Inside review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Playdead
Developer Playdead
Release Date Jun 29, 2016

Inside is a better game than Limbo.

I don't make that claim lightly. Limbo, the first (and, before now, only) game from Inside developer Playdead, stands as one of the first great triumphs of console indie games. It was a gorgeous, clever, moody, polished platformer that gushed confidence, boasting a stark black-and-white art style and a haunting, unspoken narrative that left itself open to interpretation. It was fantastic.

But Inside is better.

If you're wondering why I'm comparing Inside so directly to its predecessor, that's because it's an extremely easy comparison to make. Like Limbo, Inside is a melancholy, sparsely colored 2D puzzle-platformer. Like Limbo, Inside puts you in the shoes of a small boy cast into a mysterious, dangerous, often disturbing situation. It's also a staunchly linear game — you'll spend most of Inside running from left to right, navigating through occasional (often lethal) puzzles that bar your progression, before moving on to the next sequence.

It's what Playdead does within the framework it established with Limbo that makes Inside so damn good.

From the opening title card to the moment the credits roll, don't expect to see a single word of text or dialogue in Inside — there is none. While Limbo was ostensibly a story about a boy rescuing his sister, Inside is more concerned with pulling you into its world than telling the story of any one specific character.

Thankfully, this shift in focus is earned, as the universe Inside depicts is one of the most eerie, most captivating settings I've ever encountered in a game. Where Limbo dealt primarily in silhouettes, Inside's world is a much more concrete setting, literally and figuratively, than anything you saw in Playdead's previous game. I hesitate to give specifics, because it's best discovered on your own, but broadly, Inside expertly depicts a run-down, dystopian universe (think Half-Life 2's City 17, but, uh, bleaker) populated by individuals whose exact nature I had just barely started to understand by the end.

Inside drips atmosphere and effortless world-building. You'll find no audio logs or graffiti written on walls in blood here, as Inside trades in subtler, more ambiguous hints at its true nature.

inside screen 2

That nature bears more than a passing resemblance to Playdead's previous game. For all the beautiful set dressing, Inside is, at its core, a puzzle game — and it's a very good one. You're free to experiment with each puzzle's elements — to prod at the machines, environments, people and other elements, to explore their exact properties, test things out — but each encounter is balanced in such a way that makes them all next to impossible to brute-force. It's unlikely that you'll pass any of Inside's puzzles without knowing exactly what you did to solve it, which made each one I conquered that much more satisfying.

There will probably be moments in Inside that stump you, with no hint system to speak of and puzzles that occasionally require some serious lateral thinking. When I got stuck, I stood up, walked away, came back and reconsidered every piece of the puzzle. The solution was always right in front of me — usually on the very screen I was staring at. In hindsight, every solution in Inside feels obvious, and I struggle to think of a single instance where I felt cheated or misled by its logic.

Likewise, the game feels entirely free of those pesky puzzle solutions that should work but don't. Inside did a marvelous job of virtually never putting me in situations where I knew how to solve a puzzle, but couldn't quite execute on the solution. The game feels honed and heavily edited, with each mechanic used only as long as it's interesting to do so. It's a lean, efficient, almost entirely non-repetitive experience, and each of its puzzles has something new to teach.

inside tall screen 3

The game is full of moments that feel truly handcrafted — it's not the longest game in the world, but it's packed with countless memorable setpieces that I remembered with perfect clarity my second time through. The game is riddled with bespoke details, like knocking over a rusted refrigerator in a forest and watching leaves fly into the air, that have no gameplay relevance but exist just to add to a sense of place. For a game this beautiful and physics-driven, it's a startlingly responsive one, whose animations perfectly straddle the line between looking convincing and feeling great — a rare feat.

But physics are where Inside's greatest innovations lie. There's a momentum and weight to every animation in Inside that feels good, reliable, consistent. Every stumble, every frantic, panicked run animation, every death, is bound to — and sold by — the game's robust procedural animation system.

It's also a technical masterpiece. Inside has been six years in the making, and it shows: It's among the most refined video games I've ever played. For all the ambition of its physics, the game engine never flinches. Across four playthroughs, I somehow never saw the cracks.

That seamlessness affords Inside an impact that other sidescrollers just never manage. Yes, it has things to say about class, free will, even games. It occasionally steps right up to the line of "edgy" ... but it never steps over it. It's a remarkable exercise in taste and restraint, with a tonal and emotional range I didn't know Playdead was capable of.

Inside is also, by far, the scariest sidescroller I've ever played. The game is adept at putting you in terrifying situations, but it's truly at its best when it's forcing you, as the player, to put yourself in those situations to progress. Some of Inside's best sequences are hand-tailored, perfectly timed close calls, tuned to minimize player frustration while maximizing player anxiety, that always leave you feeling like you barely escaped by the skin of your teeth. It's at once both horrifying and exhilarating in a way I didn't think a 2.5D puzzle platformer could be, and its masterful use of tension is one of Inside's most impressive accomplishments.

More importantly, for all the things Inside has in common with Limbo, the ending isn't one of them: Inside actually sticks its landing and ends in an immensely satisfying way. The final act of Inside is legitimately one of the craziest things I've ever seen in a video game. I won't spoil it here. But it's beautiful, gruesome, one of the most hypnotic pieces of animation I've ever seen in any medium — and the whole thing is interactive. You might not walk away from Inside with every nagging question answered, but man, does it conclude.

inside screen 4

Wrap Up:

Inside deftly explores darkness without resorting to humor

By every conceivable metric, Inside improves on the groundwork laid by Limbo. It deftly balances its elements. It could so easily have been too dark, too funny, too preachy — but it always stops just shy of going too far in any of those directions. At a glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that it hews a little too close to its predecessor. But Inside achieves something that Limbo didn't: It actually lives up to its opening moments, delivering astounding setpieces and an unforgettable final sequence. Those jaw-dropping last moments are a fitting endcap to this superbly crafted, beautiful game.

Inside was reviewed using pre-release "retail" Xbox One download keys provided by Playdead. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics statement here.

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9.5 Xbox One