If there’s one theme for a game which is guaranteed to make me sit up and take a deeper look it’s exploring the ruins of a lost civilization. Level designers have become absolute geniuses at creating gigantic silent wind-blown halls or crumbling pyramids, wind whistling through the shattered stonework.
Once the stage is set, the game-play designers weave a wondrous path for us to piece together the civilization’s final days. We open long-sealed chambers, work out the logic of lost scientific arts, leaping pits and traps over beds of blood soaked spikes. We might even re-animate archaic machinery, meet the ancients, or learn from decayed holographic recordings. I could rattle off the names of games which have inspired me this way; Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Colossus, Prince of Persia, The Ball, Myst, and many many more.
One feature unites them all: They’re all first or third person ground-based games, with the protagonist climbing, pushing, leaping and swapping bags of sand for golden crowns… That is, until I read about the new Indie game from a young studio Polyknight Games called Inner Space.
It describes itself as an “Open World” game (which I find funny for reasons which will become apparent), with all that relic-hunting we’ve come to know and love from other games, but experienced by soaring through an alien sky.
Inner Space started life as a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014 by a fresh-faced and enthusiastic team of students led by Tyler Tomaseski. Anyone who’s funded a game on Kickstarter will be unsusprised to learn that the game finally arrived on Steam slightly different to the original pitch and a good two and a bit years after its original estimate of October 2015, finally releasing in January 2018.
This is a long review, so you can skip to the tl;dr at the bottom if you like.
The universe of the Inverse
Looking up into the heavens while standing on the outer surface of the Earth, our universe can be seen to be mostly empty. Only about a 42 sextilionth of a percent of the volume is taken up by stuff, the rest is all the space in between. But imagine a universe where it was the other way around… That space wasn’t a vacuum, but filled with ‘stuff’, and the habitable worlds were actually hollow bubbles within the fabric of this universe of stuff. Welcome to the worlds of Inner Space.
Throughout those worlds, a stream of energy flows, fluttering flags and whipping up waves. Aeons ago, a miniature sun formed in one of the bubbles. Its warmth and light breathed life into it, and the civilization of the Ancients was born. They learned to harness the energy and gave it a name; wind. They found ways to use the energy to build great feats of engineering, light new suns and forge new materials. They gave a name to this inside-out universe; they called it the Inverse; (a nice play on the word Universe with everything ‘in’, also being the very inverse of our own universe).
But for all their power, they couldn’t prevent the catastrophe that was to befall them.
The fall of the Ancients
In all their time, the ancients were able to channel the vast wind energy to reach four other such hollow worlds, extending their civilisation out into them, but they were still restless. At the very height of their civilisation they attempted their most daring feat. They collected and harnessed vast amounts of wind for one grand venture, and then they fell silent, leaving but a scant handful of survivors.
After many eons, the once all-powerful ‘wind’ is in short supply. The last descendants have slowly died out leaving one final inhabitant of the Inverse, an archaeologist. With nothing left to lose, he makes one final throw of the dice and uses the last piece of irreplaceable technology to reanimate an ancient AI cartography drone to help him extend his research one last time, which is where you come in.
The mythology, as well as instructions and observations are told to you in the form of text which scrolls along the bottom of the screen with a clippy-cloppy sound that punctuates each letter that appears, lending the game a whimsical, casual air. It feels as if it was deliberately “cartoonified” to appeal to the Switch players.
The story itself is actually gripping, resonating with the wonderful fall of the D’Ni of Myst, but I was a little disappointed in how it was conveyed. Some of the lore is told a little clumsily, with details omitted that could have given it far deeper power and meaning. It’s a shame really, and one of many missed opportunities for a ‘quick win’ (text is cheap!).
As the game begins, your AI routines are booting, you begin to learn of your surroundings, and it’s time to start exploring. Unfortunately for your creator, who is confined to a submarine which can travel via underwater passages, most objects which require collection for study are high in the sky where only an airborne drone can reach, which is why he needs you.
Your task is to go and locate as many clues and pieces of technology for him as you can, by soaring the inverted skies of the spheres.
Your ‘airframe’ is a fairly Heath Robinson affair of wood and canvas, the best the archaeologist could put together by himself from scraps and diagrams. The flight controls are relatively simple, being the standard yaw/pitch/roll/faster/slower, and your first task to learn the flight dynamics is to find a way to escape the rocky waterlogged cavern where your AI and frame were discovered.
Soon your prowess is put to the test as you emerge into the first open ‘world’. You discover the ancient network of ‘perches’ that allowed the ancients’ drones to land and use them examine your surroundings. You’re also granted the ability to ‘drift’ which effectively switches off your engine, turning you into an unguided missile with the ability to rotate.
When the drift is cancelled, the ‘frame leaps forward in whatever direction it was rotated towards. Mastery of the drifting technique is paramount to exploring and searching the switchbacks and canyons of the ancient structures.
Each of the airframes has different capabilities, modeled by the in-game selection menu. Some are fast as a bullet, some are slower, some are better (or worse) under water, and some are just superbly nimble. Pleasingly, no single airframe is ‘best’ in all situations. Zipping around for the love of flying is superb in the Zephyr, but studious collecting of relics is best done with the Piano or the woodwind frames.
If you’re familiar with the “toy” physics of games like Slipstream 5000, Airfix Dogfighter, Powerdrome or Dogfighter, you’ll instantly take to the flight simulation in Inner Space. It’s not trying to recreate Flight Simulator X, far from it, it’s designed to be relaxed and fun.
With augmented-axis flight games, I usually use Descent and Descent: Freespace as my yardstick, their 6-DOF flying freedom set a very high bar. Inner Space is possibly the closest I’ve yet come to that exhilaration of jinking and juking among the jagged spires of the alien dreadnought in Descent: Freespace! If you love barnstorming or stuntman-like flybys of scenery, Inner Space has this in spades!
Saying that, you can leave the canyons and buildings behind to swoosh about the sky leaving long streamers of vapour. Doing so, the experience becomes supremely relaxing, coupled with the lovely ambient sounds and (mostly) serene music. I found myself just skimming the water, and hot-dogging around the legs of buildings, just for the thrill of the flight.
Like the flight into the Death Star in Return of the Jedi, you’ll be careening through right-angled-turns, blasting through walls and glass, spinning and strafing to stay away from obstacles. I spent many an hour zig-zagging my way, bouncing off tight corners, and careening into stalactites in twisting complex caverns.
Sometimes it’s great fun, but often it’s a loud, annoying wrenching of the stick to get control back. The uniform colour of subterranean and submarine tunnels can lead to disorientation due to lack of any discernable ‘direction’, but a few seconds of bouncing around usually gets you pointed the way you need to go. The ability to go a lot slower would have been appreciated.
I play using my trusty Thrustmaster T-Flight HOTAS-X. I also tried a Logitech game-pad, which was okay, but the thumb-sticks felt too twitchy, especially in the last level where precise aiming is required. So, I’d strongly recommend a joystick or HOTAS with a ‘twist’ axis for yawing.
Learning from past mistakes
As you explore, your AI chimes and resonates when close to ancient relics. Collecting them allows you to examine, reassemble and perhaps even benefit from the knowledge they contain once returned to your creator.
For most relics there are no benefits to returning them, few grant any new data beyond describing the environment and its creatures. Slightly illogically, YOU perform the ‘examination’ process when you first discover the relic, not after the archaeologist has interpreted it. Although the ‘results’ are returned to you, you’ve already done the research yourself! I feel it would have been more logical for the relics to be simple grayed-out inventory items until returned to the archaeologist for study, and THEN you can examine them.
Some of the relics are hidden down twisty complex passages (all alike), or hidden down tunnels whose entrances are nigh-on-impossible to spot unless you’re searching for them. I’m a die-hard completionist, and it kills me that I’ve spent upwards of five hours searching and still haven’t found the final few relics; they might tell me more of the lore I so dearly want to learn!
Perches are the only place you can ‘stop’, and they’re often positioned in nice scenic locations to view big stuff. Sadly, they’re little use for searching, so you have to be pretty good at drifting and strafing in order to search about, because you’re always on the move.
The Inverse is a wondrous place, filled with megaflora, bizarre creatures and a strange ethereal physics which sort-of makes sense in a “fine, I’ll go with it for now, but I want a decent explanation later” sort of way. As a backdrop for a game, it allows a steady progression from a dull brown wet cave up to the tallest towers of a wondrous world and then on to bizarre places where nature has taken over and the rules are nothing like the world you and I know.
It is within this other-realm that you discover the ancients’ final mistake and need to choose whether to proceed with the experiment that the ancients themselves feared to execute. It could mean the end of everything; do you learn from their mistakes, or forge ahead and make your own?
A civilisation, ruined
There’s no doubt about it, Inner Space is a very good-looking game. The designers have drawn on a specific set of palettes to create a series of unique and stunning artificial worlds complete with miniature mountain ranges, seas, caverns, tunnels and spires filled with amazingly constructed buildings.
The graphics are largely big chunky buildings with complex folded terrain which curves up and around the ‘floor’. The textures are understated, drawing from dulled blue and brown tones, lending the game a mournful feel, while remaining enigmatic and endearing. Later levels draw on purples and pinks to highlight the change of scenery.
The game doesn’t make clear who started the turn of events which brought down the civilisation, but you soon discover who ended it. However time has been as unkind to your ancestors’ foes as it was for your ancestors, and they’re not as hostile to you as you’d expect.
As the final living things in the Inverse, rather than defeat them, you have the chance to mend old wounds and help them. Each is a unique puzzle requiring trial-and-error, persistence and nifty flying. In this regard, it’s like a very distant cousin to the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus, with less climbing and heartwrenching death. This is another area where Inner Space slightly missed a trick, in my opinion… Tugging the player’s heart strings is never a bad thing, and the enemies could have been fleshed out better to trigger the player’s sympathy.
You’re not completely alone, though. As you reawaken each world, and discover its secrets, you are granted companions who “grow fond of you” and can be picked up at an island in the Sunchamber. A wonderful idea, which nicely gels with the game’s lore, it seems to be squandered since they have absolutely no usefulness whatsoever. It would be great if they helped in your quest, or you were able to “rescue” them at the end, but no. In the sunchamber they remain while you go off and leave them…
The sound of the underground
The game’s music is odd to say the least. For the most part it’s a series of jangly jarring bell-like sounds, with the occasional other electronic sound overlaid on top. The music changes based on your world, and changes when transitioning from air to water and back again. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed it. I only ended up turning it down later so I could hear the relics better.
As a contrast, the ambient level-sound design is excellent. Wind rushes through all of the caverns, whipping up water, whistling through gaps and flapping banners. As you fly around, all of these combine into a wonderful experience that reminds me of Ico or Shadow of the Colossus’ brilliant soundscape. Skimming close to surfaces throws up plumes of dust or sand, and you hear the whooshing of your engine echoing back at you. The sounds of the various options being toggled is also very well done, and gives a really nice audible feedback for your flying, especially the “dive” feature.
Despite many minutes of tinkering and directing the sound through my Realtek and Creative sound cards I could not seem to get the game to play in surround sound, instead only kicking out stereo. Being able to don surround headphones and whoosh over the waves would have been wonderful, and perhaps helped to locate relics, but this might be something specific to my PC.
By and large, the sounds of the airframes as they fly through the air are the sounds you’ll hear most frequently: From the flapping of the canvas on your first frame, the tinkling of the ‘piano’ frame, or the professional hum of the Spark. They’re all pleasing and different to anything you’ll have heard before.
As you transition between worlds, or in and out of the sea, the game has some prescripted little sequences which all have unique and space-filling sounds. Leaping from the water and spreading your wings feels epic when you do it just right and get a burst of speed.
The good with the bad (bear with me)…
OK, before I say anything else, let me say this: to play this game you really do need good spacial awareness and not get motion sickness or vertigo in flight games. The Inverse is a spectacularly complex place, delightfully designed, with nooks and crannies which must be searched at all kinds of angles and speeds.
To explore the open skies of Inner Space is to know the joy of feeling flight like a raptor. In tight spaces, however, even the slowest airframe gives you only a few seconds to orient yourself before a wall-player-impact-event occurs. You WILL end up spinning and zooming about like a drunken wasp, so strong stomach and good grasp of direction helps!
The graphics are the game’s finest attribute, with superbly animated explosions, gorgeous flocks of lights, wonderful ethereal realms of will-o-the-wisps, glowing plants and underwater gardens. I’d really love to play this in VR with surround sound.
There are occasions where the action being portrayed is let down a little by the 3d modelling of the action, leading to jerky unrealism and a more cartoonish Double-Fine-like feel, so don’t expect a perfect simulation! Similarly, the lore-telling could have been done in a more elegant way to add to the immersion and pathos.
Surprisingly, absolute darkness isn’t used as a mechanic. Your ‘frame does have spotlights on the front, but everywhere is brightly lit, so they’re mostly useless. So no searching dark caverns for secrets!
If I’m being brutally honest, a lot of the game just feels like it could have had more things for the player to interact with. There’s certainly the space for a lot of hidden set pieces, but by and large the world is a beautiful, but empty space to play in.
When I reached the end of the game, I was strongly reminded of the sudden flip that happens in Half Life when you leave Black Mesa and enter the world of Xen. The concepts being visualised make little sense, leading to more questions than answers.
That might not necessarily be a bad thing; after all wonder is caused by taking the player out of the realm of the familiar, but it did make me wonder if the designers had run out of ideas and just went for the “weird” option.
With all its little niggles, the game is actually really good, so long as you’re pretty handy with a flightstick and enjoy hidden-object archaeology. I feel that some reviews have been overly harsh on Inner Space, comparing it to Abzu or other walking simulators. It’s very a different game to Abzu, despite the two being priced identically, so a shallow comparison on price vs. gameplay alone might favour Abzu over Inner Space, but certainly wouldn’t cast Inner Space in a bad light. I get the impression that the reviewers were frustrated by the inability to hover, and the lack of filler material, such as side-quests, which is understandable.
In summary (tl;dr)
I really enjoyed the majority of this game and would have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who likes flying, with the caveats given above. It’ll probably give between 7 and 9 hours of gameplay, perhaps more if you aim for 100% achievement completion, which could be considered a hair on the short side for a game retailing at £15.
Those hours will be filled with a lot of hunting for hidden paths and objects, while figuring out gigantic machinery in expertly crafted weird and wonderful environments. There’s no combat per se, and you can’t die, so by and large, it’s a very relaxed experience, but may be frustrating due to the complexity of the environments and lack of mapping features. Once the game is complete, there’s nothing to stop you returning to the Inverse for a spot of wave-skimming and nap-of-the-earth flying, or to achieve 100%.
It’s a slightly flawed gem designed for players who love aerial acrobatics while also enjoying just the thrill of soaring through an alien sky uncovering ancient mysteries. It’s not a thrill-a-minute ride of excitement, but more of an enigmatic sojourn, a feast for the eyes and ears, punctuated by a lot of crashing into things.
If it piques your interest, and you fancy exploring the mysteries of the Inverse, you can find the game on PC at the link below, as well as on Nintendo Switch: