As games begin to take themselves more seriously, storytelling is becoming a much more important factor in how we view the franchises of today. The days are long gone when the majority of games are released with no semblance of a coherent story. With the indie titles of this era, from the likes of Gone Home, Limbo or Braid, a game’s emotional resonance is something that’s no longer an afterthought in the industry. However, this does not take away the importance from the act of being able to have fun actually playing the game itself. The marriage between gameplay and story is an incredibly thin tightrope to walk. On In Between, developer gentlymad. mostly succeeds in their pursuit of tying the knot between these two delicate art forms it at times it does lose it’s balance a bit.
In Between is an 2D-puzzle game, that takes place in a highly stylized world in the mind of it’s main character who’s struggling with his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer. With subject matter that isn’t usually touched on by games, you find yourself reliving the past through flashbacks and fighting forward through the five stages of loss. This story is heartfelt and tries to put you into the mindset of someone looking back on a life that has passed them by. It makes you invested in it’s lead, showing you his upbringing, his life and how it’s all fallen apart after his diagnosis. The narrative is fraught with heartbreak, and each of it’s twists and turns only brings out more in you as you venture forward.
Artistically In Between’s art style captures it’s bleak dower world to a T. It caricature style designs combined with its dark foreboding world make it feel like a morbidly depressing children’s book. It’s very reminiscent of something like the hand painted designs of Child of Light or the storytelling masterpiece that was Jonathan Blow’s Braid. These factors certainly play their part in adding to the loneliness and despair that it’s story encapsulates.
Gameplay wise, the puzzle elements are both tried in true mechanically but are given a fresh breath of life in the way that they are introduced. Each set of levels take on one the stages of grieving; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and with each comes a new mechanic. With denial, you are constantly battling a darkness that is following you as you push forward. This mechanic isn’t in anyway new, hundreds of games have a similar set up where if you stray too far to the left of the screen you die, but In Between chooses to use it’s mechanics as a form of storytelling that only adds value to each new one the you come across. In it if you go too far to the left of the screen you are enshroud in the darkness that is your fear of death, not really something Mario or Megaman touch on too often.
The manipulation of gravity is the biggest way of traversal in the game, which while interesting is at times a bit finicky. Whenever I was started to struggle on a puzzle, I rarely had that aha moment that left me satisfied as I finally figured our something that I had been missing. Most of my failures were either due to the fact, that a new quirk had been added that wasn’t explained well, or the pin point accuracy that is required on some of the puzzles saw me miss a ledge or fall into some spikes.
Where In Between falls short is a place where other games like Braid have flourished. Braid lets it’s main mechanic of rewinding time, not get in the way of the story it was trying to tell, but actually enhance it. At times with In Between, it’s a bit too difficult for it’s own good. There’s no point where I liked to have a monologue rich narrative exploration interrupted because I missed a gap, but all too often In Between rips you out of the world that’s it does so well to bring you into.
Though this does venture off into what would be frustrating territory, the game doesn’t often manage to let you become too annoyed. It has quick reload times, reminiscent of Super Meat Boy, so that you’re never sitting around waiting after a death. It also tracks the amount of times you die with holes in the wall that appear behind you, adding a extra sense of accomplishment when you finally complete a level. It’s nice to see all the destruction that you’ve caused with your deaths when you finally make you way to the last door, and somewhat makes up for the tedium it took to get your there.
In Between is a game about death and how you manage your life before it. It’s story is novel and rich with gut wrenching moments throughout it’s chapters and in it’s characters. It accomplishes it’s job of putting you into a world full of despair and little hope and brings you out the other side with a better understanding of what your character is going through. It’s the struggle that it’s main mechanics present that makes it a bit arduous to complete your adventure. It’s disappointing to see a game bursting at the seems with storytelling, be hampered by it’s own devices. Despite this, In Between is certainly an experience worth having. It’s journey is not a path not many choose to take, and at the end it’s left all the more special and unique for it.
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