Inmates Review – The Horror of Bad Gameplay Design
After booting up publisher Iceberg Interactive’s PC-exclusive horror title Inmates and starting a new game, the first thing you’re supposed to do is wander up a wide circular staircase. The atmosphere is very moody, complete with dim lighting, flickering torches, and chains hanging from the walls.
Shortly after you begin your ascent, an ominous bell rings and the entire room shakes violently, rooting you in place as you wonder whether everything will suddenly come crashing down around you. Once the shaking stops, you continue climbing, only to have the same sequence repeat itself a few seconds later, bell ringing, violent shaking, and the sudden inability to move until the shaking ceases.
Again you resume your climb and again, a few seconds later, the same sequence occurs, bell, shaking, frozen in place. By the time I'd finally reached the top of the stairs during my review playthrough of Inmates, I found myself rolling my eyes and groaning in frustration. Mainly because for the fifth or sixth time (I was already too frustrated to count), I had to wait for the brief shaking to stop so that I could move.
This would be a symbolic hallmark of what was to follow, an experience which could have been great but which ends up being marred by baffling gameplay design decisions.
Hell on Earth
Developed by Davit Andreasyan using Unreal Engine 4, Inmates clearly pulls inspiration from horror game mainstays like Frictional Games’ Amnesia series and Konami’s Silent Hill. The game’s locations are grimy, dank, and poorly lit, which is good since its graphics are also quite dated. Playing as a young man named Jonathan, you wake up in a prison with no recollection of how you got there.
The only thing you can really do is start wandering around hunting for clues on how to escape. Of course, since this is a horror game, you soon discover there are malevolent forces that are intent on keeping you right where you are. To outwit these forces, you'll need to solve various puzzles and find specific items needed to proceed forward to the next area.
On paper, this certainly sounds like a serviceable (if wholly unoriginal) concept for a good horror-themed walking simulator game. But, as I mentioned before, several odd gameplay design choices on the developer’s part suck a lot of fun out of the experience. For one thing, there's no sprint button, forcing the player to traverse long corridors and vast numbers of empty rooms at a gradual walking pace.
This problem is compounded by the fact that the player has to do a decent amount of backtracking as well. Furthermore, Inmates often forces you to complete its puzzle sequences by trapping you in the room where the puzzle is. The game does this either literally by having a door shut behind you, or figuratively by jarringly steering the player’s perspective back to the puzzle if they try to leave the room and having Jonathan mutter something along the lines of “this looks important.”
Speaking of dialogue, the game’s voice acting is sub-par at best. In fact, I’m fairly certain the same voice actor who played Jonathan also plays his doctor, Benjamin, which is especially odd when the two have conversations with one another.
Prisons of Our Own Design
Other minor issues I encountered included not being able to tweak gameplay settings while you’re actually playing the game (you have to back out to the main menu), the inability to customize keybindings (though Inmates does come with rudimentary controller support), and a poorly designed puzzle interface which often makes implementing solutions a matter of guesswork as you blindly try to figure out how to manipulate a puzzle’s moving parts.
It’s a shame, really, since I thought that the game’s underlying themes of religion, cult mentality, demon worship, and the power of the human psyche were used as an excellent framework, unfortunately Inmates never really uses any of those themes for anything other than set dressing. Those who are absolutely desperate for a new horror game to play could likely find a little something of worth in Inmates, just don’t expect it to last very long as a typical playthrough only lasts about 2-3 hours at the most.
There are glimmers of a good game skulking about in the shadows of Inmates’ landscape, but ultimately the experience ends up feeling more frustrating than frightening.