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In Between Review – A Happy Ending For A Dying Man

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I think we can all agree that video games have covered a staggering number of different topics and genres. Yet despite this abundance of digital creativity, there are still very few titles based on topics we find uncomfortable to talk about, or consider ‘taboo’. This is where In Between immediately stands out, choosing to tackle two ‘uncomfortable’ topics: ‘death’ and ‘cancer’. I know that death appears in pretty much every video game ever, but In Between is one of those rare titles that takes the reality of death (versus the “I didn’t press the quick-time button fast enough” death) and forces you to really think about it, while embarking on an emotional and enjoyable story of a dying man.

Developed by Gentlymad and Headup Games, In Between is described as “close to being a serious game while still maintaining the immersions and excitement of the entertaining side of gaming” – this means that the mature topics it covers may not sit well with all players, but if you can get past that (and you’re well stocked with tissues) it’s a challenging and emotional journey of a dying man trying to make sense of life and death.  Despite never smoking a cigarette in his life, the protagonist is diagnosed with fatal lung cancer. With only a little time left, he travels through his own memories in an attempt to understand why his life has been cut short.  The long tutorial begins with you wheeling our patient through the hospital in a wheelchair, using the traditional WASD keys. After reaching the end of the corridor, you’re transported to the first of 5 chapters, each one representing a different stage of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Each contains unique mechanics and is accompanied by a voiceover narration of the patient’s life.

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In Between is a platformer so you can expect to solve lots of puzzles in order to get to the glowing doorway at the end of each level. What makes this game so interesting is how you traverse the levels: by manipulating gravity. While the WASD keys control your characters movement, the arrow keys manipulate gravity so that you can walk on the walls and ceiling, and it’s a necessity to master this manipulation in order to reach the end of the level. It doesn’t take long to get used to navigating some of the easier mazes, and this gravity manipulation is further used to shift obstacles and platforms in later levels. Theoretically it’s all pretty easy, but the reality of playing In Between is something quite different. I’m not going to lie: In Between is a pretty hard game. Even the ‘easier’ tutorial levels are difficult and require a high level of concentration: the walls and roof are lined with spikes, and even brushing one will cause our patient to shatter into glass and restart the level. As you progress through the stages of grief the game steadily becomes more difficult and complex, adding moving platforms and blocks designed to make your experience hell. Additionally the chapters feature unique mechanics, such as an encroaching darkness (representing fear) that can only be stopped temporarily by facing it. See what I mean by challenging? While the levels are difficult to complete, they are doable and you wouldn’t believe the sense of achievement you get from completing each chapter!

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I’ve already said that In Between is a mature and serious game, and this is reflected in the art style. The hand-painted levels have a design similar to a dark graphic novel, featuring heavy shades of brown, grey and black. It’s not surprising since death isn’t a happy topic. It’s not all gloom and doom though, as the levels are frequently punctuated by memories and happy moments, which contrast with bright colours. These often appear through cracks or breaks in the wall, and help give you a deeper understanding of the character. It’s these parts that help to remind you you’re not simply playing a platform game: you’re playing through a dying man’s last moments, seeing somebody’s life in highlights. It’s beautiful and a little sad at the same time…

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I’ve mentioned it a few times before, but In Between is quite difficult (for a platformer game). The levels feature no checkpoints, so every death means having to start over from the beginning of that level, and often you’ll find yourself dying multiple times on a single level because you slightly misjudged an angle. This gets quite frustrating after a while, especially with some of the more challenging levels, and may end up putting off players who are easily frustrated. It’s definitely worth struggling through though, if you’ve got time and a lot of patience.

In Between is a rare title. I say it’s rare because it was both incredibly sad and enjoyable, providing a higher level of challenge than most platform games I’ve played in a while. I love the hand-painted art style, and it’s great to see the levels evolve and change as the protagonist progresses through the different stages of grief. On top of all this, the simple controls contrast nicely with the rapidly increasing difficulty levels. It’s the perfect title for players looking for a platformer with bite.

In Between is currently available on Steam for £8.99/$13.88, and you can also check out a demo before you fully commit, for free! (Trust me, you won’t regret it) It will also be coming to iOS and Android devices in Q4 2015 and to next generation consoles Q1 2016, so keep an eye out for the exact release dates.

This review of In Between was completed on PC.