in terms of difficulty to me, with Inside maybe having slightly tougher puzzles.
The sound design of Inside is superb. Inside is a mostly quiet game punctuated by loud and startling bursts of noise whenever something dramatic happens. The game knows precisely when to let its moody, atmospheric soundtrack play Occasionally, all noises will be drowned out by the protagonist’s heavy breathing as he breaks into a full-blown sprint. It’s an eerie and haunting soundscape that demands a good pair of headphones to fully experience.
There were one or two sections that I felt dragged on a little too long. In particular, I felt like the game made too much use of swimming and underwater areas in its second half, which sometimes slowed down the game’s pace. There were times when objects that I needed to pick up or pull were hidden in dark areas, making them difficult to see. I also felt that the game could have helped out when using the helmets, as you need to press a specific button combination for a good length of time to actually let go of one. Inside gives you no information about the controls whatsoever, not even button prompts. Inside is also a very short game, only taking about 4-5 hours for a first playthrough, but that’s a typical trait of most games in this genre so I won’t hold that against Playdead. I felt that the game was as long as it needed to be. At $20 though, I felt that it was a tad overpriced when considering how short it is. Still, I can't deny that those hours were extremely well spent.
Inside is an extremely polished and nearly perfectly executed game, and one of the best in its genre in recent memory. It’s just as atmospheric, puzzling, and intense as its predecessor, while delivering a more interesting narrative. While it is pretty much Limbo 2.0, that’s not a bad thing since its arguably the better game of the two. The gaming world could always use more cinematic platformers, and Playdead are clearly talented at creating them. I hope they don’t take an entire console generation for their next project, but if it’s even half as good as this, the wait will definitely be worth it.