Being a baby should be brilliant. You sleep all day, play with toys for the few hours you're awake, and are free to soil yourself as much as you'd like. Being a baby in Among the Sleep is not brilliant. Actually, it's downright spooky. This formerly PC crowdfunded indie has just waddled onto PS4 and Xbox One, and places you into the adorable PJs of a precocious toddler who's both adept at dragging furniture around to help solve gentle environmental puzzles and prone to traumatic daydreams. And it's the latter that informs the constantly unsettling tone of this unpolished, if occasionally charming, infantile quest.
Among the Sleep is a two-to-three hour exploration-heavy adventure laced with horror elements that you can comfortably polish off in a single sitting. Much of the game’s appeal stems from baby’s unique way of moving. While he can technically stand upright and gingerly bundle about, it's far quicker to drop on hands and knees and crawl. Seeing as you're a tiny child and not a hardened space marine, anything but the most rudimentary interactions are off the menu. You can grab onto toys, chairs and other objects to help traverse the toddler's house, yet jumping or any sort of graceful traversal is appropriately absent.
Things start off innocently enough. It's your birthday and mother dearest is cooing over her darling boy - here, have some cake! Of course, proceedings soon turn sinister and it's not long until a mysterious knock at the door kick starts a chain of events that see the brave youngster take on the darkest recesses of his imagination while he searches for his missing mama.
What follows is a dreamy (ok, nightmarish) trek into childhood fear, where even the most humdrum of household objects are painted as horrifying landmarks in an alien environment. Among the Sleep cannily plays on ideas of skewed perspective to make you feel genuinely tiny. With its low-hanging camera, towering tables and kitchen cabinets, venturing into each new room is like being dropped into Honey I Shrunk the Kids.
To help baby get through his nightmare in one piece, Among the Sleep gives you an companion early on in the adventure: a sentient, talking teddy bear. Teddy is a quizzical soul, and will often comment on your surroundings. Mechanically, he also acts as a glorified lamp - hug him to brighten up your home's dimmest corners. At key junctures, Teddy also opens up a special door, which is powered by various objects of sentimental value your infant seeks out during the quest.
Even before baby's home starts to devolve into a series of spine-tingling, dreamt up mini horror houses, there's a real power in simply being dwarfed by your surroundings. A humble bedside cabinet becomes a colossal structure which must be scaled by pulling out drawers to create an impromptu ladder. A rumbling washing machine shakes the screen with all the savage fury of an earthquake. An ornate grandfather clock may as well be Big Ben; the deafening din of its hands syncing up with a crackling storm outside. Every inch of this environment makes you feel vulnerable.
Sadly, the care that's gone into crafting creepy kitchens and obscenely unwholesome playgrounds doesn't quite extend to the game's pea-brained puzzles. No one would expect a toddler to solve advanced calculus or wield a Portal gun, yet Among the Sleep's conundrums rarely evolve past anything more than simple fetch quests. Most merely challenge you with either pushing around objects or forging makeshift shortcuts; like placing tiny owl statues on a plank to create a seesaw so you can clamber to higher ground.
It doesn't help that the action stutters more than Porky Pig. Despite making decidedly fugly use of the Unity engine, Among the Sleep suffers from regular frame hitches almost every time you enter a fresh environment. A smooth 60fps is hardly needed for languid exploration, but the constant frame rate woes can really drag you out of the experience.
Not that you'll be concerned with technical hiccups when you're being chased by an abomination who makes Medusa look like Jessica Rabbit. A fiendish apparition stalks baby through later sections of the game, and the fear induced by these fraught hide-and-seek skirmishes is almost akin to a junior Alien: Isolation. These predatory sequences are smartly rationed, but impactful nonetheless. Baby vs Blair Witch wannabe is hardly a fair match-up, after all.
Jump scares aside, Among the Sleep suffers pacing problems. Even though I finished the game in just north of two hours, the action can drag. If you're accustomed to kicking World War 3 in the face with Call of Duty on a regular basis, the meagre objectives on show here prove jarring. Forget saving the world from nuclear catastrophe; all baby has to do figure out how he's going to get a stuffed elephant back. Effective sound design helps foster an involving sense of underlying discomfort, but when all you're really doing is moving stools for 60% of your adventure, it's hard to get overly excited.
Kudos to the ending, though. Without venturing too far into Spoiler Town, Among the Sleep packs in a quietly effective, if hardly revelatory, finale. I went in expecting very little from the game's climax and was instead treated to a scene which left me with lingering unease.
Among the Sleep is a curious, sometimes successful look into the twisted dreams that can plague childhood. While blighted by tech troubles, awkward movement and overly simply puzzles, a daunting world and a skill for conjuring real vulnerability make it unlike anything else currently on this console generation.
This game was reviewed on PS4.