Recent years have seen a number of games exploring the ideas of memory and identity with their games. The Inner Friend joins their ranks, promising to take you into the fragmented psyche of a mysterious protagonist, forcing you to replay and confront childhood traumas. The end result is an interesting, but flawed game that journeys through an assortment of disconnected levels with distinct aesthetics and atmospheres.
Developers Playmind take a deliberately non-verbal approach to storytelling, with no voiceover or commentary. This becomes a double-edged sword, however, as the games suitably mysterious feel leads to nothing being explained or resolved. Taken with the fact that the levels all feel very separate, the end result doesn’t fully hang together. When at its best, the game has considerable style and conveys a really unsettling sense of unease, it just lacks consistency.
The world of Inner Friend is very grey. This monotonous colour scheme fits in with the foggy memories and unresolved traumas, but isn’t very inspiring. In fact, the more effective and memorable moments come when this monotone style is abandoned, and the occasional splash of colour shines through. It’s unfortunate that I came to this game so recently after playing The Shattering, which uses colour to simulate mental states in a much more engaging fashion. Technically, The Inner Friend ran pretty well on my base PS4, although there were a few small frame rate hiccups.
Audio design is one area in which The Inner Friend excels. I’d recommend playing with headphones to get a real feel for the atmosphere of surreal unease and discomfort. Whether wandering through a decaying school, haunted hospital, or a surreal forest, the sound design is really effective. The game has clearly been carefully designed, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of highlighting the limitations of the level design.
You arrive in each level by skydiving through emptiness, but I was never sure whether I had to navigate to different landmarks in the sky or if progress was automatic. Either way, I quickly found myself disliking this mechanic. Luckily it is a minor part of the game but, given the short playtime a noticeable one. Your adventure takes you through a range of clichéd environments from the aforementioned schools and hospitals to building sites and menacing caves, but at least each area manages to feel distinct from one another.
Unlike many walking simulators that tackle mental health, The Inner Friend does not shy away from peril and game-ending encounters. Almost every level has some form of obstacle or enemy that you must evade. The creature design is one of the game’s real highlights – a surreal and terrifying hairdresser is particularly memorable, looking like a cross between a naked old lady and a close up of a bad case of haemorrhoids. The lack of any way of defending yourself can mean that these enemies become annoying rather than threatening, especially when their sense can be a little unpredictable. Escorting another character around the cave when you can’t be sure of the edges of the enemy’s line of sight quickly becomes frustrating.
Alongside working through the assorted memories of your protagonist, there are a number of collectables to track down in each level. These will mostly evade you on your first playthrough as the game pushes you forward, but a level select option is unlocked upon completion. This provides a welcome level of replayability to a very short game, although having to repeat some of the more annoying parts will put you off. There are also some nice achievements that offer mini-challenges, such as solving puzzles in a set number of moves or escaping a section without dying.