Every once in a while, a game comes along that leaves you stunned, satisfied, yet full of questions. Limbo and Braid are both examples of this type of game, and I’m happy to report that the newest game from developer Playdead, Inside, joins their ranks and in fact exceeds even the heights that they reached.
This is only Playdead’s second game; their first, Limbo, is still one of my all-time favorite games. At first glance, Inside seems like Limbo 2, but now in 2.5D and with more colors. On the surface, yes, it’s very similar: it is a side-scrolling platformer with a dark atmosphere in which you play a boy caught in a dangerous situation. But that’s where the similarities end.
It’s been 6 years since Limbo came out, and in that time we have heard next to nothing about this game. We got a trailer two years ago, and then a short teaser this past E3, with the announcement that it would release two weeks later. Though I was expecting it all along, it still came as a surprise. And wow, the long development time has certainly paid off.
I’m hesitant even writing this review–to enjoy this game to the fullest, you really should go in blind. Each puzzle, each narrative moment should be a surprise, as intended by the creators. I refused even to read any reviews before playing it (yes, I see the irony). So I’m going to try my best to just comment on the game generally, and not give away any specifics. Those are for you to discover on your own.
Let’s start with the art direction. Inside is one of the most stylish, beautiful games I have ever played. Every frame feels handcrafted: from the splashes of the rain to the way the light plays off the environment, Playdead really took the time to get their vision right. While the environment is beautifully rendered, the humans are strikingly nondescript. Even the main character doesn’t have a face, just jet black hair and a red t-shirt. Compared to Limbo, which relied on a stark black-and-white motif, Inside actually feels a little more vibrant, even though the atmosphere is still incredibly dark.
The move to 3D graphics is also a big change. While it still plays like a 2D side-scroller, the introduction of foreground and background elements lends an incredible sense of depth, making the world feel much larger and full of possibility. That refrigerator in the background isn’t just for show–push it on its side and you can use it to climb that fence.
Everything is there for a reason, and this matters especially for the puzzles. Playdead’s expert game design is on display in full force and doesn’t let up. The puzzles themselves aren’t particularly difficult–I never got stuck for more than a few minutes–but they’re all smart, and they left me satisfied with myself after completing them. If you can’t figure one out, you’re probably overthinking it, as I did a few times.
There are new gameplay elements, like swimming and controlling a submarine, that caught me completely by surprise. I expected to just die immediately when I fell in the water, like I did in Limbo, but a large portion of the game is actually spent swimming and diving, which opens up entirely new gameplay possibililties.
Going back to the style of the game, you can definitely see traces of Limbo with the brutal deaths. There are several men with guns patrolling the forest I started out in, and at first, I thought that if they captured me they would just bring me back to whatever labor camp I escaped from. But no, they just murdered me. A child! They either shot me or strangled me to death, in ways that made me feel really uncomfortable. But man, I love when a game can make me uncomfortable. How many games can boast that?
It’s brutal and it’s dark, but it never goes too far. There are shades of black comedy (or at least, I thought so) that allowed for some relief. But it never lasted long. If this game is anything, it’s tense. Everything is so well choreographed that it’s designed to be as tense as possible without being frustrating to complete. For instance, there are several chase scenes in which you outrun dogs, and though it may take a few tries, you always have juuuust enough time to make it out alive. But damn, my heart was pounding the whole time.
The sound design is spectacular as well. From the boy’s heavy breathing after running, to the disturbing crunch of your neck being broken by a dog, it really immersed me and made up for the distance between the camera and the character. The camerawork, by the way, is also flawless. When do you get to say that about a 2D platformer?
Lastly, I want to talk about the animation. I swear, it felt like each animation was handmade just for that frame. There’s gotta be some kind of procedural animation going on, because it always felt fresh. Even little touches, like making him stumble when he trips over a branch, or regain his footing after jumping longer distances, add up to really make this game stand out.
If nothing I’ve said grabs you, though, the final act alone will make it all worth it. I guarantee you will not see it coming; it is something I had never experienced before (or even imagined), something that kept my jaw firmly to the floor and made me physically ill. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
I think I’ve gushed enough, and to avoid giving anything more away, I’ll just say this: play it in one sitting (it only takes about 3 hours), and when you’re done, find someone with whom to talk about it. You’re gonna need them.