In Sound Mind Review – Puzzling Horror
In Sound Mind is the Steam debut of We Create Stuff, who in the past were behind the classic and iconic Half-Life 2 horror total conversion, Nightmare House 2, as well as Portal: The Flash Version, and the map pack for the original Portal inspired by their side-scrolling outing (later marketed as DLC by Valve as Portal: Still Alive). The spiritual sequel to their earlier horror roots is made with equal passion, so read on to learn more about this modding team turned indie superstars!
Digging Deep Into Psychological Puzzles
You are Dr. Desmond Wales, a clinical psychologist way out of his depth. His once-patients each become a major force to be reckoned with on his road to recovering not only from the effects of a government-formulated hallucinatory chemical, but from guilt surrounding events in his personal life. Along the way he’ll come across weapons conventional and esoteric alike, and utilise a series of creative mechanics to solve unique puzzles.
In Sound Mind is a survival horror with a puzzle emphasis – where fighting enemies is about stealth and solving combat challenges, and navigation relies on an ever growing arsenal of creative problem solving weaponry. Puzzle in horror games can often be frustrating and detract from the tension, but In Sound Mind does a great job at keeping navigation simple and learns a lot from the team’s Half-Life 2 days (along with their history in Portal custom maps). With an emphasis on storytelling over horror and jumpscares, it’s a very pleasantly different kind of horror – so let’s dig in to what makes this one special!
Thoughtful Survival Horror
Milton Haven is a town in jeopardy, mired in the depths of a government conspiracy which has claimed more than a few innocent lives – some of whom were the patients of the protagonist. Each has suffered at the hands of Mayer Pharmaceuticals, the company behind the manufacturing of the hallucinogen driving the plot, Agent Rainbow. As the game progresses, you’ll go back over the therapy each of these patients had to undergo and look to resolve the Desmond’s guilt over how he feels he wasn’t able to save them.
In Sound Mind aims for a survival horror experience, pitting you against reasonably challenging enemies with a limited access to supplies in generally dark environments. The monster designs are murky manifestations of the compound driving the game’s narrative and come in three flavours – one which tries to close the distance in melee combat, another which takes potshots from afar, and a third, monstrously-huge variant which presents as a kind of miniboss in a few encounters throughout the latter portions of the game. The player has the option of sneaking around these enemies or taking them out, but dispatching them on Normal (the difficulty I played on for this review) is certainly doable as long as you use your shots wisely. Otherwise, there’s always the mirror shard to rely on – a knife-like weapon which does minimal damage, but saves valuable ammo.
The arsenal of In Sound Mind has a few standard appearances – a pistol, a shotgun, and a flare gun which are all capable of putting down enemies at range – but also a set of other tools that still have combat utility, but are first-and-foremost focused around solving navigational puzzles and supporting the game’s narrative. A radio, for example, can be used to stun some enemies and instantly kill weaker variants, but its primary utility is remote-activating door locks and electrical boxes. Meanwhile, that mirror shard can be looked into and spun around to find items in the environment, both critical and beneficial, as well as identify nearby enemies and even pick out secrets. The flare gun, too, is more than just a red boom stick, since it can dispel unnatural darkness and light up areas of the game where the flashlight isn’t sufficient. Collectible pills around the game can permanently buff the player’s stats, adding value to exploration (I found about half of them even when looking for secrets, so some must be superbly hidden).
The highlights of In Sound Mind are its four “stage bosses”, each representing one of the doctor’s patients. Each is accessed by first locating the tape on which Desmond’s notes were recorded and then going to the place that was the cause of their anguish. The first has you visiting a supermarket that was responsible for the anxiety attacks of a scarred young woman. She’s represented by a wraith that haunts the aisles but fears her own reflection. Then, it’s on to the coast and a lighthouse operated by a man terrified of the dark, who, buried in a pit of his own despair, tries to drag you down with him. After that, it’s on to Mayer Distribution (where Mayer Pharmaceutical’s real plans begin to come to light), managing the raging anger of a man estranged from his wife and daughter, manifesting as a giant, motorised bull skull; and finally, dense jungle obscures the way to answers for Desmond as his only surviving patient is trapped behind the veneer of a radio tower armed with an artillery gun. Each of these stages is rife with personality, and whilst the base game’s enemies populate each area, the bosses are each memorable in design, and very tense to engage.
In Sound Mind’s story ultimately focuses on guilt, mourning, and lost opportunity – as Desmond works out the loss of three of his patients, the failure of a romantic relationship, and the untimely death of his beloved cat, Tonia. The cat is something of a guide throughout the game, providing help and comfort in the wake of particularly troubling events, and though she’s here only in spirit, you can pet her too (so an automatic plus one for having a pettable animal). Desmond’s final confrontation, which I won’t spoil in too much depth for those looking to experience the game themselves, must be with the trouble lurking within, instead of the many conspiracies happening outside.
In Sound Mind is a horror game that really breaks from the norm, with creative tension yet minimal scares. It runs a little opposite to Nightmare House 2, the predecessor of the game, which helped set the standard for a top-notch Half-Life 2 horror experience – so let’s take a look at how far the team has come!
House Of The Undead
Nightmare House 2 is as classic as horror mods come – the first Nightmare House coming out in 2005, not long after Half-Life 2 hit store shelves, and scaring players with a very different approach from Valve’s own horror outings. First making its release in 2010, it had a revised release in 2015 which expanded the visual scope of the game and made it even more of a blast (or rather, a terror) to play. The game was a solid contender for the burgeoning YouTube Lets Play scene of its day, batting with the likes of Cry of Fear, Afraid of Monsters, and the numerous Amnesia: The Dark Descent stories that were coming out even ten-plus years ago.
Similar to Remorse: The List, another modder-made indie we reviewed last year (and the debut commercial title of the folks behind GREY), In Sound Mind is a case of modders taking a genre they’d begun to learn well and learning where to innovate, where to remain in line, and where to channel old lessons to achieve something altogether new. Some of In Sound Mind’s puzzles feel very classic Source, whilst others absolutely leverage the benefits having your own engine and game code can allow. Unlike Nightmare House 2, which wasn’t afraid of using jumpscares and more obvious horror tropes to unsettle players, In Sound Mind is simply very tense and can keep your hairs on end from anticipation of what comes next.
The folks at We Create Stuff are also responsible for Portal: The Flash Version (released before Valve even released their puzzle masterpiece), which was later transformed into an actual Portal map pack. That map pack went on to become Still Alive – and was distributed as real DLC for the console port of Portal. Modding and hobbyist game design is in the blood of these developers, and with decades of experience before their debut, it’s really no wonder that the team’s debut title is already something to behold.
In Sound Mind wades confidently into the commercial scene, a game that at once feels like an old friend and a new acquaintance. It’s chock full of secrets, rife with charm, and visually a feat of art design that has every setpiece earning a corner of memory in the player’s mind. My playthrough clocked in at just shy of nine hours and I didn’t find all collectibles; all levels are replayable to locate missing achievements, though, so completionists and fans of longer experiences alike can scratch that itch without having to start the whole game again. The game ends with a clear call to action – Desmond’s tale is yet to be finished – and we’re excited to see where We Create Stuff puts their talent next.
Now…it’s time to go back to Milton Haven and find the other thirty stat pills hidden just out of view…
Source: Indie DB