The Inner Friend is a short, incredibly atmospheric, surrealist new title by PLAYMIND. Led by a mysterious Shadow, the player must dive into an eerie world of childhood memories and nightmares to help them and restore what was once a safe haven. The player must journey deep into the subconscious to unravel a rich, wordless tapestry detailing mysterious, oftentimes vague representations of key events and fears in the Shadow’s life.
When I picked up The Inner Friend, I remembered that I’d written about it prior to its release. What I didn’t remember was that it wasn’t just billed as a creepy, atmospheric walking sim – it’s a horror game. I was fooled further by the minimalist, abstract environments as I wandered around the Shadow’s nightmares and memories, waiting for the psychological horror to begin. To first touch on the design – it’s rudimentary at best, but in a good way. I think if you’re playing as an “inner friend” in someone else’s subconscious, displaying said player character as nothing more than an often-incomplete mannequin (for lack of a better term) is perfect.
While the environments are detailed and beautifully crafted, and some have truly trippy and startlingly good animation and design, the focus is truly on building the atmosphere and complementing the story. There were many times where objects in the environment moved (some key examples are the chairs and beds in the hospital level and the ground in the work site level) where I had to stop and say, “Wow, that’s really cool”. Adding to the atmosphere, the score and sound effects used in the Inner Friend perfectly build and cut the tension at a moment’s notice. Indie games are known for having stellar soundtracks, often to make up for a smaller animation and design budget or skill, and The Inner Friend was no exception. I was put perfectly on edge multiple times, and intrigued and melancholic exactly where appropriate.
Insofar as the story is concerned, you begin in a bedroom which, at first, has a naked old man with no face on the bed. I believe this is supposed to be the aforementioned “safe haven” in the Shadow’s mind as it also contains shelves, walls and floors which are later scattered with childhood objects. There is a crack in the wall of this room which you run through to progress to this weird, ultra abstract area where you are falling and big clusters of blocks with lights shining out of them appear over and over. I had absolutely no idea what to do in this area, so for ages I let myself fall towards the light at the bottom, which I never hit. Eventually I figured out that landing on any of those blocks (it doesn’t matter which) will allow you to find and access a glowing portal which will take you to the next memory.
For me, apart from a very scary (in my opinion) section later in the game, this was the worst part of The Inner Friend. I imagine I was supposed to fling myself at one of those blocks immediately, but when I tried that the first time I searched around the block for quite a while without finding a light portal, so I figured I was supposed to avoid them. If I could remove anything from the game, it would be the weird falling sections to access the levels. It would have made just as much sense to transport the player to the next one through the crack in the wall that we had just entered.
I won’t go into any true detail on the types of memories or horrors the inner friend and the Shadow face, as the interesting progression from abstract to blatant is the key part of each segment, each of which deals with a different event or fear. I will say that some of them are very obvious, like if you were to be wandering around a dentist’s office in this game you’d very easily make the assumption that the Shadow had some tooth-related trauma. Other levels are exceptionally vague and I still struggle with what part of the Shadow’s life they were supposed to represent. In each level there are artifacts that you can find and collect, which are added to the safe haven room. You can also see which you missed by the glowing outlines you can’t fill in on the shelves when you return. According to the Steam page, the artifacts are there so that you can rebuild the Shadow’s safe haven, but I was hoping that they would shed more light on the actual story or give more detail on each memory, which they don’t.
The Inner Friend is about 70% creepy, atmospheric walking sim, 20% puzzles, and 10% actual horror. The puzzles in The Inner Friend are honestly top notch. I’m the kind of person who is very easily frustrated with excessive puzzles, particularly super hard ones, and I found that the puzzles in this game made you think without making you agonizingly frustrated. My favorite puzzles were the laser light puzzles in the museum level, which added an element of stealth and tension without being too hard. Another point in The Inner Friend‘s favor is that it has automatic checkpoints at fair points throughout the game, meaning that if you get most of the way through a long puzzle and then fail, you’ll probably be dropped back only a few steps away from the next logical point in said puzzle. Likewise, the game makes sure that if you’re being pursued by an enemy that you aren’t immediately dropped back in its clutches.
Now for the 10% of actual horror. In one particular level, you are almost relentlessly pursued by an enemy. It is ridiculously fast, it sometimes jumps out of mirrors that are right in front of your current path with zero warning – which is complete bullshit – and it fucking giggles when it’s behind you. The controller rumbles as it approaches you from behind, vibrating harder and harder as it comes closer to you. It’s an absolute shit show and the worst part of the game, for me at least. Other people may not have issue with this part, but if there’s one thing I hate in a game, it’s being pursued. I had to come back to the game the next day because the indignant cries I was making during this scene were disturbing everyone else in my house. The rest of the game has manageable levels of tension and raises your heart rate without being a goddamn dick about it, PLAYMIND. I honestly don’t think I’d call this game a horror game proper without this level, and I sincerely could have done without it. Putting aside my scaredy cat nature, I think this section could have been greatly improved by turning the pursuer’s speed a few notches.
As far as actual gameplay is concerned, you only have a few commands – run, jump, and interact – the nature of which changes as the game progresses and depending on the situation. You get around at a decent clip, although I wouldn’t have minded a run command or even just a little more speed at times. Sometimes while platforming, the player character will stumble forward a little after a jump, which was annoying during one of the puzzles but otherwise not an issue. I think, given that we’re dealing with the inner child, a little more agility, less weight and less stiffness would have assisted in making the player feel more at home in the childhood nightmares. That said, nothing actually bad in this department, just suggestions for future improvement.
The Inner Friend is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 2-3 hour game, if even that, with fun puzzles and beautiful set design. The story is a bit too vague at times for my taste, but I think, generally, the concept is good. The game is available now on Steam, Playstation 4 and Xbox One for around about $15 USD, which, in my opinion, is a bit steep for the length of the game, but I wouldn’t let that discourage you from buying it all the same.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.