In Between Review
In Between is a good name for this title. For me, it not only represents the struggles of the protagonist as he comes to grips with his emotions, but it also perfectly describes how I want to describe MY emotions as I play through this game. While an amazing experience worth having, I ended up having both the heartstring pulls that the developers desired as well as a few pulls on my emotions of anger, frustration, and confusion.
This game is best described as a narrative puzzle game. Odd as it sounds, the gameplay mixes well with how you are supposed to feel. Think similar to Catherine from last generation: intriguing storyline, mixed with the puzzle mentality. Within the title, our main character is facing what appears to be his end of days, dying from a disease you don't know at the start. He reminisces of the old days and how he got where he is, but these aren't necessarily happy thoughts. As we go through the first stages, he discusses his struggle to avoid, yet still manage to get this disease, as well as his neglectful father. The game's stages are based on Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief, as he comes to grips with his coming demise.
During this time, our main character is sifting through the thoughts in his head. Much like living in confusion and grief, he doesn't know which way is up, this time in a literal sense. The main gameplay mechanic involves shifting gravity to one of the four walls, and manipulating these effects to avoid traps. Reaching the multicolored portal at the end takes you immediately to the next level. Along the way, there are spikes to avoid, and falling objects that move according to the way you are controlling gravity, though this may not be exactly the same way you expect. Therefore, there is a lot of trial and error. Other than a glimmering button on the screen showing you how to move or activate something, you have to figure out the rest yourself.
Much like classic games in the vein of Super Mario Brothers, though, these rules are solid, and that can make it very appealing. You know you can't change gravity mid-fall. A spike ball moves at a particular rate, helping you decide whether to move past it before or after on your way through. The solid rules are what kept Mario so popular, and allowed even a game like Super Mario Maker to exist. As time goes on, I could see PC modders using the mechanics of the game to create their own levels. The mechanics are fun, but again with the limited directions, your trial and error may cause you to die, and the sparse checkpoint system found me losing right before one, only to try to rush back to it and die several times on stuff I'd already passed. Luckily, "death" on a puzzle board simply translates to the world shattering apart and immediately coming back together with you back at the last checkpoint, so it's got that one-up on Mario.
In Between has starting tutorial levels, and they do a good job of introducing the basics, but you end up discovering more in the later levels, so sparse bits of tutorial fly in as you continue playing the game. You come across green boxes that force you in one direction, which take some getting used to, especially when you go back to your original direction and velocity on exit. My favorite addition (so far) is the darkness. It's described as representing fear in the game. He remembers his mother's mantra of facing your fear so it won't be able to get you, which means looking at the ominous cloud of death coming toward you will make it recede. At times, it is used as a shroud, hiding what is ahead of you, other moments it is a race to get away from it, lest it swallow you at a time you can't be paying attention to it. Again, though, it keeps coming back to trial and error.
Full disclosure: I have not beaten the game. I was given a download code by the developers for review a couple weeks before release, and I put a lot of energy into it. Straight through, I feel that it may be long for a game of this caliber, but still not an 80-hour epic. I put many nights into it, but there were times that a puzzle stumped me and I knew I'd better stop or fear inducing my rage. A fresh start the next night usually cleared my head and let me figure out the puzzle, but extended periods between plays detract from the sporadic storytelling. If I got three or four story bits in a session, I was enamored, but it'd take a bit of rejuvenation when I came back to help me remember the smaller beats, which are essential for the emotional impact. Perhaps an option on the main menu allowing you to hear all unlocked story bits with the stills that pop up when you unlock them would be beneficial. Meanwhile, though, I can't help but feel a lot of this is intentional: by causing confusion and/or frustration, you find yourself living the exact same feelings as our main character.
Artistically, the game is amazing. A hand-painted style that reminds me of the cutscenes from my favorite Twisted Metal 2, the hand drawn characters are cut out like paper doll puppets with hinges. THe world is similarly crafted. While it looks beautiful, so far the worlds all have looked very similar. I'm looking forward to seeing if the design opens up in the future as he comes to grips with reality.
Overall, In Between is a wonderfully addictive puzzle game. Once you know the mechanics, you really have nothing to blame but yourself for a failure, and it feels really good when you figure out one you are stuck on. The trickier puzzles and extremely mature storyline are not for children, so make sure that your kid is ready for talking about coping with death before you share it with them. I could see In Between being an "in between" game to share with non-gamers. The pacing and theme really makes me want to boot it up when some of our best non-gamer friends are around to discuss the storyline as we go. In Between leaves me feeling "stuck in the middle" emotionally, and I feel it won't bring me resolution until the end, which is wonderfully appropriate. It doesn't have a whole lot of replay value, short of sharing with others for bragging rights. Perhaps it could have had a leaderboard, but it would have been thematically inappropriate. This really is a journey taken on your own, or shared with close friends and family.
In Between is a heartbreaking tale of coming to grips with loss and pushing through to decide what you are going to do after a train wreck hits your life. If you want an emotional experience, this is it. If you are just looking for a lighthearted romp you can pop in and out of, it'd be best to stay away. If you are having a hard time right now for any reason, reflecting with someone else may be best while playing the game. Steam reviews (where it is also available) do discuss becoming sadder at the end. I don't know how it ends, so remember that a story like this is not proper psychological help. Knowing what you are getting into, though, this title offers a gripping storyline worth seeing through to the end, so long as you can handle some difficult puzzles that may test your own emotions.
Final Review Score: 3.75/5
Thanks to the developers for providing a copy of the new Xbox One version for review. It is also available through Steam and many other channels.