INSIDE - Brutal Backlog

June 25, 2018
Also on: PC, Xbox One, Switch

Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.

Playdead Studios lurched uneasily across my radar shortly after their first game Limbo came out.

“Check out this game,” my friend Danny said. “You’ll like it, it’s horrible!”

Or words to that effect. I wasn’t prepared for the macabre delights Limbo had to offer, as with a simple greyscale art style and gory death animations aplenty, the 2D platform puzzler drew me into its world. Several playthroughs of Limbo on iOS and another on the PS4 later, and I’m finally getting around to playing the studio’s 2016 follow up to that game: INSIDE. Here at Jump Dash Roll we recently covered Limbo, and with both games coming to the Nintendo Switch for this first time later this month, there’s no better time to see whether the follow-up can match the impact of its predecessor.

Blend in with mindless drones to ensure your safety

Twenty Minutes In

You meet your character as he’s scrabbling through a waterlogged woodland. You play as a boy, surely no older than fifteen, with all the grace and flailing limbs of a de-stringed puppet. The game handles very lightly; jumping and running has an airiness to it that makes the Limbo child seem lead-limbed in comparison. The initial handful of screens pose simple obstacles, trees to jump over or blockages to climb over, but as the treeline thins, vehicles and guards are actively searching for you with flashlights and dogs.

Super early impression? I LOVE the details of the character animations. Our spindly-legged protagonist is in no way equipped for this adventure, and small scripted pieces of gameplay will see him clambering on hands and knees on uneven surfaces, or legs kicking in the air trying to glean an extra bit of distance when jumping a gap. These character animations also serve to give an idea of the plot. So far there’s been no hint as to the storyline, but as you instinctively cower behind cover as a truck approaches, you know your mission is taking you somewhere you shouldn’t be.

Discretion is the better part of valour.

In terms of appearance, then: the colour palette is still muted, but the player-character’s red top makes him stand out helpfully from the gloomy backgrounds. The graphics have been bolstered by an added dimension since Limbo you still run in a linear path left to right, but the world does not end along that line. The background and foreground are rich in detail and activity, and pursuers coming straight towards me from the distance were made extra jarring by the realisation of how used I am to a Mario-style world where everything is either to the right or left of you (Paper Mario aside).

The opening stages of scrubland and guard patrols give way to a dilapidated farmhouse, and a really cutesy bit of unconventional puzzle solving. You need to dislodge a crate from a level high amongst the rafters of a barn. There is a vague piece of farm machinery which spins its cogs when you pull a lever, and a little family of merrily chirping chicks roaming the area. How do you progress? Simple. Run around the baby birds (no more than golf balls of yellow fluff to the naked eye) until they’ve imprinted upon you, and they’ll happily follow you to the spinning gears so they can be hurled through a tube and eventually knock down the box with the combined weight of their broken bodies. It’s fun. It’s dark. It’s very fun. It’s not that hard though. There’s literally nothing else in the area to utilise, so there might as well have been step-by-step instructions flashing in the background.

Industrial environments make for many-layered obstacle courses.

Forty Minutes In

You progress further and further into an industrial complex, and the tension rises as it doesn’t feel so much like infiltration as a last-ditch rescue mission for an unknown MacGuffin. The introduction of mind control helmets changes the game up as you direct — first individuals, but eventually crowds — what seem to be human drone workers. The boy’s movements are mimicked by your new helpers across different levels to pull unreachable levers, or lift objects too heavy for your spaghetti arms to hoist.

While the core puzzle gameplay of switching levers, dragging crates, and avoiding dangers still feature heavily, Playdead has taken it to the next logical step; each area has been expanded both horizontally and vertically, so you have to scale ropes or descend ladders to scour new areas, find the puzzle piece components, and bring them all together to pass the latest obstruction.

"Hang on a minute, lads; I've got a great idea."

One Hour In

I’m pootling along a flooded basement in a ‘borrowed’ scuba vehicle (another new addition, a diminutive bathysphere which can be boosted to use as a battering ram or to leap clean out of the water) when a creature swims up to get a better look at me. At first glance it’s a vampiric Troll doll, translucent pale skin and long hair gently drifting in the muggy waters of the submerged facility I’m passing through. I move forwards with the headlamp trained on it, but it seems shy and slowly floats out of sight as I pass. A beat later, it has swam back at an alarming speed and is breaking its way into my pod, cracking the window and drowning me. I spent a long time with this delightful creature. It’s emaciated frame looks so unthreatening, but the moment your spotlight wanders from it — like Mario’s Boo ghost enemies and their sneaky shyness — it’ll be back to force you out of your pod and into a watery grave. This enemy recurs several times in the game, and each sequence — outpacing it to a slowly closing door, or in one memorable instance baiting yourself on a slowly lowering hook until your toes skim the water’s surface — kept me on edge and discomforted.

It doesn’t look like much, but the water creature is terrifying.

Disappointingly, the death animations just aren’t as ghoulishly entertaining as in Limbo. Gone are the bear traps and impaling spikes which would ragdoll body parts across the screen — to the point where you feel you should probably die at least once on each new obstacle course just to see the effects. INSIDE’s deaths are more sombre; a guard wrestles you to the ground, or an attack dog cuts your run to safety short as the screen fades to black. As you progress further into the industrial complex there is a little more variety — a machine skewers you on a harpoon-style device and drags you off, or that goddamn water creature drowns you. These still are not played for laughs; they are morose and quiet little deaths, reinforcing how powerless you are. INSIDE isn’t entirely po-faced self-seriousness, but this humour by and large comes from the unsettling physical humour of using the mind control helmets to direct a gaggle of those uncoordinated human drones.

I don’t have a problem with the tone of the deaths per se, but perhaps just that there aren’t that many of them, all told. Limbo and the excellent Oddworld platforming titles used deaths as a way to quickly punish a mistake and reload from the start of the scenario: too often in INSIDE, a badly timed leap means I don’t die, but instead have to make my way back to the start and reassemble the puzzle pieces, which can take a minute or two. A minor gripe, sure, but it kills the pacing when all you really want to do is have another crack at the obstacle, not get your daily step count up. I would like to see more segments with enemies or hazards, as there’s no way to enliven jumping your way around an empty room once you’ve done that a few times.

Flying cubes are the best thing in games since minecarts...

One Hour and Thirty Minutes In

There’s a new puzzle piece in town, and they’re my favourite thing yet. Metal cubes of similar proportions to the standard crates, but with a motor inside and a pull cord on top. Give it a yank, and after a couple of seconds the cube blasts itself into the air, allowing you to reach higher areas. These propulsion cubes fit really nicely into the world of INSIDE and revitalise the simple problem solving. The delayed launch introduces opportunity for time-sensitive puzzles, where several actions must be carried out either while the cube is in the air, or before it takes off.

I’ve just twigged something, and I like the game more for it. The early scenario with the chicks following you around was a very early indication of some of the themes yet to pop up; of control and of mimicry, mind control helmets and zombified workers. It’s an understated touch of foreshadowing (the chicks don’t appear again throughout) that makes me wonder what else I might have blown past.

Two Hours In

The final twenty minutes is a cathartic romp which solves the reason for your quest, and vents the restraint you’ve had to show with the occasionally repetitive puzzles in the preceding two hours or so of gameplay. I know this game has been out for two years, but the ending really came out of leftfield and was all the better for it, so I won’t discuss it here.

Throughout the game, the camera will pull out to show off larger areas, but rarely pulls in close. I would have liked to have seen the character models up close from time to time, as there are details that I just didn’t notice until pulling screenshots for this write-up. The boy and controllable zombies are all entirely faceless, whereas the guards wear white masks with faces on them. A small element, but one which contributes to the game’s themes of control, agency and individuality — and one which was missing from my experience.

...and here’s a minecart to prove it.

Final Verdict

INSIDE continues the striking visual style and eerie atmosphere introduced by Playdead in 2010 with Limbo, but I don’t think they’ve achieved the next evolutionary step just yet. There is a lot to recommend here — the responsive controls for one — and it is undoubtedly worth checking out. On the other hand, the new features such as operating vehicles and directing multiple characters with the mind control helmet, weren’t as enduringly satisfying by the end of my playthrough. A large proportion of the challenges don’t require as much planning as in Limbo, as I ended up moving through a lot of scenarios almost accidentally — once you learn to start recognising crates and propulsion cubes in the scenery, you just gather them together as you go along, eventually arriving at your would-be blocked path with everything you need already with you. I think, then, that INSIDE is a game that requires a player who doesn’t learn as they go along. It is a well-made game from a talented young studio, but save for the final moments has little to wow the player after the first half.

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Worth playing? YES - it's still enjoyable today.
Matt Jordan

I first met all three generations of the Blazkowicz family in the 1990s, and we stay in touch to this day. A fan of trippy comics, genre-heavy storytelling, and the IMDB trivia pages. I’ve never beaten that level where you ride an ostrich in Sega’s The Lion King game.