It does hold up on a second play, then. Inside’s mesmeric climax is such a fearless shift – where escaping suddenly means breaking out rather than getting away – that it’s easy to forget that much of what precedes it displays a similar degree of confidence and craft. In many respects Playdead hasn’t strayed far from its previous game’s successful blend of side-scrolling exploration with physics puzzles and light platforming, but this is much more than Limbo 2.0.
There is a poise here that Limbo often possessed but occasionally lost in its desire to provoke and challenge. Its traps betrayed a certain callowness; its puzzles could be finicky and overly demanding. Inside may require thought, care and occasionally a sharp sense of timing to progress, but its obstacles never feel unfair.
Its world has a similarly disquieting tenor, but if anything it’s even more darkly enveloping. After several minutes of low-level noise that never gets louder than the throaty rumble of a truck’s engine in the middle distance and the gentle crunch of leaves underfoot, the first time its young lead is spotted is heart-stopping. A bark pierces the silence like a gunshot, as the gap between hunter and hunted narrows and you realise you’re wading through water and can’t move any faster. It all feels frighteningly real, amplified by the boy’s convincing reactions in every situation; he’ll hunker down behind rocks, windmill his arms, and duck his head. This is all automated – there’s no crouch or run button – and yet you still feel responsible.
That in turn makes each death hit all the harder. These could so easily feel crassly exploitative, particularly given the protagonist’s youth, but Playdead doesn’t linger. Each demise is appropriately repulsive, and shocking because it is so sudden and violent; enough, perhaps, to make you recoil. It may have no lasting impact, but it enforces a careful approach, if only because you don’t want to have to see the boy’s light extinguished so brutally again.
Every element here feels as if it has been pored over obsessively, each individual moving part nudged carefully into place so that the whole can tick with metronomic precision. You alone are the anomaly, and at times it feels as if that’s why you’re being chased. Against a backdrop of adult automatons who shuffle along with zombie-like mindlessness, this courageous youngster represents a rare flash of colour, energy, even humanity: a potential catalyst for change in a world of horror, death and grim obedience. Inside, too, stands apart. It’s an audacious, singular vision that delivers a message to the many pretenders that followed in Limbo’s wake: this is how it’s done.
There are several optional puzzles, each netting you an Achievement. Some are extremely well-hidden: after a second playthrough spent poking at every suspicious-looking piece of scenery, we’re still missing one or two