In case you find it odd that The Vertical Slice has 2 reviews out on the same game, allow me to explain: Austin played and reviewed In Between originally, and you can find that review here. However, he is a self-confessed non-fan of puzzle games, so I felt it would be a good opportunity to give the same game a look at from a big puzzle game fan, and I’d wager a guess the folks who brought us the game at Headup Games and Gentlymad feel the same. The subject matter in the experience is a dour one, and may be tough for some to deal with. I typically joke around with my reviews, but I will do my best to avoid that here, though I can’t guarantee it. That’s just who I am and how I deal with life in general as it is, let alone when things are dark. Here’s my take, and I hope you enjoy it.
At the outset of In Between it’s made pretty clear that there will be no traditional happy ending. You know the main character is going to die. It’s unavoidable in real life, and it’s unavoidable in the game, especially because you find out immediately that he has a few short weeks to live, at most. In Between tells his tale of trying to find the happiness of accepting his fate, and that brings us through the 5 stages of grief, as told with his thoughts, memories, and a crazy trip through his mind. It’s a really engaging narrative, and that’s no small feat in my mind, because we basically know the ending even before we beat the first stage.
Some of the first things you’ll notice when you start the game are the stylized art direction and great voice work from the protagonist. The artwork has a lovely hand-painted look to it and really pops, even with the muted colors for most of the game, especially during the story sequences where there are no puzzles to complete. The audio is a hit, too, in various ways. Starting off, the first thing you hear is a man reflecting on the inevitable, and how life is what you essentially make of it. From there, the dialogue and emotion shown brings you with him wonderfully on his journey to that certainty that he knows is coming way too soon. And since we’re on the subject of sound, I’ll continue with the soundtrack, which is a mix of eclectic beats and melodies, both enticing you to continue, but at the same time, almost beating you down with a bit of sadness. Moody and tense at times. It’s tough to explain how it made me feel, but if you end up enjoying it, you can get a taste or purchase it here. I very much enjoy when the music is available to fans.
A lot of what we get with In Between feels very much to me like a metaphor for aspects of or even the whole experience of knowing you’re about to die with no recourse for you. You may get a lot of that explained here, because I often wonder and get nervous that some people won’t catch on to the subtleties of it all, so I hope you bear with me. And who knows, I could be way off and be projecting what I wanted into the game. In the end, if that made me enjoy it more, well, I can’t be mad at that.
I’ll get this out of the way early on in the review – you will die a lot. A LOT a lot. First potential “Heazie only metaphor” time: I think this is by design, not only because of the way the game guides you into the new puzzles, but also because it’s hitting home that dying is going to happen to all of us, and we can’t always stop it/avoid it. There are plenty of puzzle games where if you’re really good, you can find your way around without dying too much (or at all). The subject matter lends itself to this, and the controls definitely do, and I think it’s all by design. The way you move around his mind, navigating the traps he’s put up for himself does take a good bit to get used to, and even once you get to the end, you’ll still be getting used to it. I’d say you’d need to “master” the controls, but I don’t know if that’s really feasible.
The premise of the puzzles are that you don’t really “jump” your way through the stages, you use the right stick to move to a wall. So if you press the stick up, he shoots up. Push it right, he shoots right. He always lands on his feet, and you can’t alter the direction other than side to side. You’re always going to end on the wall in whatever direction you push, so no 90 degree movements while in the air. If you press left, you’re going left until something is there to stop you, and for your sake, you best hope it’s not the instant death spikes. Getting used to that initially can be really frustrating. Hell, it can still be by the end. And as I mentioned, you will fail very often, whether that’s because you experiment with how to proceed, or you just have a momentary lapse of judgement, and the controls can certainly be the cause. As I said, I think this is kind of intentional. Don’t get me wrong, the controls aren’t bad, but they do require such precise movements that even when you feel like you have it, you can screw it up easily. Although, that also lends itself to something else, which is a strong feeling of accomplishment when you finally get to the end of a level that you’ve been suck on for a while. One thing I do wish was used is the d-pad, at least for the walking parts. I dislike using the stick for 2D games, but I understand why the decision was made, though you can’t even use the d-pad in the menus, which really annoys me, and it’s becoming the norm in many of the game’s I’ve played lately. Yes, it’s a nitpick, but it’s still something I want to talk about.
If you let yourself get too frustrated, you’ll likely find yourself walking straight to your death at the start of a level, or even parts you know you could do blindfolded. HOM #2: frustration leads to erratic behavior, and how many times have you heard of someone with this kind of weight on their shoulders in real life acting erratically? Probably a lot. I know I have. Screaming may become a regular occurrence while playing, so plan accordingly. Even though I found myself with the short end of the stick way more often than I’d care to admit, I never wanted to give up, because the level designs are crazy, in a good way, and the story was so well done that I needed to see it through. I needed to get to the end of the stages for the story dump transitions, to see how they interacted, to hear how his life was, how he’s rationalizing everything. I wanted to know what he was thinking, because I’m sure a lot of us could put ourselves in his shoes for some parts, and may know others who have gone through what he is. It’s really sad, and the internal struggle that he’s going through is something no one wants to have to deal with, but, as he explains, not all of us have that choice.
Here I’ll go over the way each stage takes effect on the level designs for each section, and if you don’t want to be spoiled on it, I would recommend you skip past it. If you’re cool with it, let’s get some more potential HOMs out of the way, shall we?
1. Denial – In these stages to the right and/or left of the screen will be a wall of darkness encroaching on you every time you look away from it. If you let it get too close, it’ll swallow you whole, and I think that’s a pretty easy metaphor for it to figure out. The sooner you face the problem, the sooner the darkness that creeps up on it will go away.
2. Anger – Red orbs pulse and float all around you, splintering all they touch, and you need to avoid them, otherwise you shatter with it. Anyone with anger issues can tell you, sometimes you just “see red” and go off on anger filled tirades. It’s not pleasant, it can be embarrassing, and it’s not always something you can avoid, but it is something you try to as best you can.
3. Bargaining – You control 2 versions of yourself, one on each side of the level, and whatever moves you make, affect the other person. Kind of like life, in a way. Whatever you do, affects those closest to you, and this section also deals closely with his family, and everything you expect that to entail. Give me this, and I’ll do this, take care of this if this has to happen, etc.
4. Depression – You’re surrounded by darkness and if you venture into it, you will be crushed, kind of like you “gave up”, which is just how depression often feels like. The only way to move around the level is by finding the light sources and moving from one to the next. As someone who has suffered from clinical depression most of his life, I can tell you that this is pretty accurate. The world around you can appear dark and you desperately try to find the little bit of light you can to move yourself forward. You know, metaphorically, of course. The world has never actually gone “dark” on me, but, it definitely feels like it does.
5. Acceptance – This section is really clever in how they handle it, and it’s precisely how I wanted it to be handled as I formed my opinions on the game going through each stage. I won’t ruin this little coda for you, but it’s exactly what it should be, and it’s smartly done.
Within these levels, you get other ways to progress, or other ways to hinder you, for example, like in the screen above, the green fields don’t allow you to fly anywhere, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blue switches materialize a box that needs to be moved around, and it’s up to you to figure out how, why, and where it needs to go. These additions make the already tough levels tougher, but once you hit the “a ha” moments, you just need to rely on your thumbs to put what your brain figured out to good use.
In the original PC version, I remember reading that there were no checkpoints in the levels. Luckily, some levels have checkpoints in the Xbox version. I don’t know if the PC version has been updated with them, but I can tell you I’m super glad they exist here. And even happier they can be used more than once per level. When I discovered that fact after struggling on a puzzle that required me to go back to the “save point” more than once, I was so relieved I could plan things out easier with a step by step approach, rather than having to be perfect the whole rest of the way.
For you Achievement dudes out there, once again, we have 10 to grab, and 80% of those are automatic (well, 70%, but dying 100 times will happen to you, unless you are a machine…) It would be 90%, but, one of them is glitched, which has to do with the memories you can gather in certain levels. At some point, the counter stops counting them, requiring you to eventually replay after you beat the game until you get them again. Luckily, there is a level select that shows you which ones have memories in them, so, you don’t have to struggle as much to complete it. This isn’t just me, and I have to assume it’s a known issue, because I have seen it happen to many people. I never noticed any levels where you could miss a memories, so, at least we have that going for us. This is an easy completion, assuming you don’t give up and not beat the game, so keep that in mind if you want your score to rise another 1000.
The story showcased here with In Between is a heartbreaking one, especially if you have something to draw on in your life that can put you in the protagonist’s shoes, even just a little bit. The way it all comes together, the levels, the emotion, the ending, they all help tell a compelling narrative and gives the game an engaging experience that I think anyone who enjoys puzzle games should check out. I don’t know where this idea came from, but it’s one that is remarkably well done, and I’m so glad it was made.
In Between is available now on Steam at a discounted price (60% off until 7/4/16) and Xbox One for $11.99. You can also get mobile versions of the game on iOS and Google, though I am unsure of the price, because I’m too lazy to look right now. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the joke… Click the links for the prices, I’m not that nice. A copy of the game was provided by Headup Games for the purpose of this review.