Back in 2010, the idea of a platformer being anything other than a cutesy game for little kids was an unheard-of phenomenon.
The "arthouse" gaming scene was almost nonexistent, and many independently-developed titles were still having trouble getting off the ground. Even successful indie games like Braid were often written off by gamers as "something for kids."
Then, a little game called Limbo hit the Xbox Live Arcade marketplace, and fans ate it up. The dark aesthetic, the realistic physics, the brutality of its world — gamers claimed that Limbo wasn't another sprite-based romp through a colorful world, but a powerful game with a serious message.
Whether or not that's true differs based on opinion, but it's easy to see the sort of effect that Limbo's success had on the industry. 2D platformers with serious stories are everywhere now — it's no longer a niche market.
It's been six years since Limbo first debuted, and the team behind the game has returned to the sub-genre it helped create. Inside is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to Playdead's last major game — but is it a worthy follow-up?
Simply put, Inside doesn't feature much of a story.
Players take on the role of a young boy in a red shirt as he makes his way through a dark, eerie, empty world ... and that's about it. There are story-driven moments throughout the game, but there's no context provided for any of them. Things just sort of happen — and while a few of these events can be exhilarating, there's no sense of a larger story arc outside of these individual moments.
As a result, there's no real motivation for players to keep moving forward. To be fair, there's always a desire to see what the game comes up with, but the slogs of puzzle-solving and platforming in between these moments don't do much to keep players engaged. The world itself is easily the most interesting part of the game — though, much like the story, there's no explanation or connection between the different events or environments.
Admittedly, the ending sequence does stand out from the rest of the story, but the disappointing non-ending will leave players feeling like the developers simply ran out of ideas. Overall, Inside presents some genuinely intriguing concepts ... but sadly, the game never really capitalizes on them.
Actually playing Inside is incredibly simple: players have access to a "jump" button and an "interact" button, and that's it. That may sound limiting at first, but Inside does a good job of introducing new mechanics that build on its simple foundation. Limbo may have relied too heavily on the same puzzles throughout its run-time, but thankfully, Inside manages to avoid that.
The problem with Inside's gameplay is the level design. The idea of clearing out puzzles one at a time is something that gamers are familiar with, but Inside focuses far too much on trial-and-error. It often feels as if players don't have all of the information required to clear a puzzle until they're already dead or halfway across the map — and while a surprise failure can be effective when used sparingly, Inside revels in sending players back to their last checkpoint after every few steps.
It doesn't help that the game's environments are absolutely massive. Inside features some truly cavernous areas for players to explore, and they look great — but slowly running across the same factory floor or open field starts to get annoying after the third or fourth time. Combine this with some seriously generic puzzles, and Inside starts to feel tired — even at just three hours long.
That's not to say that Inside is all bad: there are some great puzzles to solve, and the chase sequences help break up the pace. On top of that, there are a few genuinely scary moments sprinkled throughout (never trust deep water) — but these exciting, well-designed sequences are far outnumbered by the game's more frustrating moments.
If there's one thing that Inside universally succeeds at, it's presentation. From the game's quiet opening to the disturbing final set-piece, Inside is overflowing with artistic style.
Limbo's black-and-while palette has evolved into something more complex: Playdead isn't afraid to play with color or light, and the game's environments and effects are striking as a result. Lighting and shadows are particularly strong throughout, and despite the fact that the character models themselves aren't all that complex, the game's animations are always fun to watch.
Sound design, while more subdued, also helps bring Inside's world to life. Traditional music hardly ever appears, but when it does, it helps punctuate the story's few emotionally-charged moments.
It's tough to recommend Inside. Clocking in at roughly three hours, the game's $20 is tough to justify — especially when the game never really amounts to much. There are some great ideas on display, and the world that Playdead creates is one that begs to be explored ... it's just that the developers never expand on those concepts, and players never get a chance to really delve into the world.
The most frustrating part about trying to review Inside is that there are some fantastic moments strewn throughout the game. These are moments that few studios would even attempt to build, much less execute, and the game's finale does a great job of introducing new twists on the already-established mechanics. Inside is almost bursting with potential — it's just that there are simply too many bad design choices and bland levels to make those few interesting moments worth it.
Honestly, if you're looking for a 2D platformer with a more serious tone and physics-based platforming, it might be best to stick with the studio's earlier titles.