Playdead has finally finished its second game. So have we
It would be a distinctly ungenerous assessment to say that Playdead has spent the past five years remaking Limbo. Nevertheless, as a gloomy side-scrolling adventure with a young male lead and a surfeit of puzzles that involve dragging boxes around and clambering on top of them, Inside does invite such comparisons.
What’s clear from Inside’s opening moments is that we’ve once again been cast into a desolate, faintly dreamlike world. This murkily monochromatic, rain-sodden dystopia quickly establishes a mood of hopelessness, but it’s a more expansive place than its predecessor, its barren environments stretching into the distance. You’re fixed to a single plane, but you still need to be wary of the background, as darting torchlights swing your way, forcing you to cower behind a rock. Soon, you’re no longer hiding but breaking into a sprint that, as in that familiar nightmare scenario, never feels quite fast enough. It is if your timing’s good – just – but the windows are as narrow as in Limbo.
Playdead’s debut had its share of close calls, but here they’re part of a different tempo: this is a pacier, more energetic opening, with pursuits dovetailing with fidgety stealth, as you edge beneath overhead beams, their shadows keeping you hidden from the harsh glare of giant spotlights slowly shifting right to left and back again. Where before you took tentative steps, careful not to spring another trap, here you’re engaged in a staccato rhythm: stop, then sprint. In
Limbo, you jumped at shadows. Here, you come to fear bright lights and open ground.
And, to a much lesser extent, those damned boxes. Inside does find new twists on the kind of physics-powered conundrums we saw in Limbo, but there are times when you’ll trudge across stretches of ground, dragging a crate to create a stairway to a higher platform. You’ll pull levers and depress switches, climb chains and swing on ropes. Inside’s best puzzles are so much smarter, more elaborate, more considered, that it’s disappointing when it reverts to dull convention.
In fairness, as with the gentle platforming sequences, Playdead is less interested in challenging you than deepening your connection with the world. Perhaps only Naughty Dog and Nintendo EAD are capable of evoking such a strong sense of physicality. Your nameless avatar is no Nathan Drake – the odd grunt, gasp and pant aside, he’s as wordless as the rest of the game – but the expressive animation and exemplary sound design combine to make his ordeal feel real.
Playdead does peril remarkably well. Its trick is not to punish you for dying – a restart rarely sets you back more than 30 seconds from where you fell – but to make death so horrible that you’ll do anything you can to avoid it. Even in stylised form, the violence will make you wince: a mistimed sprint for cover sees a coiled wire lash out with a noisy snap, striking the boy as if fired from a giant Taser. The brutal suddenness of it is shocking, though there’s worse to come: after years on top, Resident Evil might finally have a challenger for the medium’s most vicious dogs, whose unsettlingly piercing bark has nothing on their bite. And they’re not even the most frightening threat you’ll face.
It’s a world that bristles with menace even in its quieter moments. There may be no pressing danger, but distant rumbles and groans let you know there are much more powerful forces in play. For the most part,
Inside is happy to let its environments do the talking. But at key moments, musical accompaniment will drift in almost imperceptibly, fading up from the white noise until it can’t be ignored, and establishing a mood that’s almost stiflingly potent.
Just as you’re wondering whether any of the questions the narrative raises are going to be answered, Inside takes a hard left turn, concluding its four-hour story with an astonishing extended set-piece that left us gasping. For all its qualities, Inside’s first three hours don’t quite have the shock of the new that Limbo did, but this? This is something thrillingly unexpected. Suddenly, the past half-decade looks like time very well spent.
Its trick is to make death so horrible that you’ll do anything you can to avoid it
You’ll need some assistance to solve the trickiest tasks Inside has to offer – but not all hands are equally helpful
The controls aren’t explained at any stage in the game, though you’ll soon learn that A is used to jump and B to grab onto objects. Some need more effort before they’ll start moving. The feeling of resistance is expertly communicated