Review: 'Inside' Is a Masterful, Elliptical Puzzle-Platformer

Jun 28, 2016

If Inside has something to say about the horrors of scientific despotism or the redemptive power of collectivism, it's lost on me. That's fine, because the only reason you need to play studio Playdead's puzzle-platformer, out for PC and Xbox One on June 29, is that it pulls off so many clever little gameplay things so superbly.

Playdead's fledgling 2010 effort Limbo feels in hindsight like the inverse: visually arresting but mechanically shallow. It was all too easy to mistake its striking chiaroscuro art and conceptual obliqueness for profundity—that's what you get when a medium's been hijacked by commercially mercenary and monolithic sequel-safe franchises. In the end, Limbo was interesting to watch, but a letdown to play.

Not Inside, which brings to fruition whatever Playdead's designers were scratching at six years ago. You begin as a young boy stumbling through a forest, slinking past strange sights: Kafka-like figures in silhouette brandishing flashlights, menacing wolf-dogs inclined to tear your throat out, vast structures containing glass-walled prisons, people marching like puppets to God knows where. It's never explained who you are, where you came from, or where you're going, which is just as it should be, your disorientation elevated by a gathering sense of existential dread. It's enough to describe the game's plot as "You moving forward, mostly left to right, one conundrum at a time."

It's those conundrums that resonate this time, each a loosely physics-based riddle inviting exploration and contemplation, a hypothetical first attempt, then bits of fine-tuning. There's no combat, no heads-up display, no talking or tutorials or introductions, and no overlays signaling how to work the buttons on your keyboard or control pad to interact with the world. That stuff is left to you to figure out. It's as if you're playing a highly evolved Éric Chahi game, everything beautifully abstract, kinetically fluid and visually distillate.

Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness


You're headed for the stars some 6,000 light years from Earth by way of another motley cast of heroes with outlandish hairdos and gloriously gaudy duds. The fifth in studio tri-Ace's Star Ocean roleplaying series hopes to reinvigorate its classic realtime combat with up to 7-player battles and a story about first contact with an alien species.

PlayStation 3 & 4

June 28

LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Longtime LEGO custodians TT Games applies its lightly irreverent block-building formula to the newest Star Wars film, adding a few new wrinkles like Multi-Builds (choose from multiple possible build piles as part of a new puzzling element) and Blaster Battles (cover-based, over-the-shoulder shootouts).

PC, PlayStation 3 & 4, Xbox 360 and One, Wii U, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS

June 28

Inside


Developer Playdead's sophomore effort after 2010's acclaimed minimalist Limbo, Inside lets you explore a similarly shadowed and unfriendly-looking world as an intrepid, nimble child.

PC (July 7), Xbox One

June 29

BoxBoxBoy!

Nintendo's quirky 2015 puzzle-platformer starring a blocky character named Qbby gets a sequel, wherein players must spawn tiny boxes to solve conundrums like interrupting the ray from a lethal weapons, or enabling passage across treacherous drops.

Nintendo 3DS

June 30

Song of the Deep


Developed by a small team within largish studio Insomniac Games (Spyro the Dragon, Ratchet & Clank, Sunset Overdrive), Song of the Deep is a side-scrolling, exploration-driven adventure starring a young girl who cobbles together a submarine in an attempt to find her vanished father.

PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

July 12

Monster Hunter Generations


Capcom's newest Monster Hunter (in which players do just what the title says) was originally known as Monster Hunter X (as in "cross") in Japan. The "X" reportedly inspired producer Shintaro Kojima to approach the game design by fours, thus Generations offers four hunting styles, four villages to base from, and four primary monsters to defeat.

Nintendo 3DS

July 15

I Am Setsuna


Studio Tokyo RPG Factory's roleplaying riff on tales of human sacrifice explores the lives and choices of a small group of individuals (including a girl selected as oblation to demonic creatures) through the lens of gameplay concepts pioneered in 1990s console games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger.

PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita

July 19

Obduction

Not a formal sequel to Myst, but a spiritual followup from the latter's creators, Obduction revisits familiar ground: Puzzle your way through mysterious, exquisitely rendered locales, trying to figure out what's happened to you, and why.

PC, Mac

July 26

ABZÛ


Studio Giant Squid's mysterious underwater exploration game, wherein you can engage sea creatures (including hitching rides on sharks), claims its title is a portmanteau of ancient words ab, meaning "ocean" and zu, meaning "to know."

PC, PlayStation 4

August 2

No Man's Sky

In our imaginations, open universe ambler No Man’s Sky really is as infinite as developer Hello Games boasts, giving you an endless, procedurally generated cosmos to plumb (and enough to do that you’ll never tire of doing it). Fingers crossed.

PC, PlayStation 4

August 9

Metroid Prime: Federation Force


Nintendo's latest handheld Metroid game lets up to four players cooperatively gun down familiar series enemies across an array of planets, or play what amounts to robot soccer in a special multiplayer mode dubbed "Metroid Prime: Blast Ball."

Nintendo 3DS

August 19

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The sequel to Deus Ex: Human Revolution revisits cyber-protagonist Adam Jensen as he grapples with escalating cultural-political tensions prompted by the rise of augmented humans. It also ships with a new "Breach" mode, that distills the main game's tactical concepts into VR-themed "sneak in, then sneak back out" hacking missions.

PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

August 23

World of Warcraft: Legion

World of Warcraft's shrinking subscriber base still commands millions, and the latest expansion, Legion, should provide another short term boost with its level cap jump from 100 to 110 and new melee-focused Demon Hunter hero class.

PC

August 30

ReCore


This action-adventure about a young woman who can salvage and transplant the "core" of an artificially intelligent companion unites Mega Man creator Keiju Inafune and Metroid Prime series director Mark Pacini.

PC, Xbox One

September 13

Destiny: Rise of Iron

Quasi-online shooter Destiny's fourth expansion further expands the game's no-longer-skimpy story, adds new competitive maps and modes, provides a customary uptick in loot-hunt items and lifts the game's light level cap significantly. The one downer: They've removed support for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

PlayStation 4, Xbox One

September 20

Every few screens the designers throw up some challenge that boils down to "How do I get from here to there?" The distinctions (from less intrepid puzzle-platformers) lie in the details. Many depend on your noticing disjointed objects or cues, say, what's happening in the background when you interact with an object in the foreground. Others require sussing out a sequence then executing it with deft timing, say leading a relentless pursuer astray before punching a button and managing to slide (just barely) under a closing bulkhead door.

But then you'll stumble on a puzzle that interacts with another like a nested script, the novelty of encountering these and the "A-ha!" moment when your internal light bulb sparks piercing the game's unremitting gloom. This is what high-wire puzzle design looks like, and there were moments playing Inside that had me wanting to lay the gamepad down and applaud.

I don't want to undersell Inside's aesthetics, because they matter, though I think they work better if you view the game as less a cohesive narrative than a series of vignettes. Make that progressively more disturbing vignettes. Think about the imagistic power of exploitive body horror films. Inside isn't that crass, but as you progress, it definitely inclines toward that sort of visceral horror. Imagine the ethically rudderless zeal of Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil folded into the nihilism of screenwriter W. D. Richter's Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That's the undercurrent here, and if Inside's elliptical finale signals a glimmer of anything, it's only in the slightest sense, like the codas to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and The Road.

But now I've wandered into interpretive muddling, when what makes Inside interesting isn't its dim woodlands, creepy factories, moody bunkers or underwater mysteries, but the craftsmanship of its puzzles and platforming challenges. This now feels like where Limbo was headed all along. I'm just grateful Playdead has been afforded the chance to bring us there.

5 out of 5

Reviewed on Xbox One

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