Inside Review - Beautifully Bleak, Surprisingly Sleek
The less you know about the story in Inside before starting your game, the better, since it evolves and develops as the player moves steadily from screen left to right. Similarly to Playdead's breakout title, Inside is a 2D side-scroller starring an unnamed boy as a protagonist. The catch is, this time, you're not on a personal quest to rescue your sister, but are rather sneaking your way through increasingly dangerous terrain towards the heart of a dark society that has seen better days and appears to be stuck in deep levels of mind control and unethical experiments. Since you can't fight, you'll be having many near-misses with guards, dogs, and more mysterious creatures and entities.
Atmosphere is king here, and a case could be made that Inside is a work of body horror in the David Lynch or David Cronenberg vein. Aside from the red shirt of your character and the glowing red and orange lights on certain objects like switches, the dystopian game world is drawn in the spectrum of grays, blacks, and occasional whites, with dense fog, harsh lighting, and looming shadows making for slick visual textures.
Even though there is a strong sense of unease and eeriness pervading every minute of your journey, there's something aesthetically beautiful and cinematic about the sparse art direction and framing of each new challenge. The artists clearly were allowed to go all-out with this one, and everything from the animations of the characters and the background elements to the particles hanging in the air feels precision-tailored to give the game that shiny veneer of quality.
Limbo composer Martin Stig Andersen's low-key synths appear only in moments few and far between, allowing the sound design of each echoing footstep and pulled plank of wood to have weight and add to the dread of your character's possibly being caught.
As for the gameplay, it's as simple as it gets. Your character can run, jump, climb, swing, interact with objects, pull levers, swim, operate vehicles, and use 'mind control' helmet devices to manipulate drones, all with two buttons.
The main challenge is in solving the environmental puzzles, most of which are fairly straightforward. Some of the puzzles are timed, many are physics-based, and others do require outside-the-box thinking, but with the exception of one at the end of the game that had me scratching my head for several minutes, I never felt cheated by any of them. In almost every case, the solution to a puzzle is right there in front of you. Deaths will come often, but checkpoints are very liberal, and loading times a non-issue.
As for replayability, there are 14 hidden orbs to acquire, and most likely, you won't find all of them on your first playthrough (I think I found maybe 4). But unlocking all of them does reveal an alternate/secret ending, and Inside is short enough (3-4 hours) and of high enough quality that replaying it won't feel like a chore. Even so, I think a lot of the game's value comes more from its mysterious and haunting scenario than the linear gameplay, which is fun and grotesquely charming, but doesn't quite deliver as much of a challenge as it could have. Despite the epic story progression, the simple, self-contained environmental puzzles here fail to escalate in difficulty – it's a contrast to a game like Portal, which introduced a whole host of different gameplay challenges in the first half, and then paid off by building them on top of one another throughout the rest of the game.
There have been many theories about the nightmarish world of Inside on places like YouTube, which is a good sign that the developers succeeded in showing us only select bits and pieces of a fleshed-out universe and allowing players the joy of filling in the blanks and discussing what it all might mean. There's even class commentary and thought-provoking concepts, if you're looking for them. Just don't expect everything to be wrapped up in a neat little bow.
Aside from (some might argue contrarily because of) the rabbit hole that is its final act, Inside is a thoroughly satisfying gaming experience. It's thick on atmosphere and art design, its gameplay is simple and yet conveyed strongly and without words or hand-holding, and it's a showcase for the brand of psychological horror and dread that only great videogames are capable of bringing. I'm happy to have spent time in this universe. That said, the game is short and bleak, and the puzzles aren't the most challenging or satisfying out there.
Inside is a captivating work of art, to be sure, and deserving of the major awards it is being nominated for, but it didn't quite weave its spell on me the way that it did for many others who fell deeply in love with it. With that said, I think it is a worthy successor to Limbo, a unique and lovingly-crafted experience with nary a dull moment, and is most definitely worth playing and experiencing for yourself.
+ Very strong atmosphere and strong sense of horror and mystery
+ Beautifully sparse art direction with careful attention to detail
+ Physics-based environmental puzzles that get you to think outside the box
- Short at 3-4 hours for the first play-through
- There isn't much difficulty or replay value aside from finding all the secret