Despite my nostalgic fondness for the LucasArts (may it rest in peace) point-and-click adventure/puzzle games of yore, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t always love this sort of game. Or at least I find myself definitely enjoying some sides of it more than others. So it is with The Inner World.
Mechanically, this game is very standard – I’ve yet to see an example of this genre (I’m sure something’s out there) that bends too far out of the familiar. Your see your character stand and move in an environment that looks straight out of a picture-book, and you can explore certain points or items in the environment to determine if they are useful to you. You can’t interact with every little scrap of paper or table in the scene, so you don’t have to worry too much about trying to find needles in haystacks. Mostly, these games are about trying to figure out how to use items in your inventory to overcome your current obstacle or pursue your current objective, with context clues or dialogue providing some directing hints as to what to keep an eye out for. The Inner World certainly follows suit in that regard.
The distinctive styling for this game is certainly about the visuals of the world the game inhabits, the characters, the script, and the story. Since point-and-click adventures are never going to offer much to dissect in terms of game mechanics and gamplay “feel,” it’s appropriate to dwell on these stylization factors. The Inner World definitely provides the aforementioned picture-book appearance, and I suppose it’s credit to them that I’m having a hard time coming up with comparables with which to describe it. I’ll credit developer Studio Fizbin with creativity with world-crafting in that regard. The game takes its title from its fictional universe, in which outer space is an infinite expanse of dirt, and the habitable world Asposia is the inner surface of a sphere (planet?) provided with life-sustaining air by air fountains that somehow manage to pipe it in. The air isn’t merely what the life-forms breathe, it also is the force of nature upon which Asposian civilization is built, everything from bio-luminescent critters used for light to wind-powered industry. Wind is central to Asposian culture and – more relevant to the storyline’s immediate purposes – their religion.
The player takes control of Robert, an innocent, pleasantly-mannered acolyte of Wind Monk Conroy, whose influence and stature within Asposian society makes him a respected although dominating figure in Robert’s life. Robert is naïve, but also clever, and ventures outside Conroy’s castle the fix what he thinks is a mistake for which is is responsible. Asposian society doesn’t look the same from the streets as it does from the castle, and Robert’s exposure to the outer world (bang) constitutes somewhat of a coming-of-age story.
Both characters and settings are hand drawn in children’s-book style, and designs for both are fanciful if rather unbalanced. The Asposian cityscape and interior spaces employ a more drab, monochromatic color palate against which the more brightly-colored characters popped to my eye, with rich reds, blues, greens, and yellows, often accentuated with dots, stripes, and other eye-grabbing touches. Maybe this was a deign choice to lead the eye to key spots in the scene? I generally liked the art style, although it’s not as lush as Night of the Rabbit (the previous point-and-click I reviewed). The characters are sort of humanoid, I guess, they’re more like anthropomorphic quadrilaterals with limbs and carrots for noses, but it’s the kind of style conceit that, when coupled with the universe they’ve crafted, quickly got me to stop asking questions like “So what is this character, biologically?”
My only real issue in terms of game mechanics had to do with the “highlight” feature, which many modern point-and-click adventures employ. First of all, I’m on the fence whether or not I even want to be able to push a button and have the game highlight all the things to pick up or talk to – it removes any real pressure to search. However, I have to admit that I would be pretty frustrated to be stuck because I missed picking up a tiny, detail needle in a rich, expansive scene. In this case, the highlighting provided by the game isn’t enough. If they’re going to include this feature, they should make it pop. Instead, you get faint-ish white dots that can sometimes blend in a bit with the background, making me wonder if it’s a feature that should really be in the game at all.
I’ll admit right now that I don’t always have the most fun with this sort of game, because solving puzzles often involves some sort of creative solution at which I would never arrive logically on my own. I found myself frequently mentally complaining about this issue with The Inner World. Here’s an example: right off the bat, one of the first challenges is to get a bird off a windowsill. It’s too high to just reach up and grab it, but I’m able to combine a piece of string with an empty windsock to create a net. I still can’t reach? There’s a nearby worm, I should be able to use that to lure the bird, right? Too bad the worm is too quick for me to grab. Use the net on the worm? Nope, still to quick. There’s nothing else that really makes sense to do in my inventory…
Use a puppet on the worm? Nope. Use a stick on the worm? Nope. Use an open bottle of booze on the worm? Wait…that’s what works? Dump booze down the worm hole, and grab the hammered little guy when he pokes out again? I’m not saying this solution is awful, giving a little worm an instant rager is kind of cute. I’m saying how would I ever have come up with it without backing into it by default? If someone had mentioned local booze-hound worms nearby or something, maybe I would have made the connection. Then it would have almost been too obvious. Maybe I just don’t think outside the box enough, but I get frustrated when the solution turns out to be something I don’t think I’d ever be able to reason my way to beforehand. Some of the solutions are really a stretch to me, and wouldn’t have figured them out if I hadn’t just tried everything in my inventory on the object. A walking stick can be used as a knitting needle? I dunno. I wouldn’t go as far as to say the puzzle design for this game is defined by this “who would think that?” tendency, some of the obstacles and their solutions were fun, not obvious, and made me feel smart for putting together the chain of logic to arrive at them. I’m hesitant to over-criticize this facet of the game, because somehow I feel like many of the puzzles I would complain about would be solved super quickly by people who are much better at advanced abstraction than mine. In that sense, maybe I should relish the chance to stretch the imagination a bit? Maybe I need to be more mature, but I ran into a sort of challenging that was more frustrating than fun a bit more often than I want in a game.
Story needs to matter for a game like this, and the story and characters are very strong here. I’ve read some complaints about localization, but I never really had a problem with it that I couldn’t dismiss as a minor detail. In the first five minutes or so of dialogue and game cinematics, I gritted my teeth a bit because the world and characters were introduced as so story-book kiddy, I was worried I was going to have to review a full-length game’s worth of Nick Jr. content. I can do kiddy in a nuanced and mechanically rigorous Mario or Zelda game, not sure if I could do it in a point-and-click. However, my persistence was rewarded with a delicious shift in tone as Robert ventures outside his bubble, and the dumbed-down innocence of the game’s introduction adds layers to the slow discovery of political, societal, and historical complication. It was an unexpected but welcome surprise when wisecracks were made about drunkenness, Robert’s ignorance of women’s intimate wear, and vengeful castration. The final act spiraled a bit out of control, but not enough for me to feel the need for a spoiler-laden rant about it in the review.
Point-and-click adventures aren’t a super mainstream genre right now with games aplenty, so if you’re a fan of them who actively seeks them out, The Inner World is a must-play. However, if you’re not an aficionado of the genre but looking for a title to dabble in, I think there are better options out there, and The Inner World would be something to come back to. If you’re in a great mood for a story-intensive game, it should get bumped up your list a bit. Iffy puzzle design and story quibbles don’t hold back the merits of the game, but I wouldn’t call The Inner World one for the ages.
This review is based on a review copy of the PC version of The Inner World developed by Headup Games