Developer: PolyKnight Games
Played on: PC
Release Date: January 16, 2018
Played with: Xbox 360 Controller
Paid: $0 (Key provided for review)
Exploration. Discovery. These are terms which frequently find themselves thrown around when a game stimulates any sense of curiosity. And yet, they tend to be ancillary features in whichever game they appear in. Exploring the open worlds of Assassin’s Creed or Breath of the Wild is certainly a way to pass the time in each game, but they’re not the focus; there are quests to complete, baddies to hunt down, and so forth.
Along comes InnerSpace: a game which almost immediately put me in mind of titles like Journey and ABZÛ – not just because of their similar aesthetics, but because of their central focus on exploration above all else. Of course, there’s still an underpinning narrative that seeks to take you from point A to point B, but there’s no sense of urgency to it. InnerSpace’s premise – that you’re an “airframe” known as Cartographer (“Cart” for short) seeking out the relics of an ancient civilization – evolves with all the urgency of a real-life archaeological expedition. There are no timers and no enemies; the only real threat is that of destroying Cart against some wall, and even that practically requires you to try to crash.
That all being said, InnerSpace does a great job of avoiding one of the big problems frequently levelled at similar titles: that there’s no real gameplay. While death isn’t any sort of threat, piloting Cart still requires more than just maxing out the throttle and occasionally rolling. Finding all the relics you need requires exploring both air and sea, and Cart can transform with a button press to accommodate each environment. There are also plenty of tight tunnels to traverse, and becoming proficient enough with the controls to safely navigate them at full speed is a thrill. Additionally, you can reveal hidden passages by cutting objects with your wings (something that never lost its lustre) and smashing through weakened walls, ensuring that there are plenty of secrets to discover, even after the credits roll. Unlockable frames round out the package of collectibles, though I found myself sticking with the earliest one – the versatile Piano Frame – for most of the experience.
Where I think InnerSpace runs into some issues is with its overall design. While I can appreciate wanting to encourage exploration and discovery, InnerSpace frequently borders on the obtuse. Immediately after starting the game, you’re bombarded with a litany of proper nouns, such as “Wind”, “Ancients”, and “Inverse”. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be a big deal to not know what the hell’s going on at the start of a game; however, that usually requires there to be some meaningful gameplay to carry the experience in the meantime. Instead, my first few hours with InnerSpace boiled down to “Okay, I’m relaxed, but what am I doing?” I did eventually gain a handhold on the story at play, which involved some rather interesting lore about the legacy of a lost civilization. Unfortunately, the confused sensation never fully dissipated as the game reached its conclusion, with areas frequently boiling down to “fly around until you see something glowing, then do stuff with it until something happens”.
The fact that such a laser focus is placed on exploration only compounds this issue. Don’t get me wrong: I love the world design of InnerSpace. Flying around what amounts to the insides of planets is a fascinating idea, and it does an excellent job of making each area feel open while also integrating organic boundaries; no invisible walls here. It also leads to some truly impressive landscapes, as the entirety of each world sprawls before Cart while simultaneously curling up to encase the frame.
The problem is that Cart does a horrible job of living up to its namesake; despite its lead boasting a name that literally means “map maker”, InnerSpace doesn’t have a map of any sort. Now, I understand that it would be challenging to create maps for areas as unique as InnerSpace’s; that doesn’t mean it couldn’t – and shouldn’t – have been done. In part because of its unique landscape layout, the terrain in each of InnerSpace’s worlds feels internally indistinct; in other words, while each is clearly separate from the other locales, there’s little to delineate the different areas within. Even landmarks don’t do much to help, as you’re frequently approaching areas from all manner of angles. Unless you want to constantly fly back to some set point and reorient yourself, be prepared to fly around an area aimlessly before finally realizing that what you want is on the other side of the map.
Despite these qualms, InnerSpace is still a pleasant little game to curl up with on a cold winter’s day. Completing its main story won’t take you all that long, but seeking out all the relics and airframes after the fact certainly adds to the available playtime. Plus, playing for the spectacle of it all – the impressive worlds, fluid flight/swim controls and transitions, and daunting demigods that watch over your journey – is an adventure in its own right. Let the appealing aesthetic draw you in, and then allow InnerSpace to show you what wonders lie beneath the surface.