Update 2: Inside is now available for Nintendo Switch. We played it and compared it side-by-side with the Xbox One version and noticed no discernible differences in draw distance, image quality, framerate, or even the initial loading time. In short, it remains the same 10/10 game we originally reviewed it as, and we could not recommend it more.
Update: Inside has been nominated for IGN's 2016 Game of the Year.
The first 10 minutes of Inside, the long-awaited Limbo follow-up from developer Playdead, swing between being beautiful, haunting, and terrifying. Sometimes it is all three at the exact same time. From there, it adds intrigue, wonder, and shock on top of those and never lets up. For that reason, it’s best if you take my word for it and go in completely blind to discover it for yourself. But if you need to be convinced, keep reading for more on this visually stunning, thought-provoking, and mysterious masterpiece.
Even though it is mechanically a 2D puzzle-platformer, Inside is quite simply one of the most beautiful and subtly detailed games I’ve ever played. Every frame appears to have been meticulously crafted and polished several times over, from dust particles hovering in smoky air to raindrops splashing down in a bog to golden sunlight beaming onto your unnamed, red-shirted boy avatar through a window. Everything appears to have had an artist’s full and undivided attention. I often stopped just to admire my surroundings, taking in the subtly detailed animations, moody lighting, boldly contrasting color palette, and even the eerily unsettling sound design. You can hear the boy breathing hard after he’s been running for a while. You can see him stumble after he jumps and sticks a running landing. Gray paints a lot of the scenery, but splashes of color – often red – are used as a bold contrast that draws your eye where the designers want it to go. Camera work is also laudable; the perspective only ever shifts slightly, but from scene to scene you’re always in the optimal viewing position for what’s happening on screen, and there’s always a visual reward anytime the camera moves closer in, pulls further out, or changes angle.
Nothing I can say will prepare you for the vague, wordless events of Playdead’s physics-based puzzle platformer, but without spoiling it, it seems virtually impossible to not be shocked by what transpires. As you break into Inside’s militaristic complex and plumb its strange depths for the roughly three brisk, well-paced hours it takes to complete the campaign, it continually changes in both look and gameplay in unexpected ways. When you end up in a one-man submarine, searching for answers deep inside this base, it is only the beginning of the mystery.
Refreshingly, there are no instructions whatsoever.
Inside’s gameplay is similar to Limbo’s simple but atmospheric 2D puzzle-platforming. Deaths are frequent and can seem unavoidable and unfair at first, but they’re actually lessons that teach you both what to do and what not to do. Something has to, because there are (refreshingly) no on-screen or spoken instructions whatsoever. And when you die, the animations of the boy’s demise are so varied and at times over the top as to be entertaining – and sometimes unnerving. Watching him get zapped and dragged off screen by an electronic tentacle or blasted to oblivion adds some levity to balance out the understated maulings and gunshots. Checkpoints, meanwhile, are liberal enough and load times are brief enough that death never feels like a penalty.
Like in Limbo, your only buttons are jump (A) and interact (X) (or up and Right Ctrl by default on PC, with the arrow keys handling movement), with subtle cues of hue or light directing your attention to where it needs to go. The puzzles themselves are a bit easier than those in Limbo – I never got hung up for more than a few minutes before having one of those gratifying puzzle-solving epiphanies. Some involve moving select objects, like boxes. Others see you activating odd air-propelled cubes that soar into the air and hover for a moment before returning to the ground and resetting. And there are several more that would be spoilery to discuss, but they add up to a good variety. Occasionally those are blended, necessitating experimentation with physics in order to get the angles just right. The complex itself is sometimes your opponent, be it great heights, unexplained concussion blasts, or deep water you’ll have to dive deep into without drowning.
Encounters are so expertly choreographed such that you always escape them by the skin of your teeth.
Later challenges involve getting past organic foes, be it dogs or...more exotic life forms. These encounters are so expertly choreographed such that you always escape them by the skin of your teeth when you succeed (and when you don’t, you’re treated to a gruesome display of the boy being mauled, or worse). In fact, they were still white-knuckle moments on my second playthrough – even when I knew what was coming. The point is, no matter the puzzle, it’s almost always intuitive while not necessarily being obvious, and the handful of mechanics are mixed and matched enough that Inside never wears out its welcome or succumbs to repetition. It wisely ends before it runs out of ideas to sustain that feeling.
And Inside’s puzzles, both biological and environmental, serve as the vehicle that drives its storytelling. No explanation is ever given for why the boy is alone in the woods at night, nor why he sneaks into the mysterious facility, or what he hopes to achieve there – much less who is trying to stop him. Things happen in this game that are practically indescribable. It’s almost dreamlike in that it can start in a logical, grounded place and somehow end up somewhere far more fantastical. Playing it a second time, even though I knew all of the puzzle solutions, gave me a chance to consider the early parts of the story and how they connect to the end of it more carefully. I am still thinking about Inside – what it means and what it says about humanity – and I am enjoying the debate with myself and my co-workers. I urge you to play it, both because it is a masterpiece of 2D platformer design, but also because it would be a crime to have what happens here ruined for you before you do. I can practically guarantee you that you will not expect where Inside goes.