Does Krillbite Studio‘s first-person horror adventure Among the Sleep: Enhanced Edition offer enough nightmares for adults or does it work as a sleeping pill for Halloween?
Among the Sleep: Enhanced Edition (PC)
(Norway 2017, developer/publisher: Krillbite Studio, platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch)
A baby celebrates its second birthday with his mother, but after she disappears, the toddler has to find her again with his trusty teddybear Teddy without getting caught by something lurking in the dark.
Nightmares are an integral part of horror movies and games, but it’s rare to see them from a child’s perspective. There are certainly experiments like The Babadook in movies (not that great) or Fran Bow in games (really great), but experiencing it in first-person is something quite unique. The creepiness comes from walking or rather crawling in the dark, hearing indistinguishable sounds and seeing shadows that are not only children’s fears, but a primeval fear that has kept humanity alive for a very long time, like the horror genre itself. However, the game doesn’t simply deal unknown darkness or a monster that stalks the baby, but with something that is more rooted in reality and deconstructs the happy family image.
Story progression on all fours or twos with plush
By looking at child drawings/scrawlings or listening to sound bites from the past in addition to finding memories of the mother that have to be connected, the family’s story is slowly revealed. However, there are some parts of it that aren’t fully explained, e.g. the relationship between the child and Teddy. The cute teddybear is used as an emotional vehicle that can guide the child through the dark by serving as a actual light source if one hugs him. Calling the story development suspenseful would go too far, as there isn’t much to get excited about, with only a few unsettling set-pieces breaking the monotony of the level design. So even if mature topics are discussed and there’s something intriguing about exploring a house on four or two legs, there isn’t a lot to keep the player going.
Exploring dreams or nightmares
Despite the lofty narrative goals, the game and level design don’t match the ideas. Picking up keys or objects to open doors, moving chairs to reach door handles or pulling drawers to climb up higher places becomes as repetitive as one imagines it, while physics-based puzzles are even worse due to some terrible throwing mechanics for hitting a bottle, for example. The levels try to be varied with changing environments like the house or a creepy wood, but except for a dream-like cottage in the middle of nowhere and drawers looking insurmountably big from a child’s perpective, the levels aren’t particularly imaginative. A much bigger problem is how one traverses them, as the first-person perspective causes nausea ad infinitum.
Rarely has there been a game that triggers motion sickness like this game, although Layers of Fear: Inheritance comes very close to the feeling. Wobbling along with one’s virtual head turning slightly left and right or up and down will force a lot of people playing in short bursts or even briefly closing their eyes when the camera goes haywire during climbing sections. While crawling is an option (and is also faster), it doesn’t prevent motion sickness. It’s certainly a neat feature to have the player fall down after running for a short while, as it’s realistic for babies trying to walk, but it doesn’t improve the gameplay.
Escaping a dreadful thing
While the title can’t be compared to survival horror games like the twisted Silent Hill or Clock Tower games because of the missing combat and gore, evading something sinister still becomes an essential part, and it’s one that is as frustrating as the platforming/climbing sections. As the game only automatically saves and it’s often not clear where the monster turns up next, it’s more a case of trial and error where to go and how much time one loses if one isn’t fast enough. Hiding under the bed, in a tree trunk or behind cupboards might work in the context, but it’s not really an exciting gameplay element, just a very frustrating one. Circumnavigating bottles without making a sound and alarming the monster is another example of how the first-person perspective prevents the player from actually seeing what he or she is doing due to the limited viewpoint.
No baby art and sounds
The graphics offer very good character designs and artful paintings, and the use of lights and shadows add to atmosphere, although the levels are something of a mixed bag when it comes to details. Some, like the house, look impressive with the use of warm colors, while the sections in the wood vary between dull and acceptable. Sound design plays a much bigger and better role, as voice acting is excellent and the creepy sound effects, together with the music that is a strange combination of synth tunes and noises, create a surreal atmosphere, especially when everything suddenly goes silent in some scenes. It’s definitely not on par with something like Little Nightmares, but the sound design somehow compensates for some of the graphical deficiencies.
The Enhanced Edition includes a free DLC story that works as a prequel and is a bit different from the main game, as it only plays in one location, the house. One again takes control of the baby, but exploration isn’t linear, so instead of finding one’s mother, one tries to save plush toys from freezing to death. This involves closing windows and interacting with the environment to warm up the rooms. Even if it’s a rather short experience of just half an hour (although the base game isn’t much longer than 2 hours), it’s a much more enjoyable experience, again playing with a child’s fear of the dark, for example with a heater coming alive in the basement. Seeing shapes of light moving around and objects changing positions is also a great way to tell a story that is much more straightforward and engaging than the original. Of course the game again suffers from control and camera/motion sickness problems, but it’s still a more enjoyable experience.
A short journey through the eyes of very early youth
Among the Sleep: Enhanced Edition has a unique concept and runs or rather crawls with it for as long as the player’s stomach can take it. Even if one doesn’t suffer from motion sickness, one won’t find the puzzles inventive or the level design inspiring. Instead the stealth segments are frustrating and not much fun, while the controls make some physics-based puzzles or platforming segments a chore. The story might tackle some mature themes and the art style is quite nice, too. But for its short runtime, there isn’t much to remember afterwards, except that the DLC is much better. Going through an art gallery after completing the game to gain insight into the development process is also much more interesting than playing the actual game.