Reviewed for Playstation 4. Release Date: May 29th, 2014
Credit should go to the designers of “Among the Sleep” a first person horror game from Krillbite Studios, for their willingness to break with video game convention. In a medium focused on giving players abilities that they do not have in real life, “Among the Sleep” dares to restrict a player’s natural abilities, rather than expand them, and the result is a product which in its best moments, is as engaging as any first person shooter. The game puts a player in the perspective of a toddler, and works to capture the natural limitations that come along with this perspective. You can crawl faster than you can walk, and simple tasks like opening doors or getting on top of beds are obstacles that require a good deal of effort to overcome. Moreover, even the way you see the world is brought to level of toddler; texts are completely indiscernible rendering you illiterate. With these limitations and armed only with a strangely intelligent Teddy Bear, you must find your missing mother by locating memories hidden away in demented hellscapes, while dodging a demonic villain. The patently frightening starting point, while all too similar in content to Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline”, is enhanced by its haunting landscapes and well-paced gameplay, which will keep players engaged in the mission of restoring the toddler to his mother, right up until till the grossly unsatisfying finale.
Like many horror games, “Among the Sleep” doesn’t offer much in the way of action. The gameplay is focused on navigating landscapes by solving puzzles mostly created by your limited movement as a toddler. Progressing through levels comes by completing tasks like moving chairs in front of doors, opening shelves to the right length so that they serve as ladders, or throwing small balls at objects on shelves. This can become dull at times, especially in the levels with no villain to be on the lookout for, but the puzzles generally manage to remain playfully challenging, thanks to a wide variety of activities and smooth gameplay. Rarely does a single puzzle take more than six or seven minutes to solve, and they come in a wide enough variety to stay fairly interesting throughout the game. Moreover, these tasks derive naturally from the premise of the game, which makes the puzzles seem necessary for a realistic representation of the toddler perspective, rather a contrived mechanism for prolonging play.
The strength of the game is its hauntingly detailed environments, which use the games unique perspective to its advantage. Every stage has a dwarfing feel to it; the structures, while ordinary in nature, are all too large for the toddler to use with ease, and too far away from one another to be navigated quickly. This gives the game an exploratory feel, which is executed wonderfully in the games structures. A good deal of the game’s charm is that makes every structure an opportunity for the player to explore what it is for a toddler to experience it, even those which are not essential to progressing through the game. (Crawling up a slide only to fall back down, is oddly satisfying.) In every structure, exists plenty of nooks and crevices to be slipped through or hidden in, which makes exploring the landscapes with the limitation of a toddler rewarding, rather than a hindrance, and new opportunities for such exploration occur throughout the gameplay.
Besides being generally engaging, the settings are equally effective at providing the creepy ambiance necessary for a horror game, while staying personal to the toddler’s perspective. The landscapes are darkly lit, demented versions of environments which are presumably familiar to the child, like his home, a place he went camping. This gives each stage a distinctly psychological feeling of horror; it is not just that environments in the game appear hellishly warped, it is that places the child presumably associated with happiness and safety are presented as being warped. It is as if the landscapes are the toddler’s personal nightmare brought to life, which is much more affecting that random places with a spooky feel. This psychological element in the game is impressive considering it doesn’t provide much in the way of talkative characters. After the initial tutorial level, it’s just the inarticulate toddler and his talking Teddy (whose big on support, but not much for story development) making the journey through the levels, but rather than making the game dull, this isolation is effective in reinforcing the desperation of your character’s position. You are a toddler, physically limited to the point of being unable to open doors on your own; to be alone for a prolonged period of time is tantamount to being in mortal danger, and so as the game progresses the more anxiety the player’s continued solitude causes.
For all the detailed environments, and well-executed gameplay, “Among the Sleep” is still somewhat unfulfilling. The game suffers from a story which forgets to develop, and a villain which forgets to hunt you through the stages, and this makes the game woefully unsatisfying end and gives it zero points in terms of replayability. After establishing its initially exciting premise, the plot simply pauses until the game’s finale. You’re always half way expecting a nice mid-story twist or cut scene which will give some new information on the mother or the nature of the world the child is exploring, but instead you must content yourself with minor clues found in the levels themselves. A nice exposition cut sequence that pushed the story to the second act would be welcome anywhere in the middle of the game, if only to give us a flash into the toddlers back story. But instead the game has an abrupt end that will leave players asking, “that was it?”
The weakest part of “Among the Sleep” is its, thoroughly scary, and oddly absent demonic villain, which represents the main antagonist. After making a late entrance into the game, the monster appears so sparingly, you might think its hiding from you more than you’re hiding from it. It is even possible to play the last level without even encountering the monster. Limiting the monster’s appearances at first adds a sense of tension in the game, as you’re anticipation of it builds suspense, but after completing a few puzzles and moving into different areas, you’re begging for the monster to just pop out already and an add excitement to the game befitting the spookiness of its environment. When you are lucky enough to encounter the villain, it is exceptionally easy to dodge, which means that by the end a player will get pretty cavalier about creeping through the games haunted landscapes, which diminishes the creepy feel the game does so much to create with its environments and perspective. Because of these problems with villain and the storyline the game feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The quality of the action simply doesn’t match the quality of setting or gameplay.
“Among the Sleep” is not without its problems. Its antagonist doesn’t appear enough to keep players on their toes and the promise of its premise is left unfulfilled by the reality of its plot twists. This makes the end of the game a bit unsatisfying, and players will likely feel that the game had more potential than execution. But even given this, “Among the Sleep” should be celebrated for using an original gaming perspective to create organic obstacles and enhance the overall mood the game. The landscapes are frightening, gameplay is challenging without being confusing to the point of causing frustration, and the toddler perspective is done effectively, so that instead of being irritating, the restrictions on movement serve more to increase the tension of the game. Overall, this game was a striking success, and hopefully, a sequel is produced which brings the game’s clear accomplishments to full fruition. 7.4/10