A handful of years back, a 2D (or, to be pedantic, "2.5D") platform game called Limbo reared its rather attention-grabbing head. It has since become a game much beloved of not only dedicated platforming fans, but also gamers generally more inclined towards highly atmospheric, or dare I even say, "horror"-themed games. It achieved this by being one of the "spookiest" and most curiously "downbeat" platform games one could possibly imagine. This sure as shit wasn't Super Mario Bros. This was something else altogether.
I'm often tempted to use Limbo as an almost textbook example of the kind of "learning curve" which all games should aspire to ("walking simulators" and other games not exactly designed to be challenging evidently excepted). It starts off ludicrously easy, steadily escalating in both physical difficulty and sophistication of puzzles until...well, myself and countless others wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in Hell of getting to the end if it wasn't for the sterling job the game did of building us up to it. In other words: almost the entirety of Limbo is like one gigantic tutorial, building knowledge upon knowledge, so that by the end you'll look like you're a friggin' master at these kinds of games. Which I'm not, believe me.
Limbo is THAT good an educator, teaching you one baby step at a time, then forcing you to think outside of your present box - just ever so slightly - in order to conquer the next maddeningly difficult conundrum. If only school and university teachers were as skilled, we'd have nations full of geniuses in no time.
So now the same good people (who go by the charming name of Playdead) have made another 2.5D, side-scrolling platformer game called Inside. Is it every bit as good as us Limbo admirers are expecting, especially after seemingly six years in development? The simple answer: yes. And probably then some.
Firstly, everything I just said about arguably "textbook" game design? It's here, again. And aesthetically, it's every bit as appealing as its predecessor, if not more so. The graphics are gorgeous, the sound design and (rather sparse) music are extremely effective, the controls are simple yet highly intuitive, and the puzzles are sometimes fiendishly clever but always logical. Hell, even the check/save-point system is far beyond fair for these kinds of games, as you never get thrown back more than about thirty seconds or so of gameplay.
Perhaps the only remotely notable criticism I can think of is that there are occasions when body parts of characters go "through" walls and what-not; and while this might qualify as the most identifiably "lazy" thing in an otherwise meticulously rendered game, it's hardly something to make a great fuss about. That'd be like dining in a five star restaurant, and complaining that not every single bite of an exquisitely delicious meal is as good as the last. At the end of the day it's a borderline flawless game, which reaches and/or exceeds virtually every ambitious goal that it sets out to achieve.
For most of its duration, Inside can be more readily described as an "eerie" game than an out-and-out "scary" one. That is, until the moments when the game's generally ominous quiet is suddenly replaced by the baying of a pack of dogs coming to rip you to shreds, or when one of the humans in the creepy, featureless masks starts chasing you down (I won't even mention the twisted terrors which lurk in the many bodies of water which occupy a good deal of this game)! Make no mistake about it: these moments are shit scary, not least of all because almost every getaway you make will be with literally inches to spare! The game frequently shifts from suspense to outright tension to downright panic. As long as you allow yourself to be immersed by what is, after all, "just a video game", you will most assuredly feel all of these emotions. There's even the equivalent of jump scares in a good many parts; just try getting spotted by a spotlight and see where it gets you.
And believe me when I say this game can be brutal, in both possible senses of the word. Brutally unforgiving in its difficulty at times - though as mentioned above, never unfair with its checkpoints - and brutal and uncompromising in its violence. Not lashings of epic, spurting gore a la the Dead Rising games, perhaps; but unless you're so desensitised that you feel nothing when a wee lad gets his neck snapped by a weirdo in a mask, this game will certainly be "violent" enough for you. And the story, without giving much away, is extremely sinister and inventive, and should please anyone with a taste for the dark and disquieting. Platformer or not, this is no game for kids.
Playdead don't just make games. They make art. Write that statement off as "pretencious", if you wish; once all is said and done, it'll still be the mother-lovin' truth. Here's to their third game, and to nothing less than the future of cinematic storytelling in video games. Long live Playdead!