Would you look at that, it’s already October! Obviously, you know what that means… only a quarter of the year remains to be devoured by the unrelenting ravenous all-consumer called Time and I’m going to turn 24 soon and they say 23 is the physical and mental peak of the human body oh crap we’re all gonna die what is life’s purpose?
But also, on a lighter note, it’s spooky season! And what better way to kick things off than with a review of the latest offering of the psychological thriller genre, In Sound Mind?
Developed by We Create Stuff and published by Modus Games for the PC, PS5, XSX, and Switch, In Sound Mind is a story-rich psychological horror-puzzler much-anticipated by horror fanatics everywhere. Not content with just being story-rich though, the game also has FPS and platforming elements to boot.
So, how soundly (heh) does In Sound Mind manage to pull off its lofty ambitions? Before I give the game a piece of my mind (heh) though, I feel compelled to divulge that I’m not the biggest horror-puzzler aficionado – in fact, I’ve only ever played a few (Resident Evil 7, Little Nightmares come to mind) and completed even fewer. It stands to reason then that a few of my frustrations with the game may just be an outcome of my inexperience of the genre and may not be applicable to genre veterans. In any case, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get this thing going, shall we?
A Fascinating Mystery-Horror Narrative
At the risk of an overly simplistic comparison (Far Cry with guns hah!), In Sound Mind is basically Alan Wake meets Psychonauts, plus a healthy dose of puzzles. To put it more precisely, it’s the overall vibe and mystery-unraveling aspect, as well as some similar game mechanics and level design of Alan Wake, combined with Psychonauts’ exploration of people’s psyches through levels.
You play as Desmond Wales (thank gods it’s not Miles), a psychiatrist who wakes up to find himself in the basement of his apartment building, only, everything’s definitely not normal. There are weird fluorescent puddles of poisonous goo everywhere, not a soul to be seen, portals leading to your patients’ inner psyches, and oh yeah, an incredibly fluffy talking cat.
By going through portals that somehow lead to their homes and finding a tape of their therapy sessions, you gain access to four of your patients’ psyches. Each one of these is a sprawling sandbox level with puzzles to solve and lore to ingest, all of them reflecting that particular patient’s story and their disorder represented by a sometimes-uniquely designed boss, and each providing you with another piece of the conspiratorial mystery afoot.
The keyword here is ‘mystery’, for that’s what the game is, for the most part, a mystery with horror elements as opposed to a straight-up horror story. And as such, though it is definitely story-rich and boasts a compelling, original narrative that’ll keep you playing despite its flaws, In Sound Mind is by no means ‘scary’. This is an essential point that I want to make very clear: though the first couple of hours may be unsettling and the first level is definitely a classic horror trope, the other levels and overall narrative is much more about the puzzle-solving and overarching mystery. Even the few scary aspects of the plot quickly become almost fully ineffective after a while, so if you’re in it for the scares, you might just be disappointed (though there are a few fun jumpscares spread throughout the narrative).
The tone overall is pretty serious but permeated by standout moments of just pure fun and campiness, which I found to be a good mix. For example, there’s a mysterious (though ultimately predictable) character who follows and inconveniences you throughout the game and punctuates each level with campy taunting phone calls. Then there’s the fact that the protagonist literally says ‘Nom’ upon eating food (health re-ups) which I found hilarious – I mean, imagine stopping to eat a Snickers bar while being chased by a ghost and gleefully going ‘Nom’. Some of the dialogue with the talking cat is also pretty light-hearted and humorous.
Speaking of the writing, it’s consistently great throughout and definitely one of the high points of In Sound Mind – campy and touching in equal measure, and really brings the fantastic story to a satisfying culmination. Apart from the main plot, I especially loved everything to do with the very pettable cat – she’s a constant source of reassurance and positivity in an otherwise lonely-feeling narrative, and I thought they brought that mini-arc to its natural end-state beautifully.
Even though the review goes downhill from here, I hope I’ve convinced you of the strength of its story enough that you consider picking it up, because, despite all of its problems, I honestly found the story underneath to be brilliant, and can definitely see this being a cult classic.
Stellar Level Design
As aforementioned, the majority of the game consists of four sandbox levels (for the four patients), and while I was at first impressed by how sprawling and deep these were – they’re not just short walks in the park, you get to sink your teeth and spend a decent few hours in each one – this non-linearity was the cause of a whole lot of frustration for me, but we’ll get to that later.
The concepts of the levels themselves aren’t really all that original – you have a shopping mall (my favorite one), a beach and lighthouse, a trainyard/factory, and the woods – but on a purely level design perspective, I found them decent if not great (though there’s a lot of ‘find 3 fuses’ sections to the point I felt more like an underprepared electrician than a psychiatrist).
Outside these four main levels, there’s also the apartment building you wake up which serves as the hub you visit between levels. Comprising three floors and a roof, this building changes as the story progresses, and as you unlock new tools, you get to explore more and more of the previously blocked-off parts of the building. I found this whole mini-metroidvania aspect pretty fun and satisfying and loved how they punctuated and gave you a breather in the between-level moments.
Clever Puzzles Amidst Mediocre Mechanics
Now coming to the actual gameplay elements, oh boy where do I start? To put it simply, if you’re not into puzzles, there’s not a whole lot to love here.
The shooting never feels right and is serviceable at best and the platforming feels extremely clunky and barely even serviceable at times. The platforming is made even more awkward because there are no indicators that let you know which areas are platform-able and which aren’t, which can lead to some frustration. Switching between weapons/tools could also have been much more intuitive in the form of a weapon wheel, instead of the laborious one-after-the-other switching system currently in place.
There’s even a stealth element that doesn’t work great – the AI is extremely inconsistent, seeming to spot you immediately from a mile away at times, while also letting you literally run circles around them with barely any risk of taking damage. A handful of times I found myself baiting enemies into a room and shutting the door on them to trap them, rather than bothering to engage in the combat. Since quite a lot of this game – especially the latter half – involves these elements, it can definitely be a very mediocre experience.
However, if you do like puzzles, you’re in for a treat! While a lot of it does admittedly involve gathering fuses and other such busywork, there’s a lot of great, clever puzzles as well, much more than I was really expecting. They’re more about making use of the environment than pure logic-based, and are definitely the best part of the game apart from the narrative, making for a pretty easy recommendation for puzzle lovers.
The exploration aspect is also a high point, especially for those with completionist tendencies. There’s the expected resources like ammo and food to be found all over the place, as well as a decent amount of lore pieces, upgrade pills – which can bolster your health, stamina, and so forth – as well as collectible coins that you can use back at the apartment building for upgrades. All of these are scattered all over the place and can be collected using a tool you get early on in the game that acts kinda like Detective Vision or Eagle Vision in the Arkham and Assassin’s Creed games.
Umm Devs… A Little Help Here?
While each zone being its own sprawling sandbox is great and provides a lot of freedom to explore and move at your own pace, it’s also not-so-great when you get stumped on a puzzle and are unsure about where to go next or how to get past a certain obstacle. Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer this design as opposed to linear puzzles but at the same time, either it should have been more streamlined or something should really have been done in the way of player guidance or a hint system to alleviate the frustration that can arise from this design choice.
And oh, there was plenty of frustration for me – I must’ve gotten stuck for a solid 30 minutes at least once in each of the four levels, and let me tell you, trying to figure stuff out in time for a review without the help of an online walkthrough, man it’s rough.
Maybe it’s just because I’m new to the genre, but the man did I find progressing in this game unintuitive as heck. You see, there’s no map on your HUD, only diegetic ones that you can find posted up on walls. So naturally, I got quite lost quite a lot. Plus, the documents you find – some of which have clues for puzzles – aren’t saved in your inventory so I had to resort to literally taking a photo of the screen on my phone just to make sure I had it when needed.
There are no objective markers at all, so you’re never really sure where you’re supposed to go next. The objective list that is there is woefully vague most times (“find a way to defeat X” – no hint given to help out in this multi-stage process), and not even in the right order at other times, which can again, lead to frustration.
Listen, I don’t have a problem with difficulty – if a game is terribly difficult but I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, I rarely get salty about it – but when I don’t even know what it is that I’m supposed to do next or where I’m supposed to go, now that can be exceedingly annoying. The most relief I got out of In Sound Mind came not from solving the puzzles themselves but from finally witnessing the autosave animation pop up on the top right of the screen when I finally managed to trial and error my way to making progress (I sincerely thank the cat running animation for letting me know I’ve done something right!).
I realize I’m just whining about the hardcore elements of a horror-puzzler that aren’t necessarily drawbacks but actual selling points for fans of the genre, but hey, all I’m saying is, why not have an option in the settings to turn a couple of player-friendly features on, or at least have a hint system where the character ponders out loud what the next step maybe?
This Should Run Better, Right?
The other major-for-some, minor-for-others drawback of In Sound Mind is its extremely inconsistent performance. There are frame drops galore, stutters all over the place, and even the occasional glitch that seemed to teleport me a couple of feet away from where I had been and turned me in a different direction.
I mean, In Sound Mind isn’t the most visually spectacular game in any sense, in fact, though it’s not ugly by any means, it does look like a PS3 game for the most part. What the hell is going on behind the scenes to warrant such terrible performance? Honestly, though, I’m used to playing on a crappy laptop and not a stickler for performance, so it didn’t bother me all that much – at least there were no crashes and the fps rarely dropped below 30!
Though the visuals aren’t anything to write home about and are fairly generic (the last level being an exception), I found the sound design and music to be consistently fantastic throughout, and the voice acting – despite grating, repeated dialogs – to be surprisingly stellar! Kudos to the actors and sound design team on that front.
When it comes down to it, despite all the frustrations and at times, the vehement hate I had for In Sound Mind, I’m definitely glad I played it – the brilliant, campy, touching, and original story and the clever puzzles made it all worth it, no question.
For psychological horror puzzler fans that appreciate a good story, this is a no-brainer, definitely go play it. I will, however, say that it’s best to play through the game by breaking it up into four or five sessions, with a walkthrough handy in case you get stuck on something for over 20 minutes (you almost definitely will).
Go into In Sound Mind with patience aplenty and you will be rewarded with a gem of a game, unpolished though it may be.