It’s not often we get to play as a mute toddler with a creepy talking teddy for a best friend – but that’s exactly what’s on offer in Among the Sleep, a first-person horror from Krillbite Studios.
Players are thrust instantly into the world – there’s no tutorial here, no clear objectives – which reminded us of those famous cold opens in the TV show Rugrats, except here everything’s just… too… perfect. And that makes it utterly disturbing from the off. Things go from unsettling to terrifying shortly after, as the protagonist’s mother disappears, leaving the child to explore the all-American suburban horror house. Luckily you can give your teddy a squeeze and he’ll emit a limited amount of light…
One of Among the Sleep’s genuine pleasures is the total dedication to creating atmosphere. At night the house basks in a cool, blue light, with moonbeams trickling through the windows; every day items of furniture and clothing take on fiendish forms; in the distance a woman hums a haunting melody over and over and over again. Couple all that with the fact that you’re playing as a kid who has no attack moves and stands about two feet tall and, like all good horror games, you’ll feel very vulnerable.
And then things get really weird.
The player and their teddy will travel to different areas which are almost, but not quite, entirely recognisable – an old playhouse where the paint peels acts as a hub, and a festering garden, are the first places you’ll visit. These zones are a lot like the final level of indie game Contrast, where fragments of reality converge in a nightmarish state. And like Contrast, you’ll also stumble across memories of your mother which are collected to unlock new each new zone – a nice touch not only because these black-and-white memories are designed to elicit a ‘WTF?’ but because they also add a little backstory and character to the proceedings.
Throughout all this, there’s another game we’re constantly reminded of: Alien Isolation. Adding tension to the game, the antagonists of the game, a wild-haired female demon and a figure in a trench-coat, stalk the player, forcing them to run, hide and survive, ducking under tables and crawling through tunnels. Because, like the Xenomorph, if they catch you just once you’ll find yourself back at the continue screen (side-note: it’s possibly the most disturbing continue screen in gaming). Trying to avoid this gruesome twosome is a horrifying experience, too, as your vision ripples and blurs, sounds turn to shrieks and your heart beats faster than a Texan freight train.
Among the Sleep is more than a walking simulator – but not by much (we were tempted to call it a crawling simulator). As we said, the game doesn’t hold your hand, it lets you figure out what you’ve got to do and where you’ve got to go. That’s a good thing, particularly for a game like this, because that sense of confusion only adds your paranoia and fear. So mostly you’ll enter a zone, scurry around either by walking or crawling, which is faster, or clambering over the environment until you find a pick-up, set it in place, and venture into the area’s next section.
That brings us to one of the worst aspects of a game that otherwise starts very strong. The controls can be summed up in two words: clunky and unintuitive. Grabbing and moving objects feels like you’re pulling them by an invisible thread. And what’s even worse, this is all done by holding down RB, rather than the standard A button. Even opening a door, which should be a case of pressing the button and letting it open, turns into a frustrating game of push and pull as you drag them into position. Another problem with this is the total lack of feedback – there’s no satisfying click or interesting visual cue so you’re never sure you’ve picked up an item until you try to move it.
If this were all intended to increase immersion, it’s poorly implemented; if it’s a question of pure game design, see previous statement.
Among the Sleep’s controls aren’t the only issue we stumbled across while playing the game. There were points during the opening stage where we would bend down and ended up halfway through the floor, exposing the area beyond the house (nothing but spindly trees and a blue-black void, if you’re interested). This wasn’t an isolated glitch, either. At one point, we found ourselves rooted to the spot – not out of fear but just another glitch that killed our enjoyment, forcing us to reload and replay the whole of the fourth level. It’s flaws like this that make us feel that, despite originally being released in 2014, we’re playing a beta version of the game.
However, we found the true problem with Among the Sleep is a complete lack of gameplay variation. What you do in the initial stage is what you. Ok, we may be being harsh – there is a section where you’re forced to avoid the villain by crawling under bookcases, but outside of that, you’ll only ever walk, grab objects, and place them where they belong. As such, even the fairly brief 3-hour running time can feel a bit of a drag if you’re not too fussed about savouring the atmosphere.
Having said that, the story certainly helps elevate the game. We don’t want to spoil it, but in typical indie games fashion, it’s a little deeper than a lot of video games you’ll play. To say it has a plot twist might be over-selling it, The Usual Suspects this ain’t, but it’s certainly unexpected. That doesn’t mean Among the Sleep’s narrative is not without its faults – it’s pretty basic, for a start – but it has a level of thought attached that makes it worth seeing through to the end.
If we were rating it on atmosphere alone, it’d get a 9/10; if we were rating it on gameplay, it’s lucky to get 4/10. And ultimately, Among the Sleep makes for a nice concept, not entirely well-executed, but worth a shot if you dig on the fear factor. The real power of Among the Sleep lies in your mind. It’s what you thought you saw, it’s what you didn’t quite hear… Like a toddler, you’ll let your imagination run away with you in what amounts to a spooky, adult version of your favourite children’s book.
Among the Sleep releases on Xbox One on 3 June – pick it up from the Xbox Store.
An atmospheric horror game that never quite reaches its terrifying potential.
Pros: Among the Sleep has an unsettlingly grotesque art style that’ll keep horror gaming fans very happy. Mix in a genuinely dark and depressing storyline and a half-measure of chilling gameplay highlights that will give you nightmares.
Cons: The game controls aren’t fluid enough to give the player true agency. The gameplay itself is repetitive, despite a short run time. By the time you’re at the later levels, the novelty is fast wearing off.