In Between, like its name suggests, is in between my recommendations. The puzzles are expertly crafted, offering a great balance of level fairness and precise timing. The story’s presentation is impressive and offers a deep experience with a minimalist presentation of hand drawn artwork. My biggest problem is that the game is simply too jaded to be declared enjoyable, offering a desolate and hopeless look at our lives. While I admire the developers for tackling a difficult subject, the story misses opportunities to instill hope into those who might download it, looking for some relief.
WHAT WE LIKED
º Puzzles are engaging, and are changed up over the chapters.
º The brooding narration enhances the game’s dark tones.
º Cutscenes and small details builds your concern for his family.
WHAT WE DISLIKED º It comes across as angry and mean-spirited, and not uplifting.
º Controls could’ve used some additional options and polish.
º Not much to do outside of the campaign, no additional modes.
I hope you never have to experience cancer, either firsthand or through a loved one. Facing one’s own imminent death is probably the toughest thing you’ll ever have to experience. In Between captures the beauty and pain of loss, forgiveness, and acceptance of one’s own mortality. Gentlymad has created an engaging game of puzzles, nail-bitingly hard ones, all inspired by the death of a man who simply wishes he had more time. You’ll journey through the tough battle of staying alive, only to know that in the end, there’s nothing for you on the other side- but perhaps another chance at one more obstacle.
The game’s main protagonist has been diagnosed with cancer, and the journey lies between his memories and his coping with an incurable disease. The game’s hand-drawn visuals shatter like mirrors as you progress, or whenever you fall to the game’s challenge. Your character spends the game collecting his thoughts as he travels through the fives stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.
The game’s storyline starts with the sad knowledge that you’re dying of lung cancer. Through the cracking walls of the levels’ background, you’re shown the complicated past with your father, the deteriorating relationship with your wife and child and the final thoughts of a dying man. These moments of reflection adds a lot to the game’s narrative and drives the player into wanting to learn more. After you complete a level, In Between sets the stage with emotional scenes showing your character running through his memories, before progressing towards the next step towards acceptance.
The controls are pretty simple, but like most great puzzle games, the designers have utilized clever level design in order to get the most challenge out of their concept. There is no jumping in the game, so the only way to get around something is to land on an opposite platform. You move your character with the left stick and change your decent with the right stick. The main obstacle is spikes- vintage run of the mill spikes, giving the game a bit of retro charm.
The really clever bits come with each of the transitions, bringing new challenges with each chapter. The first one introduces you to the game’s mechanics, but when you get into ‘Denial’, the game adds in a looming darkness that can overtake you. The only way you can fight it is by facing it, pushing it back while you frantically try to get through the stage. ‘Anger’ pits you against giant pulsating balls, blocking your way and eventually chasing after to consume you. When you get to ‘Bargaining’, you’ll reflect on how your guilt and frustrations affected those in your life. You’ll be separated from yourself, and have to navigate an opposite version of your psyche. ‘Depression’ will have you traversing by candlelight, doing anything you can to avoid entering the darkness around you. You’ll have to navigate blocks around the map, trying to stay close enough to not die. Finally, there’s ‘Acceptance’- where you come to terms with your journey.
The challenge is perfect. It’s the right kind of frustrating, when you can see what you need to do, but just can’t pull it off. You’ll jump from congratulating yourself after finally nailing that hard section, but then realize you’ve still got half a map left to go. Running back through them again, you’ll see your timing and movements get better each time. If you get stuck on one of the levels, the game allows you to skip three in each chapter, so you don’t have to sit on a puzzle you can not figure out.
Even though the gameplay and the story are both great, they don’t feel well suited. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I just feel like the game designers have mixed oil and vinegar, and only when the bottle is shaken do they seem like they mix fine. I’m not sure how someone altering gravity has anything to do with death, and it doesn’t really feel like a whole. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they don’t work, I’m just not entirely sure they integrate with each other well, and they feel like two slightly off puzzle pieces that have been forced to fit.
There are some great ideas integrated into to the game’s designs, and some of the small details are fantastic. When you die in one of the game’s puzzles, the wall behind you splinters away where you’ve previously perished. The blocks in the game share a similarity to artwork hanging in your home. The very game you’re playing is presented as an arcade machine in your childhood room. All these subtextual ideas are presented so well in the game, you’ll constantly be thinking of your character’s family and the world outside of your own mind. Every time the map gets the better of you, you’ll feel devastated; filled with dread as you think about their future.
While the game performs well, I wish the developers had added a few things that could’ve made the game more enjoyable for me. Using the right stick is frustrating, especially in the middle of a long sequence of jumps, when you try to push down, but it registers as right, sending you flying into your demise. Why couldn’t I map the direction of my descent to the four buttons instead? I also didn’t like how my character always runs, even during scenes like a funeral. It would’ve been nice to be able to slow down and really take in the cutscenes without having to stop. This constant speed also makes some of the game’s gravity zone sections way to difficult.
The music and sound effects are very good. The soundtrack jumps between a contemplative mix of bassy electronica and moody piano. These selections are used effectively to convey a different range of emotions as you play the overly familiar stages. The voice actor does a great job with the material, even though some of the lines can be a little hackneyed. His performance adds a tremendous amount of depth and realism to the game.
While the journey was enjoyable, the ending left me feeling very upset. Usually with narratives based around death, say with movies like What Dreams May Come or novels like Slaughterhouse Five, there’s usually some uplifting moment in the end- a silver lining. This game offers a very bleak outlook on the fate of all of us, and comes across very jaded and- well, depressing. I know that may sound foolish, but usually when you travel through a story that focuses entirely on dying, there’s at least a positive you can take away in the end. This project simply made me feel worse after completing it. I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but at least a park was built at the end of Ikiru.
As an experience, In Between does a great job of creating a sense of dread and heartache in its players. The game sets out to tackle death, and in many ways, it accomplishes its task. While it’s not a home run, I felt the inspiration of games like Braid and The Bridge shining through. I’d love to say that it’s the kind of game to help you through a depressive place in your life, but sadly I can’t. If, however, you’re looking for a great puzzle game, this one will provide you with a solid 5 hours of frustrating puzzle-solving fun.