Playdead return with another desaturated platformer in the shape of Inside. Their first outing, Limbo, became a critical and commercial darling when it hit the Xbox Live Marketplace and PC back in 2010. Inside draws upon the legacy of Limbo and takes it to places that are truly impressive.
When it launched, Limbo had the enormous benefit of being a featured game in Microsoft’s fabled “Summer of Arcade” series back in 2010, which gave it a huge boost in visibility out of the gate. It didn’t hurt that it was a very good game in its own right, with a few caveats. Fortunately, Playdead have learned from the criticisms and have created a title in Inside that delights and disturbs in equal measure.
Inside starts with you controlling a boy in a forest. So far, so Playdead. Instead of Limbo’s greyscale world however, there’s a few more colours to Inside’s palette. Don’t expect a Disney-esque technicolour wonderland though, this is just as dark as Limbo ever was, with each and every colour being completely desaturated to the point of it almost looking black and white. Your nameless protagonist is running from… something… in the forest, and the game slowly introduces you to its mechanics in an intuitive way. There are no obvious tutorials, and yet you never feel stumped with the way things are laid out. At its heart, it’s a simple 2D platformer with an art style Tim Burton would be envious of with a few puzzles thrown in for good measure.
As you progress past the forest, some new mechanics are introduced that really begin to set Inside well apart from Limbo. The core of the game basically is the same in that you run, jump and grab things, but there are some interesting yet creepy mechanics such as mind control introduced very early on. In terms of design, the way in which the depth in environments is used within Inside is fantastic. Masked men in the background appear with torches and dogs, meaning you need to hide behind crates you can drag around the environment to give yourself some cover. The puzzles that are in the game are relatively simplistic, and you won’t be banging your head against them in frustration, but this also means that they won’t outstay their welcome. It’s also a positive that each one only really appears once in the game, and you don’t find yourself repeating mechanics much beyond the core facets of the game.
Without a doubt though, the best thing about Inside is its atmosphere. There is a sense of dread that permeates the air as you make your way through the game, with faceless enemies and allies having something that isn’t quite ‘right’ about their movements or character design. The sound design is simply excellent, and if you do pick the game up, I would strongly recommend you play it with a set of headphones on, as there are some audio techniques used that really add so much more to the game. The art style works in tandem with its audio design to provide something that is genuinely unsettling at worst, and utterly disturbing at its best. Malformed bodies strewn across the environments, animals being used in a way that PETA would have a field day over, and a general macabre sense running throughout that even the most morbid of individuals might take a step back and say “Blimey, that’s a bit much”. Some of the enemy design is simply terrifying, and there are moments that will leave you with your heart in your throat before finally escaping to the next section of the game. Technically the game performs brilliantly too. I didn’t have a single frame drop or glitch throughout the time I spent with it, and it’s a credit to Playdead, the game is so well polished and delivered that it keeps you immersed at all times.
It lets up when it needs to, however, allowing you to piece together what is a surprisingly strong narrative from the fragments that the game drip feeds you. Not a word is spoken, but you can pick up pieces of the underlying story as you make your way through the numerous environments that all seem to be connected somehow. There are no black screens to fade in and out of areas, and if you want to you can play the entire thing in one sitting without experiencing a loading screen outside of the initial one. It’s a really well put together game, and it’s very difficult to find flaws in Playdead’s execution. Hell, even the level select menu is brilliant! As previously mentioned, the puzzles don’t outstay their welcome, and unlike Limbo where trial and error seemed to be the only way to fumble your way through the game, you can count Inside’s “unavoidable” deaths on one hand.
I’m purposely staying away from the story arc in the game because, well, Inside goes places. The final third of the game left me sat with an expression on my face that I genuinely wasn’t expecting to have when the game started off, and it’s hard not to say anything without giving too much away. But safe to say, the atmosphere just gets more and more creepy as the game goes on, with things getting a little more… intense toward the final stretch.
Playdead have taken everything that Limbo offered, and expanded it exponentially with Inside. Crafting a sublime 2D platformer with another unique art style, they take so many unexpected turns with the game that they may as well ship it with a sat nav. A game that starts you off as a boy in the wood will immediately draw comparisons to their 2010 debut, but the connective threads between Limbo and Inside are slowly pulled apart as the latter goes on and begins its descent into something all the more disturbing. A fantastic example of polishing a game until it’s done, Inside may only be around 4 hours long but it’s been well worth the 6 year wait.