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Game Review: Inside

The end of the year was the perfect time for me to take a vacation of sorts, allowing me to recharge & not even think about work or worry about the constant emails I get on a daily basis.  Fortunately this also coincided with several year-end game sales, thus allowing me to aid in this recharging by spending uninterrupted hours catching up on some games I was interested in but hadn’t gotten around to buying.  Playdead’s acclaimed Inside was one such game that I completed in a single sitting.  I’ve gone on record of saying that Playdead’s previously acclaimed game, Limbo, was a visual feast but suffered (in my personal opinion) from some frustrating puzzles & impenetrable story.  So have they improved with Inside?

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As with their previous game, what exactly is going on in Inside is debatable, but what’s apparent from the plot is that you control a faceless boy who must traverse a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape while avoiding armed guards, rabid beasts, human-hunting machines & apparently failed human experiments to reach some indeterminate end goal.  What is the boy’s goal at the end of his journey inside the imposing factory?  Does he even know?

Inside is 2.5D sidescrolling puzzle-platformer.  Kid (as I took to calling him as he’s never given a name) must navigate a series of obstacles & puzzles to continue forward.  He can run, jump, climb, push & pull.  There are also sections where he must utilize mind-control helmets to control drone-people to help him solve puzzles, as well as an underwater section involving diving tank.


256-inside-screenshot-1466596552Narrative: There’s a fine line between being open to interpretation & being as opaque as a brick wall, but I feel Inside strikes the right balance between telling us what’s going on & letting players interpret events.  The term “visual storytelling” gets thrown around a lot in game media, but Inside is an example of putting this idea into practice & doing it well.  Without a single line of spoken dialogue or text (in fact, I don’t think there’s any text anywhere in the entire game), Inside perfectly portrays its world, & we instantly empathize with the challenges the Kid has to overcome.  The very first moment of the game is the Kid climbing out of a hole in some rocks & coming across a barrier, with mindless drone-people being loaded into the back of a shady truck, all while surrounded by glowing tanks & armed, masked guards.  Whatever’s going on, it’s not good.

Inside also does an excellent job of exemplifying “transformational media,” or the idea that each person who views a piece of media will take away their own unique experience.  Because the plot is just vague enough for us to never truly be sure of what’s going on, we build our own interpretations, & thus the story changes a little bit for each person.  The way I interpret events might be different from the next person.  Who is the Kid?  Did he intend for the outcome?  What really happened to this world?  But it leaves just enough questions unanswered to make us what to see what comes next.

I also have to say I really enjoyed the setting for Inside… if you can enjoy an oppressive, potentially doomed world.  Not only are there strong Orwellian, 1984 vibes, but it reminded me a lot of a short-story we read in high school called Harrison Bergeron (check it out if you’re a fan of dystopian science fiction).  Everything is dark & depressing, & each obstacles builds on the horror, making us think the worst of this world.  Outrunning guards, controlling drones, watching what remains of society staring blankly on as they seemingly purchase these drone-people, failed experiments, & finally the Hive Mind… I found the ending genuinely distressing.  Not something to be “happy” about, but if that was the goal of the developers, they succeeded in spades.

Overall, an intriguing mystery that will have you thinking about the game long after you’ve stopped playing.

Score: 5


2016_0719in06Mechanics: I really feel that Playdead perfected the mechanics they set out to create in Limbo with Inside.  The controls are simple & responsive.  Heck, there’s only three controls, really.  Movement with the left stick, jump & grab.  Simple, but everything controls like it’s supposed to.  I didn’t experience any frustrating lags in the Kid doing what I said or ungainliness like I did in Limbo.

The puzzles are also vastly improved.  Playdead seemed to realize that the fun & challenge in a puzzle should come from figuring it out, not in precision timing.  Of course, that might also be due to Inside being less about the futility of action & being stuck in a limbo of death & failure.  The puzzles have just the right amount of difficulty, with the solutions coming very naturally from the player’s experimentation & exploration of the environment.  There’s also a nice variety of puzzles or obstacles, mixing strategic thinking & timing.  I think my favorite was in the flooded base when you have to bait the water baby/siren thing to different parts of the water to give you time to reach the next switch.  Yes, these require timing, but to the point of making you feel tense as you try to swim away from the water baby, & not frustrating.  Although you will probably die several times, it never became frustrating to me, & the checkpoint system is very forgiving so you’ll typically restart right before you died.

Overall, smooth, solid controls & great puzzle-platforming design.

Score: 5


851099-inside-windows-screenshot-the-boy-was-shot-let-s-try-thatAesthetics: I find it funny that when I initially saw footage of Inside, I immediately thought it was from Playdead.  The art style is very similar to Limbo, utilizing atmospheric lighting, heavy shadows & imposing scenery.  The art style is suitably gloomy, & the developers clearly paid a lot of attention to detail.  For example, the Kid’s red shirt is some of the only color in the game.  Everything feels muted.  Another detail that makes me wonder about its narrative significance is the fact that people don’t have faces, but specific people are shown wearing masks with faces on them, like the guards & “regular” citizens.  What does it mean?  And while I’m a little loathe to do so, I give Playdead credit for creating something that made me feel a bit nauseous.  The Hive Mind at the end seriously grossed me out.  I’m not sure if it’s a body horror thing, a blob thing, or the way it moved, but it was very effective.

The musical & sound direction were also spot on.  There’s actually not a lot of “music” in the game, but in its place, we have atmospheric sounds that really help with immersion.  I actually paused the game in the beginning to see if my TV had a headphone jack so I could take in every little sound (sadly, it didn’t).  But again, I think it’s the attention to detail.  Little things like the irregular sound of rain, or that deep booming tone that sounded straight out of Inception, or even how everything goes silent & muted underwater.  Without proper dialogue, everything’s portrayed through noise.  And portrayed effectively.

Overall, shows supberb attention to detail both in terms in visual presentation & ambient sound.

Score: 5


Replay Value: Moderate.  While this could certainly be a one-&-done game, I think there’s a lot to it that makes it replayable.  For one, it’s fairly short.  I think it took me about three hours.  There’s also an alternate ending that requires you to find all the secret orbs hidden throughout the game.  You can replay from any checkpoint, which is fairly frequent.  And just the mystery of the plot makes it so you’ll want to play again to try to understand it better.  To really take your time & explore to uncover all the mysteries.  Score: 4


Breakdown

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Final Score: 5

Final Word: I didn’t realize until writing this review that I literally have nothing bad to say against Inside, & that’s never happened before, not even with my favorite games.  That fact alone means I can’t help by recommend this game to every gamer.  While the open-ended story might not appeal to everyone, the only people I can really see not finding something to enjoy about Inside are those who only play one specific franchise (like Madden or Call of Duty).

– GamerDame

Title: Inside
Consoles: PS4, PC, XB1
Rating: M
Developer: Playdead
Publisher: Playdead
Release Date: June 29, 2016

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Filed under 5, PC, Platformer, PS4, Puzzle, Reviews, XBox One

Tales from Fallen London: Abandon All Human Decency, Ship & Hope Who Enter Here

I’ve never really gotten into rogue-like games.  I find it immediately demoralizing going into a game where I know I’m going to die.  Hence why I haven’t had the motivation to pick up Bloodborne again.  It’s disheartening making a lot of progress in a game, only to have a string of bad luck & lose it all.  But in my attempts to branch out into new genres, I’ve found two workarounds for that anxiety: find a game where death is expected by only a minor inconvenience (the From Software approach) or a game where a campaign can be short enough that, if you’re going to die, death sets in very early.

To that end, I downloaded Sunless Sea, a steampunk, Lovecraftian, rogue-like, survival horror, exploration… thing.  I appreciate the developers naming themselves Failbetter Games.  It must be very convenient having your company’s name & mission statement be the same.  Seriously.  Don’t give anyone the chance to have any delusions about what’s about to befall them.  Hell, even in setting up the game, it flat-out tells you that your first few captains are probably going to die.

To that end, I followed their philosophy & my first captain died just a few in-game days in.

Before getting to that, I should probably explain the game itself.  As the player, you’re basically set loose in the Fallen London universe, a world completely underground, surrounding by a dark, mysterious ocean.  You pick your backstory, your overarching goal, your crew, & then you’re off to make your name, make your fortune, or just survive. You control your ship, sailing around exploring & making port, trading or following quests.  But with more than a little Lovecraftian influence, expect horrors to be awaiting you as you explore farther from humanity.

My first unlucky avatar was Captain Sibeal Delauncay.  The good Captain, as she preferred to be called at port, was a natural philosopher by trade, & took an old steamer ship, along with her faithful Surgeon, feral & nearly comatose ferret as the ship’s mascot (clearly doomed us from the start) & a crew of eight zailors (no I did not misspell that) out into the dark sea.  Her goal?  To gather enough tales from her adventures to one day retire & publish a novel.

Things began simply enough for Captain Sibeal.  She picked up a passenger who wanted to be taken to a tomb colony, presumably to die — there isn’t exactly a lot of land in Unterzee — & was tasked by the admiralty to check on in the ports in the area.  Captain Sibeal chose to remain close to the main port, but did travel to several close islands, learning Secrets that she shared with her Surgeon to gain more insight in the workings of their dark world.  She gained the attention of Zee’s three gods.  She spent one evening in port with a Dapper Gentleman who bid her passionately to keep his locket with her.  She quickly replace her feral mascot with a grumpy cat that snuck aboard at first opportunity who somehow made their cannons work better.  She shot a lot of giant crabs & even a pirate ship once.

It’s hard to say where things began to take a turn for the worse.  Perhaps she should’ve been more adventurous in her explorations.  Perhaps she should have been more diligent in following up with quests.  Perhaps she shouldn’t have agreed to smuggle goods for a dark stranger.  Perhaps she shouldn’t have accidentally spent all her meager money on flares when she meant to buy fuel & then couldn’t sell them back for even close to the same price as she bought them!

Who can say?  What can be explained is the series of events that ultimately led to her death.

After running out of fuel & supplies, Captain Sibeal weighed her options & ultimately decided to turn to the gods for help.  It was better than waiting to die.  At least in her travels she had learned a few Secrets, & she whispered this to Salt, the god of horizons.  Rather than bestowing them with much-needed supplies, a white zee-bat, unlike the normal one they kept on the ship for scouting, lighted upon the railing.  Captain Sibeal stared at the zee-bat while it stared back, transfixed by its crystalline eyes.  Her gaze followed as it suddenly flew away into the darkness.  Hearing the crew gasp, Captain Sibeal came to her senses, only to discover that they were now in a new place.  The accursed Kingeater’s Castle, all the way on the other side of the known map!

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Accursed god of secrets!  How did this help!?  What good was it to bring them here?  After finding nothing of use on the island, they set out from the desolate castle, praying their meager fuel holds out.  Not wanting to waste anything, the Captain sends out the zee-bat to search for land.  It returned, bringing a report of a place called Saviour’s Rock not far north.  The name offered hope, & the Captain directs the ship northward.

Heading north, they enter the Sea of Statues.  Giant hands protrude from the murky water, as if reaching to the forgotten surface.  Or perhaps they wish to pull the foolish humans down with them.  What lies below, waiting in the unseen?  The crew grows restless in the dark, as they’ve had to douse the running lights to conserve fuel.  It’s a risky gamble.  They need fuel to get out, but will it matter if they’re all insane?

It turns out not to matter either way, as they’ve barely cleared the castle when the engines die.  This time, she turned to Stone.  The only female of the three gods (assuming gods even have physical forms to have genders), perhaps she would hear the lady captain’s plea.  But rather than an offering of Secrets, Captain Sibeal offered of herself.  A great wound for the wounded.

Thankfully, the Surgeon is able to efficiently bandage the wound.  After, Captain Sibeal paces the deck, anxious that there has been no hint of a reply either way in response to her offering.  Silent gods can be just as terrifying as when they speak.  Suddenly, the engineer runs up to her.  Expecting more bad news, Captain Sibeal is thrilled when he reports, “Captain – there’s more fuel in the bins than I realized.  Just a little.  I’d looked three times. I’m sure it wasn’t there before. But now – it might be enough -“

Silently thanking Stone for offering useful aid (was transporting them here Salt’s idea of helping, or was he just being a jerk?), the crew sets off from the desolate place.  But it wasn’t long before the lack of supplies began to take its toll on the crew.  When the first crewman died, the bo’sun offered a terrible choice: prepare the body for the funeral, or prepare it for a meal?

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The idea is tempting, but Captain Sibeal knew order had to be maintained.  The crew was already on the edge of terror.  Having them feast on the flesh of their fallen comrade would only push them further over the tenuous border of sanity.  She dismisses the bo’sun.  They had to retain their humanity.

Sadly, while the crew is giving out, the engine gives out first.  Again, they are stranded without fuel.  It crosses her mind to use a flare, but sadly she’d sold them back.  And this far out, what are the odds that would do any good.  The only knowledge Captain Sibeal possess that might be a boon is her attention of the gods.  Salt was less than no help, & the Captain wasn’t too eager to turn to Stone again so soon.  Besides, as weak as she was from the hunger, Captain Sibeal wasn’t sure she had the strength for another offering.  Storm is the only one left.  The angriest of the three.  Sadly, it wouldn’t be the Captain making the sacrifice this time.

The only fair way to decide is to draw lots.  The loser is swiftly & painlessly killed on the deck.  The few remaining crew watch on silently as his blood slowly spills over the edge of the deck & out into the sea.  No one can stand to look at the other.  Suddenly, there’s a loud crack, & a stalactite falls from the sky, crashing onto their deck.  At first it seems they’ve only drawn the ire of the Storm, given the massive hole in the deck & the second dead crewman.  But as they examine the stalactite, they discover it’s made of ore that can substitute for coal.  They will live another day, but the price of that survival is growing increasingly high.

Captain Sibeal frequently finds her mind wandering.  Thoughts of evenings at the pub, enjoying warm meals & decent wine parade through her mind.  Soon it becomes all she can think about, almost an obsession.  When she begins to eye one of the starving crew, Captain Sibeal shakes herself to her senses.  She must do something to stave off the madness.  She fears what will happen otherwise.

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But as more times passes, & more of the crew begin to die, Captain Sibeal knows she has to do something to save her crew.  The inevitable has set in.  The creeping sense that they won’t make it out of here alive gnaws at ther mind worse than the blasted, useless ferret.  And if that’s the case, then Captain Sibeal vows to fight as hard as she can against fate, the gods, or whoever else tries to stand in their way.  So when she receives word of more dead zailors, she order the bo’sun to do what’s necessary.  The Captain salves what little is left of her humanity with the knowledge that they were already dead, & twas better for their bodies to feed the crew than the sea.  But is there coming back from such a point?

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The deck is far more silent now.  The only crew remaining is the Captain, the Surgeon, the cat, & two zailors.

Finally, they reach Saviour’s Rock, & there’s a brief moment of hope that their suffering was worth it.  But there is no salvation to be found.  Unless that salvation is in the terrifyingly giant, hairy arms of the spiders scurrying about.  As Captain Sibeal stares at the monstrous webs crossing above them all hope fades like a puff of smoke on the wind.

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All that matters is trying to survive.  So when she sees her crew eating the few rats that remain, she turns a blind eye toward it.  They’d already eaten their mates.  What was a few vermin?  Sadly, for some reason she can’t eat the ferret.

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As the engines sputtered into silence, & the warm glow of the lantern fades into nothingness, Captain Sibeal accepts the inevitable.  They must abandon ship.  In such a desolate place, the odds that any will survive in their current state is highly unlikely.

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Thus was the fate of Captain Sibeal Delauncay.  She left behind nothing, save a rival in a small urchin girl.

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I had a lot of fun writing this little vignette.  Expect to see more as I find new & interesting ways to play, hopefully succeed but probably die.  And a proper review for Sunless Sea once I’ve gotten a good feel for it.

–  GamerDame

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Filed under First Impressions, Random Thoughts, Tales of Fallen London