Back in the late 90’s there was a PSX game by the name Heart of Darkness – 2D sprites on pre-rendered 3D backgrounds, like Abe’s Oddysee, designed by the guy behind Another World. The game was pretty memorable as it featured these spiky scary black goo creatures that would chase you across the screens, climbing after you and generally making the short game pretty heart racing. Don’t go back to it now, it will have aged terribly, and the CGI cutscenes I can visualise even now, have not stood the test of time.
This is the game that I was most reminded of when playing Inmost.
Inmost is a metroidvania horror, 2D pixelart sprites on gorgeous pixelart backgrounds and it also features some truly freaky spiky black goo enemies. There’s nowhere near as many of them, and the tone of the game is entirely different, but the first time one of the things morphed out of a wall and chased my defenceless character down, I was brought back to those terrifying enemies in Heart of Darkness.
Pixelart is rarely scary. There’s generally an unreality to pixels that robs them of the qualities that 3D introduced to video gaming. But not always. Every now and again, pixelart is just so damn good, it makes you re-evaluate your own understandings of its limitations. Judging by Inmost, it can be as scary as any 3D horror has ever been.
This is a story about pain. But it’s hard to explain the story of Inmost, A). without saying too much, and B). without talking more about the structure of the story than its content.
So, narrated by a little girl, which is scary enough as it is, Inmost is a story about three disparate characters, each with their own individual narrative and different styles of gameplay. There is a little girl, a grown man with a beard, and an armoured knight. You will go from chapter to chapter experiencing the next small part in that character’s tale before reaching a checkpoint and swapping to another.
Let’s start with the little girl. Living in a large creaky house perpetually in the midst of a storm, she wanders her house alone for the most part, inventing an imaginary world to keep herself entertained, full of tea parties and cuddly toy rabbits playing hide and seek. But she is not alone in the house. Every now and again her games will run afoul of her mother, punishing her or leaving her alone when she has hurt herself.
Gameplay-wise, she is the most basic of the three – she can barely jump, has no weapons (and no need of them) and her chapters revolve around her imagination and the growing conviction that there is something in the attic. She solves little puzzles, often involving how to reach things her parents have placed out of reach. Her bunny talks and quips, but also has a creepy way of coaxing the child to go further, to take chances, to explore where she shouldn’t in a house full of locked doors. It feels like an insidious influence, even though it could just be her imagination. Each chapter brings her closer and closer to the attic, foreshadowing more and more, and using its time to weave a frankly harrowing tale of child abuse and neglect by her parents.
The second story is that of the old bearded man and is the closest in style to a recognisable metroidvania. I know how much Greg hates horror where you are defenceless, and for a lot of Inmost that is the modus operandi. The little girl and the old man are both unable to engage in combat, but where the old man differs is that he can find a large number of tools; a pickaxe for opening ways covered in rock, a crowbar for old doors and boxes etc. His story is also the most closely aligned to a quest – exploring the old abandoned Gormenghast-like castle just a small distance from his home, a castle that legend says grows and grows with the pain of its inhabitants.
He follows a white fox creature through the rooms and ruins, slowly finding the tools that will then allow access to the next area. His chapters involve the backtracking you would expect from the genre and are the most satisfying in terms of gameplay. That said they are also the most terrifying – the castle is covered in the shadows of its former occupants who will give chase at times, or require a quick burst of speed to get past their spikes. His story is also perhaps the most opaque, only really coming to its drive and answers near the very end, which I won’t spoil here.
The third and final character is the knight. The gameplay change when you play as the dark knight is jarring. He can run, fight, stab and kill the shadows with his sword. He has a grapple gun to get around, and is armoured enough to take a few hits. He is not afraid of the spiky shadow creatures, they are afraid of him. Playing as him is both empowering, after playing as the other two, but it also feels wrong, as he is clearly evil.
He’s not the kind of chivalrous knight you might expect in a castle, for he serves the Keeper; the bringer of pain and the largest of all the shadows. Even in your first chapter with the knight, he kills a defenceless innocent for the spark of pain they create. The story of the knight, his killing of innocents to harvest their pain to create a flower that would give him a heart, well, it’s all rather nonsensical. But while it lacks a little in causality and logic, it makes up for this in tension, mystery and atmosphere. The narration handles his mindset poignantly, even though for the most part those sections boil down to linear action pieces, without much in the way of consequence. You will respawn and respawn, no matter what.
So you can see there is a lot going on in Inmost. Story is strong here, but it’s also what you make of it. The narrative you actually play doesn’t have all the answers, it leaves the player to make the connections between the stories for themselves. Those who like definitive answers may find the conclusions too opaque for their liking, but I say, the atmosphere almost carries it.
Each of the chapters in Inmost is played out over beautiful diorama-like levels where it seems like everything has an interaction. You can open every cupboard, turn on lights, climb every ledge. Every part of the scenery is deliberate and the characters have dozens of specific reactions and animations for many tiny areas.
The pixelart graphics are where the game caught my eye, and it never disappointed throughout its runtime. The artists’ should be commended for an amazing attention to detail. Much of the game is washed with an evocative dark blue, green or grey colour scheme and as you can see in these screenshots, they are wonderfully realised. I think what’s most impressive is the fact that this is all created in pixels, and yet is in many ways scarier than most 3D horror games.
I was constantly impressed by the lighting. Lightbulbs and lampposts are save points – drawing you to their safety, and saving your progress. Light means safety. Inmost manages an impressive glow in its lighting. If you are playing in the dark, you will get momentarily blinded at points, exactly as intended by the deft cinematic use of lighting. Storms, wind and rain all feel real and visceral, and the lightning flashes are wonderfully done.
One of the most impressive things about the game is its sound design, which is some of the best I’ve ever heard. It’s good advice to get yourself a pair of headphones, jack up the volume and experience the creaking of every board, the hair-raising thud as you knock down an item while trying to be stealthy, the screeching, bowel-moving terror when one of the spiky demonic shadows comes racing after you. The lightning cracks through your eardrums and the soft lilting haunting refrains will keep you constantly on edge. It’s masterful sound design, and though there’s not a standout track as such, the actual sounds on offer add massively to the experience. More than jump scares, they enhanced the foreboding, the fright when something expected does happen, or grisly moments.
The shadows are pretty freaky little creatures and the couple of times you get chased by one are enough to make you wet yourself. Like much in the game, the shadows aren’t constant, but used sparingly, lulling you to think you are safe, in the old man levels especially, and only bringing out the scares when you’ve relaxed again. If the young girl’s chapters are foreboding, then the old man’s ones ratchet up the tension, and the knight’s are the catharsis and release.
During the old man’s chapter’s, which are longer and far bulkier than the other two, there is a collectible in the form of discarded shards of pain. They look identical to the shards the Knight is killing for, but the old man can find up to 85 of these throughout the game. There is no gameplay reward for this collectathon, but rather a lore reward. For every ten you collect, you can take them to the storyteller, who sits on a balcony of the castle, and he will spin the tales of these lands. A tale of a mutating growing castle that blights the land, of a witch who tried to save the people but was unable to stop the castle growth. Of the Keeper and the knight and much else besides, adding to a limited, but interesting lore for the game.
Sounds like a high score so far, doesn’t it? Well, let’s talk about a few issues too. Inmost is a story driven game, and though it has strong gameplay its simple and serves the story rather than being fun for its own sake. It’s very linear, both in terms of story and its metroidvania puzzles, which will generally lead you from one new tool to the next. I only got stuck on one puzzle for more than a minute or so. If linearity is something that annoys you then be warned, there is little choice in Inmost, and nothing like multiple endings or branching paths, which is a shame. However, I personally like a linear storyline as I prefer strong plotting over unnecessary choice.
There is also a strange lack of consequence in Inmost. Horror games should feel scary for their content, but also because dying is the worst thing imaginable because you’ll go back miles to the last sparingly placed save point. Inmost is plenty scary in content, but the game is autosaving constantly and though you will fall and die a few dozen times, you will never respawn more than a few jumps, or seconds back from where you got to. This means that for all the scares, the gameplay itself lacks any real tension.
Rather than jump scares, Inmost creates a tangible sense of foreboding that is brought to crescendo a number of times through the game. It tells an interesting and engaging narrative across three different characters, though its conclusions are left largely to interpretation. It’s pixelart is second to none and coupled with some fantastic sound design, gives the game a memorable atmosphere.
It’s possible the game is too easy, and too short, but I also felt it didn’t outstay its welcome. It was probably the perfect length before it started to become dull. As it is, it’s one hell of a good five hours on a dark night. Flawed, but memorable.
Pixels shouldn’t be this scary. Inmost is a short but very memorable metroidvania horror, full of cinematic lighting and intricate diorama-like levels. The visual storytelling is masterful, and it’s without doubt the most atmospheric 2D game since Hollow Knight. Grab some noise-cancelling headphones and turn off the lights, you’re in for a fright.
Inmost is out now on iOS devices, Nintendo Switch and PC (review platform).
Developer: Hidden Layer Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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