Desmond Wales, a psychologist living in the small coastal town of Milford Haven, will soon come face to face with his own mental anguish. As his patients begin dying in a string of seemingly unrelated deaths, Desmond starts to spiral out of control and lose touch with reality. Determined to uncover the true nature of their passing and gain control over his sanity, he delves deeper into the darkness of his own mind to find the light.
While not quite a horror game by traditional standards, “In Sound Mind” still has an interesting story to tell.
The game takes place within Desmond’s apartment building, which is crumbling apart as his sanity declines. This building serves as both the tutorial area and later a hub where players can recuperate after each level. It is also where the game presents doorways into the minds of Desmond's past patients. Exploring these rooms helped me learn a bit about the patients and recover the audio tape recordings of their therapy sessions. These tapes serve as the gateways into different levels of the game.
These tapes each house their own unique world, representative of the struggles and experiences of the patient they are associated with. Each tape offers its own unique puzzle themes and horror encounters. I found the level design and scenery to work well, though the game did tend to hold my hand through a lot of the puzzles.
It wasn’t very satisfying to finish a puzzle in mere seconds because there was a note on the ground that told me the exact instructions, nor was it great to have the protagonist blurt out obvious instructions. It felt like the developers had no confidence in my problem solving abilities. In spite of this, traversing the environments was still enjoyable, due to the differences in locales as well as each area having its own incredibly designed boss. One of my favorites was a large mechanical skeleton with a searchlight for a head who tracks you through a dark forest.
On the topic of enemy encounters, I have to bring up my biggest gripe. The combat in this game feels boring, and I can’t help but think the developers either needed to go all-in on the action, or completely scrap it in favor of horror, but instead they took the middle ground. The weapons are pretty basic and don’t feel that impactful against the enemies. At no point did I feel like fighting the enemies in the game enriched the experience; instead it felt more like a roadblock that I was forced to push through.
In a horror game like “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” enemies are grotesque and are present to fill the player with dread because they are defenseless against them. In a more action-oriented horror such as “Alan Wake,” the enemies are interesting to engage with, and there are unique ways of dealing with them as they relentlessly hunt you down. “In Sound Mind” doesn’t fit either of these descriptions when it comes to combat, and the developers could have done more to improve it.
Boss fights are an exception to this, mainly because they don’t involve weapons to defeat them. Bosses are the mental manifestation of Desmond’s patients — and, instead of fighting them, you seek to soothe their mind. Oftentimes you need to solve environmental puzzles or find sly ways to wear them down. This type of approach to enemy design and encounters felt much better, likely due to the bosses each having their own personalities and interactions.
Another thing worth mentioning is the bugs and glitches I encountered. The game ran pretty smoothly up until the third level, Max’s Tape. I experienced numerous crashes and framerate dips throughout this level, mostly due to the large boss who follows you around in this area. Similar problems came up during the following level as well, however to a smaller degree. There were a couple instances where I got stuck behind or between objects and had to reload a save. By the end of the game, these issues subsided, but I think they are worth mentioning, especially if you are playing the game on older hardware.
I don’t believe this game is a traditional horror game because, while there are certainly creepy and unsettling themes, the game doesn’t always take itself seriously. There are small jokes littered throughout the environments, and some of the things Desmond says are a bit out of the ordinary at times. When eating food to heal, for example, sometimes he will quip and say “nom.” At another point I was able to highfive a mannequin with a comical slap noise, which while funny was a bit strange.
I actually came to enjoy the witty moments, but did find it jarring at times after I laughed at something in the game and remembered I was supposed to be playing a psychological horror. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad thing, rather it’s actually quite interesting how they managed to pull it off without seeming totally ridiculous. If you’re going into this expecting a gritty and dark horror experience, it isn’t there. Yet if you are willing to give a non-traditional horror game a chance, I still believe there is an interesting story and world to explore.