Nowhere to run

When Limbo appeared on the gaming scene six years ago, it was a revelation for many. It’s minimalistic visual style combined with its tight gameplay and open-ended finale left fans pointing to it as a shining example of why games are art—with some still arguing the finer points of its potential message today—and the viability of the gaming Indie scene. So, it’s no wonder the industry has been abuzz since we found out about Inside, the second effort from Limbo developer Playdead. Inside may be a bit more colorful than its grayscale predecessor, but it still delivers a powerful experience.

Inside has players in the role of a small boy who finds himself running from forces who wish to restrain and capture him, bringing him back to one of any number of facilities where inhuman experiments have been carried out on less fortunate souls. Over the course of his adventure, the boy will move through factories, forests, farms, train yards, and even sunken labs via a one-man submarine. What compels him to continue on, though, is the core of a mystery that will keep you playing well past the ending, searching for secrets that hope to help fill in the blanks to another one of Playdead’s purposely vague worlds.

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It is in this familiar-yet-strange setting that we find the true star of the game. Although visually simplistic, with the gameplay never leaving the 2D-plane and much of the world painted in muted tones, the 3D backgrounds paint a macabre picture of forces at play that are beyond our understanding. It is this moody, atmospheric backdrop that shines more brightly than any potential narrative device could, and is at the core of what makes you want to keep playing Inside. It begs you to ask the question “what happened here?” and there is no greater force that makes you want to keep pushing right on your joystick to find out.

The scenery is simply the foundation for the macabre environment, however. A tale within a tale is told through the NPCs, puzzles, and death traps we are forced to navigate while playing. The gameplay is simplistic on the surface, with only three inputs needed on the controller: jump, grab, and run. Our young hero’s ability to interact with the environment around him then empowers players in a way games with more complicated control schemes often fail to do. Whether carrying and moving all sorts of items around, pressing switches to change the landscape of a room, blending in with the faceless crowd, or even using some of the facility’s still active experiments to your advantage, a beautiful layer of complexity quickly evolves from these humble mechanics.

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The evolution of said mechanics in the environment is also done at a perfect pace. Although the difficulty never reaches anywhere near Limbo’s levels, since Inside seems to want to tell a story by having players move more slowly and carefully through the world instead of testing them via trial and error, the puzzles do advance and teach players at a natural rate so you never feel overburdened. If you replay certain sections like I did searching for secrets—and yes, Inside has its fair share of secrets—the stark difference between the start and end of the game in terms of how intricate the puzzle solutions are will quickly become evident at that point.

What might be most impressive about Inside, though, is how your thinking might change as you play the game—not just in terms of puzzle-solving, but in terms of your character’s purpose. Even with over a dozen special secrets to find in Inside, everyone gets what appears to be a rather finite, closed-book sort of ending, a definite departure from the interpretations Limbo afforded. Where things changed for me with Inside was what the motivation of the boy was. I stopped thinking of him as running from something, and more possibly running to something. And this is where Inside’s value truly lies. There is so much that can be left open to analysis, that can be played and replayed, and every person can experience things in a different way, bringing something new to the conversation.

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Inside can be looked at as a mirror-image to Limbo. Whereas Limbo focused more on punishing puzzles, Inside deals more with meticulous movement. While Limbo’s simple graphics made it easy for players to focus on the task at hand, Inside distracts them with a world that is as much a character as the protagonist. And as Limbo left its conclusion up in the air, Inside might have you questioning the purpose of your journey when you reach the fixed ending. They share a common thread, however. You are told almost nothing at the start, but will come to explore a brilliantly designed, but dangerous world that will suck you in from the beginning and never let go as you fall down another expertly crafted rabbit hole from Playdead.

Developer: Playdead • Publisher: Playdead • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 06.29.16
9.5
Inside is a brilliantly crafted game that will keep you talking about it long after you’ve finished playing. Its moody, atmospheric world and terrific puzzle-platforming are simply the hooks to first draw you in.
The Good Moody, atmospheric puzzle-platformer that digs its hooks into you from the second it starts.
The Bad Puzzles never pose any real challenge.
The Ugly My desire to discuss this with other people, but I’m the only one in the office to have played it thus far.
Inside is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Playdead for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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