2020 seems like a fitting year for the PC and console release of Inmost, a game that feels as oppressively bleak as the stream of negativity hitting our phones and inboxes each day. Originally pushed out not long after Apple Arcade launched, the arrival of the home edition port almost a year later is a triumph of pixel art storytelling — though one that should be caveated with some trigger warnings.
The story is split between three distinctive characters: a young girl whose mind conjures often frightening figures from harmless things in her house, a knight stalking a castle in service to a dark entity, and a middle-aged man on some sort of personal voyage of discovery. How their narrative strands link is revealed piecemeal and out of chronological order as you play; given the running time is little more than three hours, it certainly benefits from completion in a single sitting.
Each of the trio handles differently. The child, being smaller than most of her surroundings, has to navigate her home by moving chairs and boxes around to access vents and shelves out of her reach. The knight’s tale is one of bold action — a more straightforward case of moving forward and smashing anything black and gooey over the head with a sword, or grapple-hooking your way between platforms like a medieval Batman. The last of the trio, a bearded woodcutter type, is where most of the traditional platforming takes place. Without any weapon to speak of, you’ll need to rely on your reflexes to keep him out of reach of the inky slime monsters that populate the compact land. Movement is fluid and ledges are grabbed hold of with generosity to spare, so much so that the speed of the girl feels lethargic when the focus shifts to her. Even so, it marries up well with the constant terror she clearly feels.
It’s worth saying that Inmost is a game crying out for headphones. The mournful orchestral score wails away in the background, ramping up as needed when a set piece calls for more violins or sharp scales for emphasis. The sound effects are equally fantastic. Whether it’s the clicking of horrors assembling themselves before you, the smash of plates as you scamper up a kitchen dresser or the whir of a creaking lift coming to life, your ears are in for a treat.
All of this takes place in a sumptuously detailed world, containing some of the most exquisite pixel art we’ve seen to date. The colours are muted throughout but that doesn’t detract from the striking outlining of the main characters, nor the superb animation of the creatures you’ll face. However, this isn’t an action platformer. You’ll die, likely a lot, but most of the danger comes from the environment rather than enemies. If you came into gaming in the late 80s and enjoyed the shock platforming of Rick Dangerous combined with the item hunting of Olli and Lissa, you’ll feel right at home. The majority of the game involves finding the next tool to help you unblock your path, a sort of light Metroidvania but — aside from a segment towards the end which felt rather rudderless — one that won’t tax you too much.
That isn’t to say Inmost is completely linear. There are eighty-five “pain” fragments scattered around the areas to collect, hidden in chests, under foliage or within breakable rocks — and sometimes acquired by leaping into the unknown. These can be given to one of the few NPCs you'll meet in exchange for allegorical stories which help explain what’s happening and each character's motivation. Similarly, notebook pages or drawings can be collected to add a little more flavour to proceedings.
Performance-wise, the game ran almost flawlessly. We experienced a single bug which trapped us and stuck the sound in a loop, but the checkpoints autosave so frequently that neither death nor the occasional technical glitch will prove too troublesome. A quick flick to the menu screen will let you restart that point or backtrack to other chapters.
If it seems like we’re brushing over the plot, it’s for good reason. Inmost has a core story which would be spoiled by even the vaguest references to its detail. It leans heavily into metaphor from the start which is likely to captivate some players and irritate others, but the final twenty minutes flips that on its head and instead presents a full wrap-up of exactly what happened and why. It’s just a shame that the majority of this section involves you watching, rather than playing. Sure, it looks spectacular, but it would have been nice to have some input into it — a similar accusation that could be levelled at the far more linear Gris, which delighted in obfuscation. Conversely, Inmost presents the gaming equivalent of the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner. You won’t be left with any doubt about what you just experienced, but you’ll be wondering whether a bit more nuance might have helped the ending. Or not, if you like things spelled out.
It’s nevertheless an impressive debut from tiny outfit Hidden Layer Games, while it proves to be another canny choice for publisher Chucklefish’s library of indie darlings. The atmosphere, relentlessly dark as it is, easily matches that of Playdead’s work, which is the biggest compliment we can give it. You may need a stiff drink afterwards, but hey, this is 2020 — that seems to be a requirement on most days.
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