In In Sound Mind, the player takes on the role of Desmond, a somewhat less-than-successful psychiatrist (seriously, any shrink whose patients commit suicide this frequently should probably consider another line of work) who awakens one day in a surreal nightmare-like simulacrum of his apartment building. Parts of it are almost normal, but at the same time the exterior of the building is sealed off and the town around it is slowly flooding. Nightmarish creatures stalk the halls, and gigantic industrial barrels full of reality-warping slime have been strewn haphazardly throughout the halls. To figure out what is going on and how he got here, Desmond will have to journey into the diseased minds of his former patients, Psychonauts-style, and find clues about what pushed them off the deep end.
That description should let you know that this is a game with aspirations of being more than just a zombie-infested survival horror story. Indeed, it would be safe to say that In Sound Mind is shooting for what’s commonly referred to as psychological horror. By any metric, it has achieved that, nearly every monster in the game is the product of some mental neurosis given physical shape. The problem is, all the psychological aspects are way too obvious and heavy-handed. For instance, the first level revolves around the fate of a woman who was deformed in an accident as a child and consequently suffers a severe case of social anxiety. As a result, her ghost will chase after you screaming “don’t look at me!” and be repelled by reflective surfaces. In case you somehow managed to miss something, the game gives you the chance to play recordings from Desmond’s therapy sessions with her. There’s just no subtly, or nuance to any of it.
A contrasting example would be helpful here, but beware I’m about to spoil Silent Hill 2 and if you haven’t played it yet you really should check it out. In Silent Hill 2, the protagonist James Sunderland is trapped in a purgatory of guilt over euthanizing his sick wife. While James did want to end his wife’s suffering he was also motivated by less altruistic desires. To put it bluntly, since his wife was dying he wasn’t getting laid, and his mounting sexual frustration played a role in his decision to help her kill herself.
As a result, the monsters that torment him throughout his trip to Silent Hill are disturbingly sexualized. The most obvious being the nurses with their short skirts, plunging necklines, and their faces which are blank save for a V-shaped gash. Nearly every monster is feminine, save for the iconic Pyramid Head, who is just sexualized differently as he resembles a phallus. Nothing about the sexual nature of James’ guilt is referenced directly in the story. Instead, it’s just left as a dangling thread for the player to pull on if they are so inclined. Yet when they do, it quickly becomes apparent how all the pieces fit together.
So, when I say that In Sound Mind lacks nuance and subtlety this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Still, I’m hardly being fair when I measure In Sound Mind against what is perhaps the greatest psychological horror game of all time. Of course, it comes up lacking, nearly everything does. A much bigger problem for In Sound Mind is the fact that despite being a horror game it can only manage to be intermittently frightening.
Not Too Spooky
To be fair, the game actually does some rather chilling locations. Indeed, things start very strong with the first level in the abandoned shopping centre. Between the headless mannequins strew about the store that move when you look away from them to the gloomy lighting to the unnatural sound design, all contribute to an atmosphere of dread. While the next couple of levels never quite capture the same sense of tension they are not without their spine-chilling moments and touches either. The only problem is that none of the enemies inhabiting these creepy levels can measure up.
The standard enemies are blobs of congealed shadows, with traffic lights in their head that let you know if they are just patrolling normally (green), alert (yellow), or actively running towards you (red). These guys are the definition of generic, and about as scary as you average goomba. It doesn’t help that a single headshot from the starting pistol will down them. In my entire playthrough I never once died to these chumps, and while they might get more menacing on higher difficulties, they don’t get any creepier.
Each level also has a unique monster that is a personification of the subject’s mental illness. These baddies for the most part manage to be scary, at least when they first show up. The problem is when they are, without exception, overused. Having a creepy ghost lady chase me through a shopping mall once was downright terrifying. Having her do it half a dozen times in an hour and it starts to become less frightening and more of an obnoxious routine. By the end of each level, these unique opponents all become more tedious than scary.
Still, these are downright spine-tingling when compared with the game’s primary antagonist, a mysterious guy in a trenchcoat who regularly calls you as you progress through the levels, and occasionally appears at the periphery of your vision before vanishing. This concept could produce a rather frightening opponent, especially the appearing and disappearing aspect. The only problem is the voice actor, he is trying so hard to sound creepy that he inadvertently winds up sounding like he should be singing backup in The Monster Mash.
In Sound Mind does deserve some credit for actually trying to make a genuine survival horror game in an age where horror is dominated by low-effort first-person walking simulators. It’s nice that I’m given a weapon and tools I can use at my discretion to evade or eliminate enemies. Just knowing that I’ve got a finite amount of ammunition and healing helps to enhance the fear factor of the lacklustre enemies. Sure, the gunplay in this game is nothing to write home about but at least it manages to avoid being the most bare-bones shooting I’ve seen in a horror game, that dubious honour goes to Call of Cthulhu.
The puzzles as well are a cut above the average dreck out there. Throughout the game, there will, of course, be a few simple bring X key to Y door but for the most part, they are a good deal more complex. Some, like an early puzzle where you have to direct a series of eyes to a TV set, are quite inspired as they rely on the themes of the level and understanding of the monster's mental sickness. Often they rely on the unique gimmicks and mechanics of the levels, like exploiting enemy behaviour to reach items. When the puzzles are at their best, they can make the player feel smart when they figure them out, which is what all video game puzzles should be striving to do.
In a way, it’s a shame that In Sound Mind has the fundamentals of survival horror down so well I can’t help but imagine how much more compelling it would be if it weren’t let down by its heavy-handed writing and dull enemies.
Some puzzles are quite clever, each level has a unique look and feel to it.
Psychological elements are too obvious, scares are intermittent at the best of times, pursuing enemies are too common and become annoying rather than menacing. Combat is mundane and dull.