Nightmare House is certainly a name that brings back memories. I played that way back in 2010 and, 11 years later, it still stands out as a memorable first-person shooter that managed to genuinely frighten me. So of course when I saw the folks behind it made In Sound Mind, alongside having music from The Living Tombstone, I had to pick it up.
Developed by We Create Stuff and published by Modus Games, In Sound Mind launches September 28th, 2021 for PC via Steam.
Something Terrible is Going Down
In Sound Mind covers the story of Desmond Wales, a psychiatrist trapped in an otherworldly version of the apartment complex housing his office. He is seeking answers in the cases of his previous patients, all of whom took a drastic turn for the worse. Transported to the scenes of their breakdowns, he re-explores what they went through, and along the way pieces together the common thread tying their tales together.
What really struck me is the WAY the writing is presented. Horror stories, and especially psychological horror stories, tend to take themselves very seriously. They are cerebral matters of the mind delving deep into the harrowing depths of humanity, so of course everything must be high art couched in metaphor and seventeen different levels of allegory. “Not so,” says In Sound Mind, presenting with a story that’s not afraid to have fun with the idea. If we were to compare it to horror movies, this is less trying to win the Cannes Film Festival and more relishing in being a B-movie popcorn muncher.
Your primary antagonist is a mysterious agent that enjoys calling you on random phones just to childishly tease you, and so many times you’re given a jump scare and it is played for laughs. One extremely notable one has you going down a narrow passage to a door. It’s locked, because of course it is. You turn around and there’s a creepy mannequin standing right behind you, and naturally you jump. Creepy mannequins moving behind you worked in Nightmare House 2 and it certainly works here too. But… what’s that in his hand? A key for the door you need. You take it, unlock the door, grab what you need, and on the way out, the mannequin is on a bench giving you a thumbs up. This is but one example of the MANY times you’re given a scare and the game just laughs and says “Gotcha!”
Of course, in the end this is still a horror game, and the humor is more slasher film camp than full blown comedy. Just as often the threat is real, to keep you on your toes, and it does dive into the trauma these patients experienced. On that note, I will say I definitely appreciate having the mentally ill portrayed as human individuals undergoing trauma, rather than the dehumanized portrayal we so often see in media. It’s not perfect – the resolution to each patient’s arc feels a little simplistic sometimes – but I can’t exactly praise the game for not taking things too seriously and then criticize it for not taking things seriously now can I? It did well with the tone it was trying to set.
The World is Being Torn Apart
As someone who lived through that period of gaming, the lineage of Half-Life inspiration that the developers began with can truly be felt. In Sound Mind is a first-person shooter, but with an emphasis on exploring the 3D environment and solving puzzles more than actually shooting.
Oh, there are enemies, but they’re mostly there to have something unpleasant to greet you with in a trap, rather than as the main piece. Of the whopping seven “weapons” you can use, only one of them I felt was primarily for shooting monsters, and it’s an optional weapon at that. The rest could certainly be used to fight back but were mostly useful for how they interacted with the environment. I’m even including the pistol there, because boy howdy does this game put exploding barrels front and center.
The game itself is divided up into the central hub of the apartment complex, and then the individual levels accessed by the patient’s taped sessions. Each level takes place in its own unique environment, but more importantly they also all manage to feel different in how they play. Your overall goal is the same: explore the level, find keys and notes, do puzzles, and work your way up to the final climax with the boss. But the way each level is structured and the manner in which the bosses fight gives each level a unique feel, in spite of using the same tool kit.
Speaking of the bosses, they’re one of the biggest draws in my opinion. Now, the showdown at the end of each level is typically not super involved, but what makes the bosses exciting is how they show up WELL before then. You’ll meet every one of them shortly into the level and then they’ll be a constant presence throughout. You can drive them off temporarily, but not for good until the level is over.
Each of them acts in particular ways that serve as more storytelling into each patient’s trauma and breakdown and also make each encounter unique. To use two very extreme examples, one encourages an almost stealthy approach of keeping an eye out for it in reflections and avoiding loud noises that would alert it, while another is extremely persistent and requires attacking it until it leaves you alone for a few brief seconds so you can do a puzzle. The others are similarly unique, their actions serving to set the tone and sub-genre of the level. Still a first-person shooter in terms of controls, still a psychological horror in terms of tone, but each an exploration on what can be done with the theme.
What a Terrifying Work of Art
I love everything about the presentation here. They truly went all out in making each area feel truly distinct from each other, not just in the base appearances but in all the little ways like lighting or how open the spaces are.
Each stage is a different take on what’s spooky, what traumas can be explored, where might someone have absolutely reached their limit. I feel like I’ve been repeating this point a lot, but all the variety didn’t just keep things from going stale, it also represented an excellent breadth of talent for the designers.
Just as noteworthy is the soundtrack brought to life by The Living Tombstone. Known for their many songs across various fandoms, most of the tracks are understated bits of background instruments and percussion that set the tone without really being noticed, but even then we have the choice of instruments helping define each patient’s realm.
Where they truly go all out is with the unlockable vinyl records for each character’s theme, a full fledged vocal track where getting to listen is your just reward for finding it. Special shoutout to “Bottom of the Pit” which has been playing on loop in my head all week.
I’m Howling at the Moon
In Sound Mind feels like a call back to yesteryear, in a good way. A style of game design not often seen these days, more of a niche title but one that hits that niche VERY well. It’s easily the best psychological horror game I’ve ever reviewed here, and the amount of polish and sheer heart help it stand out even outside of the niche.
Above all else, In Sound Mind is fun. The horror and melancholy of what’s going on in the plot is balanced out by light-hearted camp, the levels are all interwoven exploration puzzles where a new tool invariably makes you realize several new areas you can discover, it’s all so easy to just get lost for hours and hours until next thing you know it’s 3AM.
Review copy provided by Modus Games for PC. Screenshots provided by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Modus Games.