Looking to indulge in a little virtual escapism? Look no further than Studio Fizbin’s The Inner World. This elaborately designed point-and-click adventure for the PC invites players to sneak out of their figurative towers and explore the distant, exotic land of Asposia. Once a world of wind and light, Asposia has become a ghost-town littered with petrified corpses and haunted by vengeful wind-gods, and it’s up to you to change the winds of fate.
The tale begins with a boy and a pigeon. Raised by Conroy, the chief (and currently, sole) religious leader of Asposia, protagonist Robert is our archetypal child-hero, a naïve and sheltered boy with a good heart and a head full of wonderings about the outside world – also, a flute for a nose. When a pigeon steals his adopted father’s precious wind-pendant, Robert gives chase; inevitably, his pursuit of the fowl thief leads him into a full-scale adventure for which he finds himself woefully unprepared.
Despite its harmless, child-friendly appearance, The Inner World establishes very early on that the target audience is a tad more on the mature side, exhibiting a twisted sense of humor worthy of Daedalic Entertainment and telling more than a few adult jokes (all of which go right over Robert’s poor, confused little head). Though a child could conceivably play and even enjoy it, few will fully grasp the depths to which the story occasionally penetrates, introducing themes of religion, corruption, and social discrimination and isolation.
I say only “occasionally” because one of the shortcomings of The Inner World is that it never quite reaches its full narrative potential. The beginning of the game is by far the most exciting part. Asposia’s history is rich with creative folklore, and most of the aforementioned themes are introduced before Robert even leaves his room. But the game as a whole turns out to be a bit like a date that’s gone on too long – eventually the excitement and the novelty wear off, attentions begin to wander, and when the night’s finally over, the good-night kiss feels lukewarm at best.
The main story itself is pretty predictable, a bit like Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame but with a flute-nose instead of a hunchback and fewer musical numbers. In fact, the finale is even more Disney-perfect than Hunchback – literally everybody gets what they want, except for the bad guy (and, arguably, a couple of dead people, who don’t care because they’ve been dead the entire time anyway). While I certainly don’t mind a happy ending, in this case it feels as though the depth which the game initially seems to promise (but ultimately never delivers) got sacrificed in the name of, for lack of a better word, cuteness.
The characters, at least, remain enjoyable and interesting throughout, thanks to well-written (and in this case, well-translated) dialogue and some very unusual and ambiguous visual designs. Robert’s development throughout the game is handled particularly well, with an interesting reversal of the usual heroic moral arc; as he learns the ways of the real world, he loses his innocence, his approaches to problems gradually becoming more and more unethical. Though technically he saves the day, he steals, lies, and even commits murder to get the job done, making him one of the least heroic child-protagonists I’ve seen in a long time.
The Inner World’s greatest strength, however, also embodies one of its greatest weaknesses. While the characters themselves are a joy, the voices which bring them to life fall more than a little short of the mark. The majority of the English voice acting is average at best and atrocious at worst, with many lines delivered in mind-melting monotones and more than a few awkward pauses. This would be aggravating in any medium, but when at least half of the gameplay consists of listening to dialogue, it becomes torture.
Thankfully, once everyone shuts up, the gameplay fares a bit better. As per usual in the point-and-click genre, the controls are simple and easy to get used to, and the environment is highly interactive. The puzzles, for the most part, are well-designed – just complex enough to present a challenge worth overcoming, and just easy enough (thanks in part to an excellent hint-system) to be solved before exasperation begins to kick in. A few solutions do feel a bit unnecessarily convoluted – it’s irritating to see an easier solution and not be given a good reason why it wouldn’t work beyond “we didn’t want to make it that way” – but such instances are the exception, rather than the rule.
Much like its own somewhat anti-climactic finale, The Inner World is gorgeously presented but, in the end, a bit flawed and underdeveloped. Yet while there are definitely a few loose screws that could use some tightening up, the artwork is astounding on almost a Miyazaki level, and the world of Asposia is a beautifully crafted fantasy-land which, in the end, just might be worth getting lost in after all.
The Inner World is currently available for purchase via Steam. A special edition of the game, which includes the full game, a prototype copy, the official soundtrack and a digital art book, is also available on the official site.
[review pros=”Beautiful concept, highly immersive world, stunning environments, high-quality art design, well-written dialogue, delightfully twisted humor, interesting characters and puzzles” cons=”Main story somewhat predictable and seems to wander, anticlimactic finale, starts with potential for depth but ends somewhat shallowly, voice acting needs work” score=74]