Magic cassette tapes? Ghosts in trilbies? A talking cat? Are you sure you’re In Sound Mind?
It’s spooky season, which means it’s time for spooky games, and what’s spookier than first person horror games? I’ll be honest, at first glance In Sound Mind struck me as being very much like any of the other slew of first person horror games that you can find on Steam, and now consoles. But once I got going, I found this to be far better than I was expecting, to the point that it’s one of my favourite games of this year. A pleasant surprise to say the least!
You play as Desmond Wales, a therapist who awakens in the basement of his apartment building whilst an apparent flood rages outside. It doesn’t take long for you to realise that things are a little bit on the strange side. Taunted by phone calls from a mysterious man who seems to want you dead, Desmond finds his building is laid out in ways that make no sense to him, along with other oddities such as monsters, toxic sludge, and the fact his cat is now talking to him. By locating tapes of his sessions with previous patients, Desmond travels through their memories, searching for clues to make sense of the bizarre world he currently finds himself in.
Before going any further, I’ll point out that In Sound Mind addresses mental health issues, which may be a touch unpleasant for some players. Initially I found its approach to conditions such as these to be in poor taste, and somewhat reductive. However I feel it manages to pull it together by the end, giving reasons as to why Desmond’s patients had their conditions rapidly deteriorate. Those early segments made me feel a touch uncomfortable, so I’m glad the developers were able to construct a story that was at least moderately sensitive.
The apartment building serves as a hub area of sorts, where you explore to find new items and weapons to aid your journey, whilst also hunting for more tapes as you delve into the events surrounding this madness. The tasks in the tapes will also provide you with new items that will allow you to access further areas in the apartment block, giving In Sound Mind a slight hint of Metroidvania as your new tools allow you to collect more items that you may have seen but couldn’t acquire. This hub becomes more dangerous as the game progresses, with enemies from the tapes appearing in the corridors.
The tapes themselves are the highlight here, and each one is substantially different to the last whilst still being set in the same town. You’ll visit abandoned department stores, war torn fields, and rickety seafronts, each with their own antagonist based on the issues faced by the patient in question. Each area presents you with a new mechanic that will be used in subsequent tapes, such as a mirror shard that allows you to see hidden objects behind you when staring into it, or pills that will lure enemies away from you or detonate pools of sludge. This regular introduction of features prevents the game from becoming stale over the ten-or-so hour story, even if some of the tapes feel as though they could have been shorter.
In each area you’ll be faced by a manifestation of the patients mental health challenges which act as a boss of sorts. You’ll run into them frequently, and only by getting to the bottom of their issues and confronting these manifestations will you be able to help them and yourself. This often takes the form of puzzles that you’ll need to solve whilst under pressure from them, and these sections can be quite challenging, even on Normal difficulty. Working out what to do whilst fighting off a monster is pretty intense, but you are given hints by your character mentioning things that he’s noticed in the environment. I often found myself figuring it out once I’d had a prompt or two, although I still managed to get killed on more than a few occasions.
The pacing here is great too, as these enemies appear quite sparingly, giving you short challenges to solve before leaving you free to explore a little and solve puzzles without that pressure. There are other enemies around in the form of Ink Blots, black, sludgy creatures that either rush you down or try to fire at you from range. There’s very little variety in these opponents, and each time I was confronted by them, I found myself sighing a little as I’d rather get on with discovering the mysteries associated with the patient and solving puzzles rather than using the quite rudimentary shooting and melee combat. Stealth is an option, but it’s another very rudimentary mechanic that isn’t communicated to the player very well. You can improve your stealth stat — along with your health, stamina, and speed — by finding pills hidden in the apartment and tapes, but I didn’t feel like it made a huge difference.
What was more impressive though, were the visuals and sound. Each tape is in an environment that looks quite unique when compared to others and there’s some really creative stuff on display. Mysterious, fog-shrouded labs, and bizarre otherworld locations surrounded by floating islands in the sky are just some of the places you’ll visit, and it’s clear that the developers were taking full advantage of the fact much of In Sound Mind is set in mental interpretations of real world locations. The bosses you face are equally creative in their designs, and certainly convey the challenges faced by their associated patient. The music is also excellent and is used well to set the mood for your current activity. These tracks have been added to one of my playlists to listen to outside of the game, they’re that good. Characters are well voiced, and come across as genuine, especially as you listen to the patients explain their situation to Desmond. I found myself feeling sorry for them and their plights, hoping that Desmond could find some way to bring them peace.
All of this was excellent, but In Sound Mind lets itself down in the final act by going all Xen on the player. Without giving too much away, the final level evokes memories of the infamous final level of Half-Life by having the player use low-gravity jumps to leap from one floating island to another. The game’s mechanics don’t lend themselves too well to this kind of action, and it really let down the finale. Still, I really enjoyed everything up to this point, and the ending that came about as a result, that goes some way to explaining why Desmond is in the situation he’s in.
Whilst not without its flaws, In Sound Mind is a really enjoyable narrative horror experience. The atmosphere hits just right, and although the scares aren’t huge, with the game occasionally leaning into camp territory, there’s certainly enough to keep you on edge at times. There aren’t many great horror games around these days, but this one is certainly worth your time. Oh, and you can pet the cat, so this is automatically a game of the year contender.