Aside from comedic games, horror has to be one of the most volatile genres in terms of its consistent application; if a game ever loses its grip on your fears, I’ve found it seldom ever gets them back. So when a game’s tone and atmosphere don’t materialise an expected sense of dread there needs to be a decent underlying experience that catches your mind in the absence of fear. We Create Stuff’s latest project, In Sound Mind, is a psychological horror game that unfortunately didn’t land well in its horror aspect for me. However, underneath the light scares and ephemeral atmosphere is a decent adventure game that will capture your attention with its story, puzzles and exploration.
As the resident psychologist of Milton Haven, you, Desmond Wales, have dedicated your days tending to the troubles of four individuals. When a curious chemical makes its way into the small town, four of your patients succumb to their mental health crises and you must delve into their memories channelled through tape recordings to help them move on. This somewhat familiar premise for a game is accompanied by a veiled plot regarding your patients’ conditions, their relationship to this mysterious chemical and the identity of the enigmatic (and professional jump-scarer) Agent Rainbow.
The way these subplots come together is a decent mystery and hook for the overall story. It creates this soft bed for the character stories that deal with loneliness, anxiety, anger management, and PTSD. Collectively though, these disparate narratives build In Sound Mind as a window into our ever-frail human psyches. Small notes along with the persistent taunting of Agent Rainbow help you piece together your patients’ complete stories, in a way that has you understand that their anguish (and all mental health issues, for that matter) should be treated with empathy and compassion. It’s affecting, particularly when all the pieces fall into place, both for the individual stories and the larger one at play.
It’s easy to assert In Sound Mind as a psychological horror game, though in all honesty, its application of the genre is mild at best. In my twelve-hour journey I was never once filled with the absolute dread that typically stun locks me into quitting. Were there times where I was unsettled? Certainly, particularly within the first two tapes. Let’s just say mannequins in dark rooms should be considered a war crime and I’ll be seeing you in The Hague, We Create Stuff. Anyway, travelling into the third and fourth stories I felt the horror effect slowly fall off. The emerging patterns in the scares, an inconsistent atmosphere as well as a robust safety net of guns (a pistol, shotgun and flare gun to name some of them) defanged any sense of fear or clear and present danger. The sense of danger however, is elevated by the combat being a little janky, so as not to make you feel like a super-soldier, with dodging enemies and aiming feeling off but not so busted it’s frustrating
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Surprisingly, what it isn’t lacking is a great sense of exploration and puzzle integration. Metroidvania would be the best way to describe the overall gameplay, and We Create Stuff effectively demonstrates a competent understanding of the relationship between ability unlocks used for puzzles, backtracking and the subsequent rewards that comes from combining the two ideas. Like an addict at a nightclub, tracking down pills to boost your stats and new weapons are the carrots on the stick. Every map, and the hub world, is filled with a fun variety of puzzles that differ and evolve on top of each other with each proceeding tape, tucking rewards into obscure locations for you to find. There’s this giddy thrill of excitement at the prospect of taking tools like the flare gun or the lure pill back to the hub and using them to unlock new areas. The mirror shard is definitely the stand out mechanic. Being locked into peeping behind you to illuminate hidden objects and wires creates this wonderful sense of uneasiness every time you’re forced to use it. I just
What’s on the tape here feels, looks and sounds somewhat inspired by Fractional Games’ work on Penumbra: Overture blended lightly with Psychonauts. There’s some really evocative imagery on display too, like cameras and eyes following you in the supermarket or the ear-crunching distortion of the poisoned lighthouse’s light bathing the dour cliffs in a malevolent red. It all adds to the mind-bending abstraction that is powerfully ramped up in some sections, putting you on an uneasy footing in memories that can only be described as…a bit cooked.
The music and ambience are a real hit or miss situation though. Having battle music start every time Inkblot enemies roll on up shatters any built-up atmosphere. The atmospheric music is done fairly well but is so frequently shifting on a dime with the bosses and enemies interrupting that it never lasts long enough to trick your brain into believing there’s something behind you. Performance-wise, the game rarely skipped a beat, running smoothly with extremely rare frame drops and one instance of freezing due to the player (me) being an absolute dingus by setting off as many explosions on screen at once just to see what would happen.
As a former trolley boy, this is the most terrifying room in any videogame ever.
A question that comes to mind, and perhaps part of the reason I found In Sound Mind to be a bit polarising, is how do you pinpoint the value of a horror game that somewhat fails to be scary? Because despite its shortcomings there’s an enjoyable action-adventure game behind the cheap thrills and inconsistent ambience. The puzzles are varied, iterating on each mechanic introduced, and exploring the dreamlike worlds is a real pleasure. I guess, as with most media, you have to judge it as a whole rather than any one individual element. In Sound Mind is thus the message it preaches, flawed but fixable. So if you have a calloused flight or fight response from scarier games, you’ll probably find more fun in the adventure game side of things. If you’re prone to easy scares though, In Sound Mind could be just the right amount of scary for you.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by publisher
- We Create Stuff
- Modus Games
- PS5 / Xbox Series X|S / PC
- September 28, 2021