In Sound Mind Review
Solid exploration and puzzles let down by a lack of scares
I absolutely hate horror movies, but for some reason I adore horror games. They aren’t a genre I constantly dabble in, but every few months when I get the horror itch, I begin looking for the next scary experience. My latest hunt led me to In Sound Mind, a first-person psychological horror that had me intrigued with its Amnesia-esque appearance and soundtrack performed by popular YouTube music duo The Living Tombstone.
In Sound Mind sees you play as Desmond Wales, a psychologist from the town of Milton Haven, who awakes in the basement of his apartment complex with a bad case of amnesia. If it isn’t clear to you already from the moment the game starts, something isn’t quite right in Milton Haven. The city is dilapidated and flooded, dangerous rainbow-coloured chemical spills are everywhere, and if that doesn’t sound bad enough, there’s a haunting figure known as Agent Rainbow that serves to stalk Desmond and make his life miserable for the duration of the adventure. When Desmond starts to think that maybe the mysterious happenings in Milton Haven and the death of some of his patients are linked, he sets out to listen to their taped recording sessions, which in turn allows him to delve deep into their psyches, where he must encounter deadly apparitions that are the embodiment of his patients' biggest fears.
For example, Desmond’s patient Virginia suffers from social anxiety because of a facial scar she acquired at a young age. Unfortunately, she has a manic episode at the local store as a result of people staring at her, causing her to kill herself with a shard of glass. All of Virginia's fear and negative thoughts manifest in the form of “The Watcher”, a horrific ghost girl that will attack Desmond as soon as he looks in her general direction. She also wears a mask to cover up her facial scar. Levels in In Sound Mind are represented by these therapy recording tapes, and each has an interesting story to tell. They do a solid job at providing enough of a backstory for each of Desmond’s patients through both the audio conversations heard through the tapes, and the various notes you find scattered around their unique environments. They also contribute to the narrative at large of course, and ultimately aid Desmond in discovering the link between the death of his patients and the existence of Agent Rainbow.
Speaking of Agent Rainbow, he’s ever-present through the adventure, constantly taunting you by calling the multitude of telephones that exist across the locations in each tape and Desmond’s office. He also enjoys following you around, appearing suddenly in different areas throughout the game, to the point where any unexpected movement in my periphery often resulted in me seeing his hellish figure for a short moment before he vanished in a puff of his rainbow coloured smoke. Agent Rainbow's true identity is a source of constant intrigue throughout In Sound Mind, and was largely the aspect of the narrative I was most interested in piecing together. The truth is revealed in the game's penultimate moments, in an enjoyable albeit expected manner. Story wise, In Sound Mind is decent without being spectacular.
Despite touting itself as a “psychological horror”, In Sound Mind simply isn’t very scary. There are some moments that had me feel a bit uneasy, such as being chased by the screaming Watcher, or turning around to see Agent Rainbow or one of the moving mannequins that feature throughout Virginia’s tape, but often, the game didn’t freak me out much at all. After Virginia’s tape, which is the first you experience in the game, things get even less spooky, as the bland repetitive enemies and the other manifestations of negative thoughts fail to elicit an ounce of fear. I play horror games for the same reason people watch horror films, to be scared, which In Sound Mind unfortunately fails to achieve.
Akin to In Sound Mind’s lack of scares, its visual look also leaves a lot to be desired. It doesn’t look horrendous, but it doesn’t look pretty either with its muddy textures and overall lack of graphical fidelity. Graphics for most (including myself) aren't everything, but In Sound Mind is visually antiquated. It also doesn’t perform too well in some instances, with noticeable frame drops in areas such as the encounter with the Bull boss in Max’s tape. The soundtrack slaps though, with The Living Tombstone compiling a bunch of wicked tunes that fit in well in most cases. The enemy encounter music felt a tad too upbeat with its dubstep wubs for a horror game, but for the most part the music feels fitting and sounds great.
In terms of gameplay, each of the therapy tapes represent an area to explore, with Desmond’s office/apartment complex serving as the hub world between tapes. Clearing a tape requires you to progress through the environment by exploring, solving puzzles, and engaging in first-person shooter combat, with your main goal to locate and defeat the monstrous embodiment of the patient’s fear.
Despite clearly being inspired by horror game elites such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, In Sound Mind feels more like Half-Life 2, a game that developer We Create Stuff know plenty about, seeing as their most notable release Nightmare House 2 is a mod for Half-Life 2.
Movement feels very reminiscent of Half-Life 2, resulting in a welcome feeling of pace that makes exploration enjoyable, while also making the small sections of first-person platforming a lot of fun. While I’m comparing In Sound Mind to Half-Life 2 in regard to movement, the act of shooting couldn’t be further apart. The pistol never quite feels right, and I was never sure if shots to the body of the strange minions that inhabit each tape were actually doing anything due to the lack of visual feedback. The shotgun you unlock later on does feel better due to the wider spread you’d expect from such a weapon, but it’s ultimately paper over the cracks of what is otherwise unreliable first-person combat that doesn’t feel rewarding.
Puzzles on the other hand are far more pleasurable and creative, often requiring the use of new items that you’ve unlocked. Virginia’s tape introduces you to the shard of glass, which when looked through allows you to find clues and locations of items that are otherwise invisible. This item also finds itself used in the level's entertaining puzzles, which include various creepy moving mannequins that actually help you more than you think they would.
There are various items to collect throughout the journey, with each required to progress through Desmond’s tapes. While you only start out with a Flashlight (which requires grabbing batteries to recharge the damn thing), you will quickly find yourself amassing weapons and other handy gadgets, including a Gas Mask that makes it easier to navigate through areas covered in that rainbow gas substance.
Items such as the flare gun and a shard of glass don’t just serve as weapons, but also as tools that can aid with gaining access to otherwise inaccessible areas of the environment. The flare gun can be used to remove darkness in areas, thus making them available to explore, while the glass shard can be used to cut down wooden barricades and police tape. In Sound Mind’s insistence to provide you with new items to accompany your crew of already useful gadgets ensures that the quality puzzles and exploration doesn’t get stale.
While I had an alright time exploring the psyche of Desmond’s patients, completing puzzles and absorbing more of the narrative through the various notes strewn throughout each location, I also encountered various annoyances. Good times can be had when you know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, but it can quickly become frustrating the moment you lose track of where you are and what you’re trying to achieve. There are basic objective summaries that can be found within a menu, but sometimes they can be a bit too vague, an issue that feels most apparent as you try to figure out how to stop the Bull in Max’s tape. There aren’t waypoints to hold your hand, leading to some confusing moments where I had no choice but to aimlessly wander about, interacting with everything I could find in a desperate attempt to progress. This issue is compounded further by the stingy amount of ammunition you receive for items such as the flare gun. On numerous occasions I found myself seemingly stuck without any ammo for it in situations where I couldn’t progress without it, and no matter how hard I tried no more ammo seemed to spawn, forcing me to restart the checkpoint. I could’ve simply missed the flare ammo, but at the same time it probably would’ve been smart to not be so stringent on ammunition.
Although there is fun to be had with its entertaining narrative and solid first-person exploration and puzzle solving gameplay, In Sound Mind finds itself let down by some imperfections. The first-person shooting never quite feels right, its visually dated, and the dips in framerate that occur because of its unreliable performance quickly take you out of the experience. It also just isn’t scary, which is disappointing. If you’re willing to overlook its shortcomings, In Sound Mind may still be worth a try for fans of the genre.