Elude the terrors of a dystopian world and uncover the secret it hides.
PC Release: July 7, 2016
By Ian Coppock
The tourney of morose platformers that began with Limbo continues today with Inside, Limbo developer Playdead’s newest project. Limbo is a great platformer because of its incredibly strong atmosphere and challenging but fair puzzles. Now that six years have gone by since Limbo‘s release, it’s time to see how Playdead adopted the lessons of that game into their new title.
This review will be rife with comparisons between Limbo and Inside. As readers will soon see, not comparing the two games is, for better and worse, impossible. Just like Limbo, Inside is a side-scrolling platformer, and just like Limbo, Inside stars a small boy who starts off the game lost in a forest. Inside also features a variety of environmental puzzles and advertises itself as having a strong, spooky atmosphere… just like Limbo.
Already, Inside runs the risk of being far too derivative of Limbo. Sure, the game is marketed as a “spiritual successor” to the 2010 platformer, but Inside‘s unwillingness to venture even one iota outside of its predecessor’s premise is a bit worrying. It certainly cast initial doubt as to whether the game contains anything new for fans of Limbo. A premise is just a premise, though, and many games with the same beginning can turn out to be quite different. It’s time to dig deeper.
Anyway, Inside kicks off with a young boy appearing in a big, spooky forest. As he ventures deeper into the woods, the boy begins witnessing some worrying sights, like people being loaded into trucks and driven off to God knows where. It becomes clear that the men behind the roundup are no friends of the boy, and the child has to avoid and outrun these patrols as he ventures deeper into the wild.
In addition to avoiding armed patrolmen and their vicious attack dogs, the child has to solve a few environmental brain-benders in order to proceed. These puzzles, much like Limbo‘s, revolve around making use of environmental objects to create a path forward, be that a bridge or a gate or whatever. The boy has no weapons, but he can pull and push objects and interact with buttons to get along on his way.
At this point, fans of Limbo might be a bit wearied by all the samey-sounding gameplay points that are in Inside, and that’s fair enough, but it’s worth pointing out that this new game takes what Limbo did and makes it more effective. For example, though the monster encounters in Limbo are hair-raising, they rarely present immediate danger like the encounters in Inside do. Being pursued by a slow-moving spider is certainly cause for concern, but being chased by murderous patrolmen and their Ramsay Bolton-esque attack dogs is much more visceral. Playdead took what made the enemy encounters in Limbo work and bumped them up to greater heights.
Playdead is to be commended for their understanding of survival horror, which is a rare accomplishment in a genre that’s over-saturated with cheap jumpscares. There’s a particularly tense scene toward the beginning of the game in which the boy attempts to sneak past a truck left running with its lights on, and is suddenly shocked by the appearance of several more flashlights as he tries to make his way through. Inside is much more suspenseful than Limbo, and adrenaline junkies will appreciate it.
After making his way through a morose countryside not unlike that in a Tim Burton film, the boy ends up in a sprawling city. It’s at this point that the snippets of terror presented in the woods transition into full-blown psychological horror, as the boy makes his way through a city straight out of 1984. From rows of derelict buildings to hordes of mind-controlled slaves, there’s no shortage of grim sights to be had in Inside‘s urban environments.
Once again, Playdead took something that they toyed around with in Limbo and took it further in Inside. In Limbo, some great calamity was always implied, but left quite vague. In Inside, the implications of a dystopian society are unmistakable, but the game is still mum on how all of this happened. The game features no dialogue, though the boy does react with shouts and gasps to the terrors of the world around him. This is an improvement over Limbo, in which the small child didn’t react at all. In Inside, the boy’s reactions to the world are much more realistic, like running faster ahead of savage dogs and gasping in panic at the sight of a monster.
Inside‘s sound design complements the game’s aesthetic quite well. There’s no music, per se, so much as a series of ambient sounds that will play loudly when something dangerous or disturbing is encountered. Most of the game’s sound design is devoted to the natural sounds of the world of Inside. Grinding machinery and the march of brainwashed slaves are but a few sound elements that reinforce the game’s oppressive atmosphere.
The richness of this sounds is a crucial element of Inside‘s horror. Everything from the tiniest splash to the loudest machine is designed to produce a full, lasting sound effect that makes the world feel spookier and more real. They’re done well enough to make the player forget about the lack of dialogue, for one thing.
For anything that can be said about Inside‘s narrative and gameplay similarities to Limbo, there’s much more divergence between the two in Inside‘s visuals. Whereas Limbo was done out in a series of animated environments that were entirely monochromatic, Inside is a fully 3D world featuring actual, if muted, colors. The game is absolutely gorgeous, espousing a style that looks like something between a Pixar film (if Pixar was run by Tim Burton) and a top-of-the-line modern game. Each environment, like those in Limbo, is almost ludicrously detailed with objects and debris to give a strong dystopian impression. It’s an enthralling world that will suck gamers in almost from the get-go.
Additionally, unlike Limbo, Inside features more colors than its monochromatic predecessor. Instead of doling everything out in various shades of grey, Inside features fully colored objects that are instead dulled by the game’s lighting and shadows. Colorful environments are muted down not by a slim selection of colors, but by Inside‘s powerfully rendered palette of light. From bleak, indifferent sunlight to sterile industrial electricity, there are dozens of lighting and shadow effects at play in Inside. They work spectacularly with the detailed environments to create a world that is bleak, but not dull. Unwelcoming, but not uninviting.
The gameplay by which players navigate this powerful world is little changed from that of Limbo. The boy can run and jump to get around, and will automatically speed up if an enemy starts to give chase. Running and jumping is also the boy’s only recourse if an enemy does show up, as he has no weapons or deterrents. Just like Limbo, Inside tries to dissuade players from getting killed by using gruesome death animations. Inside does not hold back in its depictions of untimely demises, like getting eaten alive by a pack of dogs or bisected by thunderous machinery.
The puzzles in Inside are fair, and usually not too difficult. They reward intuition and logical thinking much more than the random clicking that far too many puzzle games prefer to employ. Some puzzles, though, are far too similar to those of Limbo. There are a few puzzles throughout Inside that seem to have been copy/pasted straight out of Limbo, which was disappointing to see. Inside‘s puzzles are not that challenging, but they haven’t been as dramatically improved over Limbo as other aspects of the game design.
As for Inside‘s central plot, well… there really doesn’t seem to be one. With Limbo, the boy’s goal is to find his sister. That goal is made known even before the game starts up. With Inside, there’s no indication of what drives the boy to risk life and limb as he makes his way deeper into this spooky world. There are one or two implications, to be sure, but those aren’t made known until the final goal is actually reached. Even more so than Limbo, Inside prefers to avoid a strong narrative in lieu of its admittedly intoxicating world.
At the same time, this prevents gamers from connecting to this boy more personally. The fact that his motivations are an enigma works against wanting to keep him alive or caring about his ultimate fate, even if he is just a small child. The train of thought for most gamers who try Inside will be “this game is awesome, but why am I here?”
Ultimately, Inside is a study in the horrors of vulnerability and isolation. Sure, most horror games aim to do the same, but Playdead makes a few subtle changes to the formula that ultimately make Inside an effective adventure game. The fact that the character is a small child just automatically makes the world around him feel more unfriendly and more severe. The long bouts of walking and puzzling through abandoned zones make the player feel more alone than ever. Add the severity of the game’s enemies to the mix, and Inside becomes a dark journey with surprising emotional exhaustion.
In the end, that emotional exhaustion is what makes Inside an endearing game, in spite of its near-total lack of a narrative. It’s a journey about survival more than anything else, as pronounced story takes a backseat to the boy’s effort to merely stay alive. It’s a fascinating glimpse into an Orwellian world, a world whose sole hope is the boy pressing forward into the dark.
Although Inside risks being too derivative of Limbo, and its lack of a central narrative may turn off story-obsessive gamers, it’s one of the best platformers to have been released in years. Its entirely new innovations are few, but it takes the design elements that made Limbo great and raises them to dramatic new heights. The monster and enemy encounters are more visceral. The puzzles are more intuitive. The art style is more beautiful. And, most importantly, the grim world that Playdead has all but trademarked returns even more somber and more terrifying in Inside.
Inside contains about five hours of content and is available on Steam for PC gamers. It’s a game that challenges players to brave a dark new world, and confronts the mind on an emotional and a psychological level like few other games can. This game deserves a spot in every PC gamer’s library. It is not only a worthy spiritual successor to Limbo, but a fantastic, well-made video game in its own right.
You can buy Inside here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.