All games take the player on a journey of some sort or another, but few tackle a journey into the depths of the psyche. The Inner Friend attempts just this, providing the player an opportunity to explore dreams, memories, and the mental, all set within a fractured and surreal game world.
Developed by PLAYMIND and conceived by Laszlo Ricciardi, The Inner Friend is a third-person cerebral puzzle game with heavy horror elements, utilizing mind-bending imagery and the transition between memories to unpack trauma and piece together an introspective story.
The Inner Friend was originally released on PC back in 2018 but has made its way to PlayStation 4 and XBox One in 2020.
The story of The Inner Friend is mysterious yet starts off in a relatively straightforward manner. You take a dive into a baffling dream world, led by a shadow, to navigate your way through levels that are inhabited by different grotesque creatures, who create deadly obstacles for you to overcome.
From the moment you first dive into the broken, light-emitting face of a naked man, the descent becomes ever more dangerous. Still, it needs to be done. Your goal is to piece together shattered childhood memories in order to understand who or what the Shadow is and gain a deeper insight into this hellish nightmare world you find yourself in. Always inspired by childhood psychology, the game’s story unfolds without any dialogue. Everything is visual and certain artifacts and settings help you to uncover your end goal – to rebuild the Shadow’s safe haven and prevent it from being overrun by creatures born out of its deepest fears.
There’s not much else to say about the story without giving too much away, as a large part of The Inner Friends’ modus operandi is its mystery. The point is, as a player, you’ll have to gradually piece together the narrative as you progress, and aside from saying the story is emotional and critical to the game, providing too much detail on the ins and outs of the narrative would detract from the game’s core aim.
In terms of gameplay, The Inner Friend is very simple in its approach. You move, jump and float around and use your environment to get past different enemies and their bizarre traps. There is a central hub, a bedroom, from which you traverse through a hole in the wall to different levels. These are all unique in setting and all contain different puzzles that prove fatal with the slightest wrong move.
There’s no combat as such, no weapons are abilities, merely your wits and a large dose of trial and error. The tasks vary though, and I have to mention that a level with a naked, knife-wielding bubble man chasing you as you break mirrors is incredibly intense. There are also the odd escort-type levels, guiding a spirit/memory/dream-being from point-to-point and mixed in with this is the occasional bit of platforming.
One thing that’s clear is that despite the variation in approaches to solving the puzzles, movement and timing are key. One bad move or misstep will cost you, though death never sends you back too far. This comes as a relief because I found I had to die quite frequently in The Inner Friend in order to figure out the correct approach. Some of the puzzles are fairly traditional, “do things in the correct order” type affairs to unlock a door or perform a sequence. Whilst no obvious clues are given, there are hints in the visuals dotted around that assist you in your progression and if that fails, a good bit of experimentation will make things clear eventually.
Essentially, there’s no technique or development involved in the gameplay. You don’t become better the more you play, as The Inner Friend isn’t about that. Instead, the game emphasizes immersion and complexity in the visuals and simplicity in the actual mechanics. The Inner Friend is cinematic rather than skill-based and whilst levels gradually become more and more dynamic, the basic principle remains the same – find your way out of the dream to uncover a new memory.
This leads me to my next point. The Inner Friend is all about the experience and a number of key, well-executed features culminate to provide the player with something visceral and unforgettable. It’s strange, contorted worlds twist and crumble, distort and change, making their traversal more and more eldritch. Time and linearity are segmented in this game, as you would come to expect from an exploration of dreams. The locations you travel to are nice and varied, so each level feels unique, even whilst the mechanics remain the same.
There is a really well-directed use of light and shadow in The Inner Friend, making levels appear bigger and more intimidating than they in fact are. There are a number of choice jump scare moments scattered throughout, but nothing cheap and cheesy – all perfectly in keeping with the overall atmosphere of the game.
The creatures are very well designed. They’re original, intimidating, and downright eerie. Horror games can often tend towards the over-the-top and gory, eschewing subtlety in favor of in-your-face gross-out. However, The Inner Friend’s “rogues gallery” has some depth to it. You often only get very brief glimpses of monsters, but when you do see them, they genuinely have an impact and are there as part of the development of the story, playing a crucial role in piecing together the fractured aspects of this weird and wonderful game.
Another fantastic element that just compounds the atmosphere of The Inner Friend is the soundtrack. It’s ambient, creepy, and haunting. Never feeling ostentatious, the music adds a layer to the overall vibe of each level, making you feel pursued and uncomfortable, drawing you further into the worlds and never breaking with the immersion.
With all that said, I do have a couple of issues with The Inner Friend. The first is that, on more than one occasion, I did become frustrated with the trial-and-error approach to solving puzzles. Consigning yourself to the fact that every time you approach a new obstacle, you’re going to die a dozen or so times before a solution clicks can be a tad irritating. Sometimes you simply don’t get enough time to observe your surroundings before being struck down by a beam of light, setting you back to square one.
Another gripe I have with the game is that it is extremely short. I got through the story in about an hour, meaning that in terms of time played, The Inner Friend has given me the least of any game – and I’ve been playing since the Sega Master System. Sure, you can go back through and find artifacts you may have missed, but there’s no real incentive to do this once the game climaxes. In other words, once I reached the ending, I was done. I suppose this is the cost of a narrative-driven game: once you’ve figured it out, there’s not a lot to revisit.
In the end, I can honestly say that I had a good time with The Inner Friend. Issues aside, the game looks incredible, is really well designed and definitely achieves its purpose of providing an immersive and surreal experience. The atmosphere is thick, the levels provide a decent amount of challenge and this game succeeds in taking the player on a deep dive into the pits of inner fear and trauma. Different, artistic, and provocative, The Inner Friend is captivating and offers a considerable amount of depth within its short lifespan.
While I had a good time, in virtue of the game length of an hour and price of $14.99, I have to say the following;
THE INNER FRIEND IS RECOMMENDED, WHEN ON SALE.
The Inner Friend can be purchased digitally for PC on Steam or Humble Bundle. It can be bought digitally via PlayStation or XBox store for the respective consoles.
Many thanks to PLAYMIND for the review copy.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.