Playdead’s INSIDE was one of the most recommended games to me this past year, and I’m grateful that I managed to avoid knowing anything about it until it finally made it over to iOS and I could play it for myself. While I did get through most of their first game, Limbo, a few years back, I never finished it. I eventually found the endless deaths too frustrating and abandoned it. I’m glad I didn’t let that affect my willingness to embrace INSIDE, though, because it turned out to be a phenomenal game in every way.
I’m going to try my best to sell you on the game without spoiling any of the fun. After all, it’s free to download and try on iOS, so I just really need to convince you that the rest of the game is worth your time and money. And I don’t see any reason to spoil the surprises for you if you can dive right in without taking any risk. The first twenty or thirty minutes are completely free and so much happens that you’ll be able to get a good feel of the game by the time it asks you if you want to unlock the rest. For me, it wasn’t even a question of whether I would buy the full game, as I spent that first half hour cursing and cheering and just overall having a blast.
INSIDE does not hold your hand one bit. Like Limbo, it’s a puzzle platformer with no words, on-screen user interface, buttons or tutorial (though there is a control guide tucked away in the main menu). You’re thrown into it without any idea what you’re doing or why. A little boy drops down into a dark and dreary forest and, by swiping around a bit, you learn that you control him. Before long, something will likely kill you, even if you manage to play it smart — like I did — at first. I lasted about six minutes before my first death, and that felt like a pretty solid achievement, considering how many things tried to kill me in that time. You might be thinking at this point that INSIDE sounds a lot like its predecessor, and in many ways it might be considered a sequel or even a remake. But I think INSIDE is the far superior game.
The controls are the same as in Limbo, but I do think they feel better here. Even though the game is in landscape mode, you can play the whole thing with one hand on iPhone, iPad, or even Apple TV. You simply swipe and hold anywhere on the screen to move left or right, swipe up quickly to jump, and press and swipe to interact with objects. On Apple TV you do the same, holding the remote like you’re watching TV and using the touchpad for all the commands. While I’ve played parts of it on both my Apple TV and iPhone, I got through the entire thing on my iPad and find it feels best on there. I had more room for my hands and they didn’t get in the way of the action. But I think you’ll do fine on whichever device you choose to play on.
The game also has flawless iCloud sync between all three, so you can switch to a different device if you find it more comfortable. Maybe you want to play on your Apple TV for the big screen but then switch to iPhone for trickier parts? The game makes it very easy to do that with plentiful checkpoints and save points, just like Limbo. Interestingly enough, the iCloud syncs your progress on every device, but not your exact position if you’re between checkpoints in the level selector. This means that if you do plan to switch back and forth a lot between devices, you should make sure to get to a checkpoint first or you’ll have to retrace your steps a bit. I actually liked it this way because it meant I could play around on another device without losing my spot on the other. The checkpoints are similar to Limbo‘s, with a slider at the bottom that shows you your progress and lets you return to your favorite bits. It also makes it very mobile-friendly. Though you will die often, save points are so frequent that it’s rarely a bother. So don’t worry too much about dying. It’s all part of the fun.
Let’s talk a bit about the differences between the two games. Most obviously, Limbo was in 2D and everything was in black and white. You died a lot of gruesome deaths, but your character was just a black silhouette. With INSIDE, there’s more depth since it’s in 3D and, while it still looks bleak, there’s more color this time around, most notably the boy’s red shirt — and blood, of course. The deaths are more realistic and more effective. That said, I found INSIDE to be fairer and much more forgiving overall. One of the reasons I didn’t enjoy Limbo as much is that the deaths felt cheap. Traps are often black on black, so you can’t see them even after you’ve already been killed by them. It’s especially difficult on a small iPhone, and that’s the only device I had back when it released. So for instance, there might be a black bear trap hidden in black grass. You’re most likely going to get beheaded and then respawn a few feet back. The problem is, even once you know the trap is there, you still have to pixel hunt for it and find it again. INSIDE manages to keep things tense without relying on these gimmicks. You might need to die to learn something, but once you know about a danger, you have to work out how to get past it, not worry about where it is.
If you know me at all, you know that it’s rare for me to stick with a platformer to the end, especially on a touchscreen device. I’m just not a fan of timing jumps, missing, and then having to replay a whole section I already passed. Games that break this mold have a better chance of holding my attention — for instance, the brilliant Mushroom 11 that has save points every few feet. INSIDE‘s save system is similar and there are also no on-screen buttons to distract you. But on top of that, the puzzles are clever and rarely feel unfair. I personally prefer the more relaxed, cerebral puzzles where I didn’t have to worry about anything chasing me or perfect timing. But the more reflex-based sections did make me appreciate those calm moments even more. The pacing in INSIDE is such that the tension never lasted long enough to make me want to throw in the towel for good. Not even close. At the most, I’d stop during a stressful moment and try again the next day when I’m calmer. In every instance like that, I was able to get past the frustrating part and it always felt satisfying.
That said, there were some parts I would have maybe preferred a bit more wiggle room. For instance, there are underwater sections where you have to swim very quickly and not make even the tiniest mistake. For most of the game, you’re running in a straight line on solid ground, so it’s not too difficult to pull off a tight run-and-jump. But underwater, you can also swim up and down. In some very tightly-timed sections, wasting even a fraction of a second by swimming the slightest bit too high or too low could cause failure. I found these parts the hardest to pull off even when I knew what I needed to do, just because it’s so unforgiving. Thankfully, they’re a small part of the game, but it would be a shame if some folks don’t get to the end because of them. And while controls feel built for a touchscreen and worked wonderfully most of the time, occasionally it would act up, making those sections even more frustrating than they’re meant to be. There are also parts where you have to hide in shadows to avoid being discovered by moving searchlights. These were pretty demanding puzzles and often where I would take breaks. The controls showed their weakness here when you had to turn a handle clockwise. But even so, they were usually easier the second time around, making me think they weren’t as difficult as they first felt.
What made those sections even more jarring for me is that the game is usually very forgiving. It’s almost like the controls read my mind. Considering how simplified they are, it’s amazing how they always do what I want, even if if there doesn’t seem to be a big difference in the controls that make you run and those that make you grab and pull open a door. I rarely felt like I had to work hard to interact with something. Usually subtle differences in my finger’s response would be enough for the game to tell what I wanted, almost by magic. This meant that even someone like me who hates jumping in games was able to pull them off fairly easily. But that doesn’t mean the game is too easy. It just rarely demands perfection, so I was able to focus more on how to solve a puzzle and worry less about whether I have the skill to make it happen. Replaying parts in INSIDE that I initially had trouble with, they often feel much easier to pull off. I can’t really say the same for Limbo. INSIDE is such a perfect example of how a console or PC game should be ported to iOS. They did everything right, and it just feels like it was designed for the platform. Instead of suffering through a lousy port with on-screen buttons because I had the nerve of preferring my iPad over a PC, I had an exceptional experience that made me forget I was even playing one of my least favorite genres.
Like I said, the game is broken up between tense moments where you might be outrunning vicious barking dogs, and relaxed sections where a puzzle might involve figuring out how to knock a crate down from up high so you can use it to climb over a wall. The lighting, atmosphere and soundtrack all play a huge part in creating these moods. Tense moments might have thumping sounds like a heartbeat, meant to keep you on your toes and alert. The rhythm might also play a part in the puzzle itself. Calmer, more relaxing areas, like underwater exploration, have a soothing soundtrack that eases your nerves after a stressful section. Sound effects are also incredibly effective, as you might hear dogs barking in the distance or the buzzing of machinery nearby. There was a point when I couldn’t tell if the barking I was hearing was my neighbor’s pooches or the dogs in the game and I tensed up either way.
The animations throughout also are very realistic, between swinging on a rope, crashing an elevator, or being mauled to death by dogs. The same goes for the puzzles, as the creativity involved in solving them were clever but logical, things I could imagine trying to do if I were in a similar situation — although they would be far more tiring than moving my thumbs across my iPad. I had so many eureka moments that put a huge smile across my face when I realized what I needed to do. The design of the game allows you to discover how things work simply by messing around, then gradually expects you to do more and more with them. It’s simply good puzzle design. You learn through your environment, not through some silly and overbearing tutorial. That makes each discovery feel like a huge accomplishment and incredibly rewarding. I loved those moments where I’d be standing around, unsure what to do and then a light bulb went off in my head and I was like “wait, what if I try this?” and it worked! I especially enjoyed going back after I completed the game to look for the achievements I missed. They’re all puzzles in themselves and they were some of the trickiest ones in the game. The generous checkpoint system also made it a joy to search for them instead of a chore. Completing the game to a hundred percent completion on my own just felt so good.
Despite the solid controls, engrossing atmosphere, eerie soundtrack and brilliant puzzle design, by far the best part of the game is just the sheer insanity. Although everything is intertwined, the game’s ability to keep surprising me with its weirdness is what truly won me over. I was eager to see what kind of craziness was around each bend, and it did not disappoint. The ending sequence is just so bizarre I could never have seen it coming. While the story and endings are somewhat vague and leave something up to the imagination, I actually liked that about it. It means I’m still mulling over it days later. I don’t really want to talk about it here because I’d feel awful ruining the surprise for you. I think everyone should experience the game the way I did, being excited by every little detail. But I will talk more about my favorite puzzles and story bits in a separate spoiler section below the review. So if you’ve played the game already or don’t mind the spoilers, continue reading below. Otherwise, just mash the download button and give the game a try.
THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING
Ok this is going to be a little bit of rambling. I just want to be able to cut loose and talk about my favorite parts, as it was really hard not mentioning things like the zombies or the “meatball” while discussing the game.
By far, my most absolute favorite parts of the game involved:
Zombies zombies zombies!
I can’t even express the joy I experienced the first time I put on that helmet and controlled one of those mindless humanoid bodies. And then each puzzle after that just got better and better. From controlling a zombie controlling a zombie, to an entire zombie army. And I must say, I missed my zombie army so much when they left me, that when I encountered a new deformed zombie army, I gladly let them hug me. Yes, their squirming body parts were gross, but also I couldn’t look away. Kind of like a car crash. I loved how a leg here and a torso there continued to hop around and follow me, even if they trailed far behind.
The whole section with the zombies on the elevator, where you had to gather twenty of them to that big button to open the door — I just loved every moment of it. It was a big area with a lot to do, so I think you need to complete it in one sitting if you don’t want to redo parts. But it was just so much fun. I loved having my zombies catch me and throw me up in the air. Every bit of that section was so so clever and rewarding.
I loved the ceiling water, as well as the submarine sections. I did not enjoy water so much when it could drown me, especially when the underwater girl was chasing me. Those underwater chase scenes and the spotlights with the wheels were my least favorite parts, though I can still appreciate the thought behind them. I don’t think I would have wanted them gone altogether, but, as I said above, I would have appreciated a bit more forgiveness with those parts. Still, it was satisfying to get past them.
I of course have to mention the chicks. I — like probably many others — missed that the machine needed to be powered up by pulling the cord several times. But once I figured that out and that I needed to suck the chicks up into it, I knew right then and there this would be a special game. I kind of wish they would have made an encore appearance, but I’m happy at least that they didn’t die in the machine.
Now, the human blob, or “meatball.” Oh my god. I never saw that coming. I loved how earlier the boy was allowed to look through that window with all the other people instead of them trying to kill him. But the player couldn’t see what they were seeing. What a brilliant moment. And then the big reveal later, first having it seem like the naked boy is what they’re staring at. I was just swimming around in my birthday suit for a while, getting the people to wave at me, unsuspecting of the huge blob behind me. What a brilliant, brilliant moment. Did I say “brilliant” enough yet?
And then just destroying everything as this hideous, noisy blob. Very nice touch to have the dogs return here, but this time they can’t harm you. Very satisfying moment.
I also had good fun being a blob. The smashing was stress relief after a very tense game. But there were still some tricky puzzles as you have to come to grips with your new form and its awkwardness. I had some trouble catching the flaming crate at first, but it might have been a bug. When I came back the next day to give it another go, I caught it on my first try. Great puzzle, even if it didn’t work right for me at first.
I loved all the tiny details. The people watching you even as you’re destroying their facility and crushing their comrades.
One of the most interesting parts for me was the realization that the people were helping me out near the end not out of fear or kindness but simply to lure me into a trap. Each time they helped me it was a clever puzzle, but it also put me at ease. I’m enjoying my freedom, crushing everything and perhaps even making friends with some of the scientists. And then when I realized it was all just to lure me to that one spot so they could trap me, my heart sank. Such a powerful moment.
I loved going after all the achievements, especially once I realized that the descriptions for them were clues as to where to find them and how get to them. Once again, I liked the ones with the zombies the best. Combining the zombies with the sub was just pure genius and it took me a while to realize that was even possible.
And the ending. I’m still thinking about this. I have mixed feelings. It felt a little abrupt and I wasn’t ready for it to be over. But I also welcome unhappy endings, as I find happy endings are often too neatly tied up. There’s something soul-crushing about making it all that way, then dying as you find freedom. Also, you died as a grotesque blob. All that work to end up there. I kind of wish I knew more about what was going on in that facility and why they were creating these monsters. But at the same time, not knowing allows your imagination to soar.
If you haven’t seen the second ending yet, this will spoil it for you.
As intriguing as the main ending was, I found the second ending far more rewarding. It gave me a lot more to think about. Was the boy just another zombie and we were controlling him? Is it making some comment about video games in general? Was his free will an illusion? I guess it was, if he’s our puppet instead of us playing as him. I need to mull over this some more, but that little extra bit adds so much to the game. It really is just brilliant. If you haven’t seen the second ending yet and don’t feel like going for all the achievements to do so, you can watch my video of it below.
I also posted my entire playthrough here with my reactions if you want to see those.
And that’s everything! I really adored this game. I may come back here and add some thoughts if something occurs to me. And please, feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to discuss it with folks, even though most people played it over a year ago when it first released. So if you just played it, come discuss it with me!
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