You should play Inside - and the less you know about this puzzle platformer beforehand, the better. But if you need more to go on, I'll oblige. This is the second game from Playdead, makers of the seminal Limbo, and captures many of the same feelings: an atmosphere of dark disquiet, the instinctive fear of being chased, a loneliness that can be reassuring or terrifying. Inside isn't a horror game per se, but it feels like a vivid nightmare you're compelled to share with others, intrigued by how their interpretation of its ideas and imagery will compare to your own. It's a short, straightforward game, but like a complex film or an enigmatic painting, experiencing Inside will leave you feeling enriched.
Beyond the affective similarities, Inside echoes Limbo through its structure and mechanics. You play as a nameless, faceless boy who finds himself alone in a forest with a need to progress to the right side of the screen. The 2.5D visuals are gorgeous, in a grim sort of way: evocative animations give life to the featureless characters, every environment conveys a palpable sense of depth, and the muted color palette makes the occasional glimpse of natural light feel like a blessing. As in Limbo, you only need two buttons - jump and grab - to navigate the one continuous 'level', with controls that feel tighter and weightier than Limbo's sometimes fiddly platforming. Inside is best played in a single, sub-four-hour sitting, but there are frequent checkpoints if you need a break from this at-times draining journey.
You're sure to appreciate those checkpoints when you die trying to deduce treacherous puzzles. Inside doesn't opt for trial-and-error deathtraps with the same frustrating frequency as Limbo, but there will be times when tricky bits of timing dash your attempts to bypass an obstacle you've already 'solved'. Retrying is a painless affair, save for an emotional cost: watching this boy suffer can be hard. It's a testament to Inside's immaculate sound design, which foregoes any dialogue and uses music sparingly, putting all the focus on the ominous thrumming of machinery, the snapping wood of crumbling buildings, and the labored breathing or startled gasps of your young character. Compared to the black-and-white, mute, 2D protagonist of Limbo, this boy feels much more lifelike. As a result, the gruesome deaths he'll inevitably experience can sometimes be too much. I was particularly unsettled by repeatedly watching a guard dog rip out the boy's throat, spurting red blood and all.
If you can stomach those scenes, the world of Inside is full of fascinating vistas and mysteries that both frighten and intrigue you. Without giving away any specific mechanics, the environmental puzzles are inventive and interesting, paced in such a way that you'll rarely get stuck and subsequently disheartened. There's constant variety in the puzzle systems, but the tradeoff is that Inside doesn't build up to one 'Eureka!' moment that takes everything you've learned and blends it into a new kind of problem. Instead, it feels like you're constantly needing to adapt, which plays well into the boy's desperate struggle for survival as he bravely leaps and cautiously sneaks from one area to the next. For the most meticulous, secret devices lie in wait for those who stray from the beaten path, some of which require some mentally taxing solutions to reach (provided you can even find them).
Ultimately, Inside feels like an excellent entry in its genre that would rather zero in on its artistic intent instead of devising some revolutionary new form of gameplay. It won't make you rethink the whole of puzzle platforming like Limbo, Braid, and Fez did before it, but it will absolutely leave a lasting impression - the same kind that makes us remember the likes of Another World or the Oddworld series all these years later. Whether or not it achieves the same touchstone status as Limbo, Inside is a spellbinding, haunting experience - one I don't intend to relive any time soon, but absolutely recommend.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.