Half a decade ago, Journey took the world by storm. It was a unique experience that gave players the tools to explore vast, uninhabited lands and environments richly rendered in a unique and beautiful art style. It rewarded exploration and curiosity, but also guided you gently along a path to bring you toward a conclusion. It surprises me that, for such a unique and impactful game, we haven’t seen more titles trying to emulate that experience or art style.
Playing InnerSpace with no real idea of what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a game with sounds and sights that instantly took me back to my time with Journey. I only wish the other parts of the package left as much of a positive impression on me.
InnerSpace takes place in a bizarre, inside-out world called the Inverse, where machines and structures are all powered by a vague energy called Wind. There used to be civilization here, but it’s now uninhabited. A curious science researcher chooses to activate you, an AI construct designed to navigate a hybrid flying/deepsea exploring device, in order to explore parts of the world they could never reach.
I went into this game expecting a sort of unguided, open-ended experience that tasked you with piecing together the objectives and narrative on your own, but I was pleasantly surprised by how wrong my expectations were. Your scientist companion talks to you often and you even have dialogue options to respond to him with, and while there isn’t a mini-map or a quest marker, you’ll be given a strong idea of what you have to do or where you have to go next. The relics and checkpoints you discover along the way also give you pieces of writing that help flesh out the bizarre world you’re inside of.
The relics you collect aren’t just narrative easter eggs, either. A lot of them also serve as upgrades to the abilities or maneuverability of your ship, and they are well-needed. The base flight mechanics of the game are simple and responsive. Just like flying a plane, you roll left and right, you yaw up and down, you hold back to be slow and forward to go faster. Unfortunately, what this plane doesn’t do is turn on a dime. Or a warehouse of dimes.
Your turns for most of the game will feel very wide, and they’re serviceable in the more expansive areas of the worlds you explore, but when you dive into the tight corridors that litter these environments, navigating them without hitting a wall is almost impossible. Worse yet, bumping into a wall makes your ship and your camera freak out, quickly leading to some massive spells of disorientation.
On top of that, for as much as I loved the twisted, physics-bending environments I was exploring, nearly all of them were twisted in on themselves and had no discernible roof or sky. This made it impossible to ever have a clear sense of direction or orientation while flying. I wanted to have fun zoning out and soaring through these worlds, but the act often proved more stressful than anything.
When you aren’t crashing into walls, your gameplay tends to involve navigating and searching the environment for intractable buttons or hidden passageways. This eventually leads you to encounters with other entities, but even these are usually simply a task of flying into or through specific entryways or device triggers. You’re never engaging in any kind of combat or chase sequences, and even in the most climactic parts of the game, the atmosphere is always just serene and relaxed.
The care and expressiveness that goes into the artistic style of InnerSpace is worth mentioning a hundred more times. Creatures and structures feel like 3D re-imaginings of abstract paintings, and every color and shadow in the world oozes and mixes together as if an alien were having sweet dreams of their home planet. The sounds that accompany these worlds are equally wonderful, with unique electronic melodies accenting your significant actions and soft ambient noise to accompany the slower moments of gameplay.
My sense of immersion into the world of InnerSpace would have been even further amplified, had the technical performance of the game held up on Nintendo Switch. Unfortunately, whether docked or undocked, this version of InnerSpace felt choppy more often than it felt smooth. The frame rate was never consistent, and it seemed like any time a major action or setpiece unfolded on-screen, the framerate struggled to keep up with it. We’d expect the PS4, Xbox One and PC versions to hold up better, but it wasn’t great on Nintendo’s console.
InnerSpace manages to craft a bright, bizarre and beautiful world that is probably the best example of the phrase “eye candy” I can think of. Unfortunately, the act of exploring and navigating that serene, majestic world often times felt like a headache. The poor frame rate on Switch and no clear horizons made flying and swimming in InnerSpace far less enjoyable than the idea of those actions ever was.
Version tested: Nintendo Switch