The developers of Limbo, Playdead, have returned with what at first glance appears to be a very similar game in appearance. Just like Limbo, Inside looks like in a dark platforming adventure featuring a young man who is in some terrible strife.
When the game starts, you’re a nameless boy who is just running for his life, escaped from some terrible fate. Slow down or miss a moment and you might be beaten and dragged back or eaten alive by dogs. This child spends most of the first part of the game just running past scenes in the background of what look like people being rounded up by security forces. Games like Half-Life 2 depicted similar scenes with brighter colors, music that was more in your face, and people talking about the situation. I don’t think any of the characters of Inside ever speak a full phrase. It is the visuals and a subdued score that do the talking.
Limbo had a very stark visual style that was kind of like looking at shadows move across your screen. There were many games that proceeded to imitate that art style to different degrees of success. I don’t think they’ll try the same thing with Inside. It is a more stark game of contrasting colors and more depth to its dimension that are still dark and mostly gray.
The exception to that is what the game developers want to draw your attention to. A brightly colored cable that leads you to a secret. A smear of blood there. Flesh tones, there are those and anyone who has played the game should not speak of what or why to anyone who hasn’t.
Inside’s protagonist does so much running and dying, and the animation for all of that is wonderfully well done. Every interaction seems like it is perfectly in tune with the environment and responding to the strain the boy puts on himself to pick up a box as big as he is just to get up a little bit higher. If he falls from a height he’ll respond appropriately. Too high a fall and there’s always a gruesome scene that follows. What makes it truly awful is that the game forces you to watch, you can’t turn away or else the game won’t proceed. As a father, any time a child is harmed in a television show or movie or game it gets to me a little bit more than usual. When the dogs were tearing Inside’s boy apart, the game subverted every attempt at skipping the scene so by not loading the last checkpoint until I used my controller. Flailing at buttons didn’t seem to work, it was only measured responses to attempt to get the violence to stop that caused the game to proceed when it was good and ready, and felt like you had absorbed the impact of whatever mistake you made that caused that boy to die. It could have been timed, I’m not sure, I just didn’t want to watch that him die again.
All of the scenery behind the boy is just as vital to telling the story of the game, and occasionally it moves from the background into the foreground to interact with him. You’ll watch other characters who have been subdued (for reasons I won’t get into) marching in line, as you move through that area you’ll have to get in that line with them and mirror their movements or the boy will die. At the beginning of the game there are people searching for other people who have escaped their fate in the background and you’ll have to move carefully to not be detected by them or the boy will die.
The game doesn’t rely on stealth much outside of those few scenes, instead there are platforming puzzles. These puzzles aren’t particularly difficult to figure out if you’ve played any other side-scrolling games and know what to look for. Inside didn’t have many moments that stymied my progress either. What makes them vicious is that failure results in more prolonged death animations.
In a way, Inside feels like the best parts of older Call of Duty campaigns when those were still impressive. It’s very linear, there is pretty much only a straight path that occasionally requires some minor backtracking or running to the left to complete the game. Just like Call of Duty, there are incredible scenes all around your character. Unlike Call of Duty, you’re going to want to stop and look at these because they make you feel something and I think that’s what makes this an incredible game. Those emotions are more than what you might expect upon first glance from screenshots of Inside if you’re familiar with Limbo. The art and sound and animation and programming all come together perfectly.
It isn’t surprising that Inside was developed in Denmark, it looks like a game that couldn’t have come from anywhere else. At times the puzzles can be tiresome because you instantly know what to do to solve them, but you’re forced to run back and forth across the screen at whatever pace the game’s designers set.
The worst part of Inside is the ending, it is anti-climactic and while I am sure it could mean something to somebody, it lacked the emotional connection from the rest of the game for me. That you have to go back for seconds to see the “real ending” isn’t positive. If you play the game, don’t look up either on video, just look up the solution to the multi-layered puzzle to get the second ending so that you can actually make both happen.
That ending and the few other flaws the game has aren’t enough to betray the rest of the experience which must be played.
If you were wondering what Playdead were doing in the 6 years since Limbo came out, Inside is the incredible answer. It took me roughly 5 hours to find everything there is to explore in the game, and if you’re at all interested in it you should not read or watch or listen to anything else about Inside. There are massive spoilers going around and knowing more about what kind of game it is can ruin the experience. I wish I had gone in knowing even less, but podcasts have basically ruined parts of the game without warning.
Inside is out now on Steam for Windows and the Xbox One digital distribution platforms.
4 out of 5 abject walruses.