Inside Xbox One Review: Brilliant and Compelling
Playdead's spiritual successor to Limbo is a simply fantastic puzzle-platformer.
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Inside opens with its young, unnamed protagonist running through a dense, dark forest. It's the middle of the night, and the weather is cold and wet. In the background, a semi-articulated truck loaded with prisoners pulls away, while guards scour the environment.
Perhaps they're specifically looking for the hero, or perhaps they're simply searching for stragglers? Those questions are never answered, but what is clear is that our hero has to avoid capture, and he can only do that by moving forward into uncharted territory.
Originally announced at E3 in 2014, Inside is an arcade adventure meets platform puzzler from the makers of Limbo. There are many similarities between the two games in terms of aesthetics: Inside features the same kind of beautifully backlit 2.5D scrolling vistas that gave Limbo its distinct look, and also echoes some of its mechanics and design elements.
The game is essentially a mystery: It has no dialog, and little in the way of cut scenes. But that's not to say it doesn't tell a story. It does – what you do in the game is the story, and it starts with the hero working his way through the forest, evading the attention of the people that seem to be looking for him.
Initially, the platforming is straightforward, essentially designed to get you up to speed on the game's simple mechanics. There's an abandoned refrigerator to topple over and push up to a small cliff face so that you can use it to scramble up. Then you reach a point where the only way forward is to shimmy up a rope, and use it to swing back and forth so you can leap into the upper opening of a barn. Inside there's no clear way ahead, but there is a machine that you can start up and engage with a lever to blow something at a hay bale up in rafters. But what, though?
It's here that the puzzles really begin in earnest, and while the solution to this first brainteaser is quite straightforward, it took me a while to figure it out, simply because I didn't explore all my available options immediately. That's definitely something you need to do in this game. Puzzles are generally very well designed, and their solutions are almost always staring at you in the face – you're usually given a variety of different things you can do, and it's just a case of working out what to do, and when.
For example, an early puzzle pits you against a pig that charges you. Get hit a couple of times, and you die – so what do you do to avoid the pig? Turns out that you can jump over it every time it charges. If you position yourself correctly, you can goad the pig into charging at you near a wall, which the pig then breaks through, providing you with an exit from the screen you're otherwise stuck in. But it's not over quite yet. Inside the room you subsequently enter, the pig is still active, and there's something hanging from the ceiling. You can't quite reach it, even using the rampant pig as a springboard. What do you do? The solution requires you to make the pig charge into another wall, which stuns it, and you can then drag it back to the center of the room and use it to finally reach up to the item that's dangling down.
Why am I going into so much detail about solving these early puzzles? Well, I just want to highlight what kind of game Inside is, and the kind of puzzles it offers. The thing is, I don't really want to go into too much detail about the game itself beyond this point because almost everything I'd talk about would spoil the game. The beauty of Inside is that it's essentially a mystery that unfolds as you progress through its gorgeously rendered landscapes. Beyond the forest, you reach a farm, and then work your way into an absolutely enormous factory whose outskirts seem somewhat ramshackle and left to ruin. But the further you progress, the more intriguing and dystopian – and functional – this environment becomes.
What's clear early on is that whoever is running this labyrinthine factory is conducting some kind of mind control experiments on people, but exactly what remains a mystery. As you delve deeper into the game, more questions are posed by what you see and do. Where are you? What is this factory? What secrets lie at its center? Who exactly is the enemy? Those questions provided me with the impetus to keep on moving forward, traveling ever further into the heart of this massive complex.
Indeed, this journey absolutely riveted me to the screen. I can't remember the last time I skipped dinner because I was so completely wrapped up in a game, but that actually happened to me while reviewing this game. I did eventually end up stopping to eat something a few hours later, but only because I got stuck on a particularly challenging puzzle and needed some time away from the game so that I could approach the problem afresh. If I hadn't have gotten stuck, I'd have simply kept on going. I just wanted to know what was around the next corner, and the next… and the next…
Inside is basically a slow burn game: It presents a mystery that just keeps on getting weirder and more interesting the further you progress. There are underwater sections that present some particularly fascinating and tricky puzzles, and plenty of physics-based challenges, some of which are utterly ingenious. Many of these puzzles gave me great "ah-HA!" moments as I figured them out, and that further enhanced my enjoyment of the game. In fact, there were several times when I thought that I was crazy trying some of the ideas I had to solve problems – but they turned out to be the correct solutions. A big tip while playing this game: Don't restrict your thinking. Some of Inside's brainteasers require you to think laterally and be very creative with the options that are available to you.
In the game's latter stages, there's an excellent revelation, and then things just turn plain crazy. Again, no spoilers, but I thought the final leg of the game was absolutely fantastic. It all builds to a weird and wonderful climax that I'm sure some people will find controversial and perhaps even unsatisfying, but I loved it. The ending stuck with me for days afterwards, and I still think about it even now.
As platform games go, Inside is one of the best I've played in years. While it doesn't take a huge amount of time to get through – six-or-so hours, give or take depending on whether you get stuck on some of the tougher puzzles – it's definitely a case of quality over quantity. The game just feels very tight in terms of its design. There's no fat whatsoever, and some of its set pieces are brilliant. The platforming is beautifully tuned, and for the most part the puzzles are a triumph. Sure, there are a couple that are particularly challenging to solve, involving very tight timing to successfully beat, but overall I think the whole game is superbly put together.
At this point, I feel like I'm laying on the superlatives extra thick, but I think Inside deserves it. It just gets so many things right. It's a brilliant platformer that tells a story that's phenomenally compelling. It looks and sounds fabulous too, and it has an atmosphere that you could cut with a knife. The last game that I played that made me feel this way about it was Journey - and that was one of my highlights of the last generation. For me, Inside represents one of the highlights of the current generation so far - and I can't think of much higher praise than that.
Lasting AppealAlthough you'll likely want to play through the game again after finishing it, there's no end-game challenge.
SoundMinimal ambient music and effects provide an excellent, mysterious atmosphere.
VisualsOutstanding, beautifully animated and detailed monochromatic visuals give the game its own distinct style. It looks fantastic.
ConclusionCombine a highly compelling visual narrative with superb puzzles and brilliant platforming, and you have Inside, one of the most intriguing, addictive, and beautiful-looking games of this generation. Its only downside is that it's quite short, but while it lasts, it's absolutely glorious.