Don't let the bed bugs bite...
Childhood is a rare state of vulnerability that we only get to experience once in life -- full of bewilderment, innocence, and most of all an uncertainty of the unknown. Among the Sleep takes us back to this state, providing a unique lens to the horror adventure genre that takes us a step back to a time when life was quite unknown and scary.
In this tale you play a toddler in search of his missing mother, traversing through various nightmarish worlds to find and recapture heartfelt memories in hopes of making it back to her safely.
Among the Sleep (PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PC)
Developer: Krillbite Studio
Publisher: Krillbite Studio
Released: December 8, 2015 (PS4), May 29, 2014 (PC)
There is no combat in Among the Sleep; instead the game focuses on atmospheric exploration and simple puzzle solving. Just like being a real toddler, your options are limited to crawling, walking, grabbing, and running -- all of which mimic the slowness and clunkiness that would come with being a small child. Teddy, your beloved stuffed pal, accompanies you through the twisted and strange worlds you encounter in your quest to find mom, occasionally offering advice and kind words. You also have the option to hug Teddy, however, all this really does is provide dim light (and perhaps some comfort).
There’s not much to do in terms of gameplay, but it’s less of a problem as there’s always some atmospheric happenstance occurring that keeps you occupied throughout -- whether it’s a creepy wail, a haunted toy moving in the wind, or some other oddity that leaves you with strange feelings (or perhaps an instinct to investigate further). The puzzle aspects aren’t complicated but are tied in well, keeping objectives moving along in a nice way and adding something a little extra that compliments the story.
Dynamics switch it up a bit about halfway through the game, with a chapter consisting of a “run and hide” scenario where a mysterious woman chases you for unknown reasons. If she is successful in capturing you, it’s a game over, which seems to be the only way to truly die. In a later level, there is a similarly dark figure in a cloak who stalks about the area, summoned whenever a bottle breaks. At first it's unclear what to do in these situations as running away rarely works, but Teddy often shares hints to help you understand what’s to come.
This isn’t your average jump-scare game -- the horror is much more ingrained into the levels and feels more genuine than a lot of games in the genre these days. The atmosphere builds upon slow tension and mystery rather than the thrill of a quick scare, which leaves a sense of dread -- especially considering the fact that you play a defenseless toddler. Ever-so-slight changes to the environment occurred from time to time which made me look and think twice if I thought I saw something different or if the looming suspense was playing tricks on me.
Among the Sleep has some interesting level design with elements mixed together to give the areas a dream-like quality, teetering on the edge of fantasy and reality. One level consists of a winding forest full of children’s relics including looming owl sculptures, floating blocks, and an upside-down playhouse. Another takes place within a house that seems normal at first but slowly devolves into a twisted, confusing maze reminiscent of a scene from Labyrinth. Each area is creepy and disturbing in its own right, recalling elements from childhood in a twisted way which sets a disturbing background to the tense gameplay.
Where the game really shines is in its inherent symbolism. Among the Sleep is constantly telling a story through its environment, depictions, and props despite there being little understanding of the direction it is taking, and there being little to no dialogue (with the exception of Teddy comforting you from time to time). It’s a work of art in that respect as the decor and slight changes to the environment can go unnoticed, but they all speak to certain aspects of the plot.
It’s hard to understand what’s going on and where Among the Sleep is leading, but the lack of clarity in the direction actually enhances the storyline and feeds into the innocent nature of the character. The main elements of the story are tied together extremely quickly, almost abruptly, in the end to form a more complete picture. Multiple conclusions can be drawn as the ending is a bit open-ended, but without spoiling too much, I wasn’t a fan of the overall message it sent. This being said, Among the Sleep does a great job telling a story without being overt in its intentions.
Despite the great storytelling mechanics, I can’t help but wish there was a little more to the game. When all was said and done it wrapped up in a handful of hours at most and I was left craving more. It’s especially a let down because the game invents such new ways of thinking about the horror genre, and it left so much to be expanded on. However, I honestly have to applaud the team for delivering a concise and complete story in that amount of time, and one that is so unique to the horror realm at that.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]
Among the Sleep reviewed by Caitlin Cooke
Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth most people's time and cash.
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