A solid premise is let down by simplistic puzzles, obvious metaphors and clunky mechanics in this occasionally creepy baby-horror.
This review of Among the Sleep: Enhanced Edition is based on the Xbox One version. It is also available on PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Linux, and Mac.
Among the Sleep is the kind of game that you wish was better since it probably deserves to be. Its core idea is excellent: A nightmarish fable about a two-year-old child for whom the monster that should be under the bed is actually downstairs in the kitchen. And the game’s early efforts at setting up and staging this idea are exquisite – few titles open as well as Among the Sleep. Then again, few titles so readily squander all the goodwill they’ve earned, so I suppose it’s a case of swings and roundabouts.
But that opening! Beginning on the second birthday of the half-pint protagonist, who believably totters around on wobbly legs and for whom crawling is faster than walking, a few mouthfuls of birthday cake give way to a supernatural fuss that tips the nipper’s playroom on its axis. Suddenly, we’re alone, peering up at the world from a low camera angle with only a sentient stuffed bear for company. We drag a nearby chair to a nearby door and clamber up it so we can lean against the handle and open the way to the spooky hallways of a dangerously empty house – but how empty is it, really?
This is all fine creepy horror business from an unusual perspective, and Among the Sleep: Enhanced Edition is full of charming touches, such as the pause screen being the kid clamping his tiny hands over his eyes. Looking up at the world from this vulnerable perspective is transporting; the elongated hallways and towering furnishings of what is otherwise a regular family home take on bizarre, intimidating dimensions, and this remains the best visual and atmospheric trick of Among the Sleep for its duration. But the game, oddly, doesn’t seem to realize this, instead borrowing from a mish-mash of influences as its off-kilter normality descends into an outright dreamscape, and its frantic search for mummy becomes a tedious fetch-quest smattered with simple puzzles, awkward exploring, obvious metaphor, and increasingly laborious hide-and-seek stealth.
All of this is often still effectively tense, but it’s largely tense in the mundane way that you wonder whether the game is good enough to support its next idea. While on some level Among the Sleep fits into the useless bracket of “walking simulator”, it’s a bit more game-y than some of the titles you think of when you hear that label. The stumbling around, climbing, and occasional dragging of objects wear thin quickly and feel imprecise and clunky even at their best. I lost count of how often I was expected to pull open the drawers of filing cabinets or dressers to fashion a set of stairs, for instance – the game’s two to three hours long, but it begins overstaying its welcome after the first chapter.
This is, partly, a consequence of the game’s setup being an obvious metaphor but none of its mechanics or settings possessing any actual insight or meaning. The set dressing is comprised of quintessential “scary” stuff – decrepit playground paraphernalia, say, or dense woodland – that doesn’t inform the character’s perspective or the story’s angle; it’s just there to be creepy. The puzzles, too, are basic locked doors and missing shaped keys; at one point the MacGuffins are literal puzzle pieces, with each one found opening a new path to explore, but the game’s essential linearity makes this section feel more like busywork than the others.
The best of these games – I’m thinking mostly of Gone Home, which still makes for something of a high-water mark – tied their mechanics and puzzles into an exploration of setting and theme. Among the Sleep doesn’t do that, and its game-y bits largely feel separate from the potted narrative sections wherein something resembling a story germinates. The only time in which that story manifests a literal monster is visually disconcerting and quite tense in its way, but feels a bit hamstrung by only limply shunting you back to the nearest checkpoint, about which the game is generous. This is style over substance in the purest sense, and while the Among the Sleep: Enhanced Edition has a better sense of style, with effective lighting and distortion effects, it doesn’t add anything more substantive.
And it’s a shame, really, since the eventual reveal of the game’s story is, I think, a powerful one. But it also feels like one that could exist independently of almost everything that came before. Perhaps the most effective – aside from the opening, obviously – is buried away in a menu under “Prologue”, and returns to the starting house, this time iced over. Here, a furnace monster belching flames and helpless stuffed toys encased in icy prisons feel like the surrealism making something resembling a point – or maybe I just like that house as a setting. Either way, I would have liked to play the game Among the Sleep might have been.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.