Reviewing Inside is a tough proposition. On the one hand, this is a game that is fully deserving of a write-up overflowing with superlatives. On the other hand, to describe practically anything that happens in the game in anything other than the vaguest of terms would be to rob the player of the joy of discovering those moments for themselves. And make no mistake: there's joy to be discovered at every turn in Inside. This is one of the finest releases of 2016, and one which will leave players with plenty to talk about once it's all over. Inside is a game that will show you some amazing sights, and will take you to numerous unforgettable places, some of which will probably leave you shocked and bewildered.
The best way to experience Inside would be to just stop what you're doing, buy the game, and finish it in one sitting. It's four hours long, you'll have a whale of a time, and the less you know about it going in the better. But if you're sticking around to carry on reading, you can rest assured: this review will talk about why the game is one of the best titles available on PlayStation 4 without delving into any of its secrets.
Ostensibly, Inside is a spiritual successor to Playdead's 2010 game, Limbo. It's another 2D puzzle platformer, and like Limbo, you start the game in control of a young boy in a forest. You're on the run, and it's in these early minutes that the differences between Limbo and Inside start to become clear. Inside is more grounded in that you won't be facing off against giant spiders or other such fantastic beasts; here, the monsters are men with guns, their brutal attack dogs, and the system that they represent.
Why the kid is running from these people isn't made clear, but what's obvious is that they're not into taking prisoners. One wrong move and they'll shoot you stone dead. Their dogs will tear you apart. A wire might fly across the screen and impale you before dragging your lifeless body away. The death animations are gruesome, and the lack of fanfare surrounding the brutal killing of the protagonist only serves to make his untimely death more affecting.
The first time you're killed you might feel a little uneasy due to the graphic nature of some of the executions, but you'll have immediately learned a valuable lesson about what you can do and what you can't do in the game. If you were shot because you stepped out into the light then you'll need to hide until the light moves. If you trip over a fallen tree trunk and end up mauled by a dog, then you'll need to hop over that trunk on your next attempt.
Later you might need to move an object to avoid another nasty death, and tinkering with the controller will reveal that if you push square you can hold on to boxes and the like and move them as you please. You'll learn to swim by being dropped into a pool of water with a hungry dog chasing you, and you'll learn to use the various machines you come across by turning them on, watching what they do, and then using that to your advantage.
There are no tutorials or hints popping up on screen to tell you what to do and break your immersion. You're just faced with a problem, and then you'll find the solution to it by looking at what makes the most sense. It's rare to see a puzzle game in which the conundrums are so expertly built that they continually hit that sweet spot between being hard enough to present a challenge but being logical enough that you'll be able to solve them within a few attempts so that the pace of the game never falters. There's little to no repetition in the puzzles, which means that Inside wisely sidesteps a common problem with games of this ilk; rather than giving you a series of puzzle solving mechanics that are then wheeled out throughout the game in increasing degrees of difficulty, each new puzzle feels interesting and unique.
There's a section early in the game that requires you to command the boy into completing a timing based routine in order to trick armed guards into not recognising you as a threat. In a lesser game this sequence would be rolled out again and again but with more moves to complete or a tighter time limit in order to increase the degree of challenge. Here, it's just one stand-out moment in a sea of memorable encounters, and it's a testament to the hard work of Playdead that it never feels the need to pad the game out with needless repetition. There are dozens of puzzles to work through across the campaign, and at no point playing it did we ever feel like we were going over the same old ground.
Between the puzzles there's a lot to see. Again, differently to Limbo, Inside features some sparse use of colour, but you'd be forgiven for barely noticing it was there. Grey is the most prominent colour on display throughout the game, and while you'll catch the occasional glimpse of red or orange, for the most part the title isn't a particularly colourful affair. A drab colour palette such as this might sound like it makes for an ugly experience, but some superb lighting techniques, perfect camera-work, and an impressive attention to detail means that every single moment you'll spend playing Inside will be a feast for the eyes. Whether it's broken glass flickering in the light, or the objects strewn across an office desk, the world feels lived in and believable, and it gives you the impression that artists spent a hell of a long time constructing this polygonal playground with an enormous amount of care.
During the opening chases through the forest, the relentless pace and the threat of impending doom will mean that you'll scarcely have the opportunity to take in the beauty of the world that Playdead has created, but once the game calms down, you're given ample time to take in the details. The world of Inside is more than just a pretty background; with not a word spoken throughout the entire running time, it's the world that tells the story, more so than any character. Nothing is ever explicitly stated to you, but there's more than enough to see to let you start joining the dots yourself, and once the game is over you'll have plenty left to think about.
The world that Playdead has built here is utterly fascinating, and much of your time spent playing the game will likely be taken up wondering what exactly is going on. As the story progresses, you'll probably begin to get the sense that it's building to something, and it's in the final section of the game that Inside is most starkly different to Limbo. While the latter was a game that oozed atmosphere but then couldn't quite hit it out of the park in the final moments, Inside ends with a sequence so staggeringly audacious that you'll probably be sat with your mouth agape during the entire final ten minutes.
The opening sections of Inside in no way prepare you for just how far the game is going to go, or in what direction it's going to take you. It's that rare, wonderful video game that keeps you guessing right up until the final moments, and one in which you could make a hundred guesses about how the game is going to pan out and almost certainly still end up shocked when it's all said and done. Inside leaves a lot up to the interpretation of the player, and whether you choose to view it as a social commentary, a macabre horror story, or something else entirely, there'll likely be discussions about what it all meant raging on Internet forums for quite some time.
As far as puzzle platformers go, Inside is the new benchmark. This is a game that manages to spin a compelling yarn without uttering a single word, and one that is designed so meticulously that the puzzles it contains never once become rote or frustrating. It's beautiful to look at, and the minimalist sound design complements the almost greyscale aesthetic perfectly. But beyond the technical proficiency on display, the true genius of Inside is in the feeling that it left us with once it was all over. This is a game that will probably stay in your thoughts for days once you've finished it.