Supermassive’s The Inpatient is a brilliant VR experience wrapped in a game that has its flaws. Despite these flaws, it’s a title well worth playing for gamers with a Playstation VR headset.
After Until Dawn and Rush of Blood, Supermassive returns to the same game world with The Inpatient, a prequel that takes place inside the Blackwood Sanatorium sixty years before the events you may or may not be familiar with already. Advance knowledge of the previous two titles isn’t needed, though it can help in your understanding of what’s going on. This is double-edged sword though, because the less you know, the more unnerving this psychological horror/thriller becomes as its story unfolds.
The Inpatient is a very different game from Until Dawn and Rush of Blood, especially in terms of the pace at which everything plays out. When you’re not engaged in conversation, you’re mostly just walking around at a slow pace in a fairly linear fashion. It’s a pace that helps instill dread and fear (you feel like running away which clearly isn’t an option), but it’s not something for the action-oriented VR gamers.
Instead, The Inpatient delivers an experience that is immersive in ways I haven’t experienced VR anywhere else just yet – it essentially casted me as an actor/director inside a movie where my choices determine the direction the story takes – though the freedom you have is subtle in how much it allows you to deviate from the main plot. One of the key mechanics in delivering this experience is the choice-based system that is presented to you during nearly every conversation that isn’t part of a flashback/memory. Offering you two choices to respond, The Inpatient gives you the opportunity to look another character in the eye and deliver your line verbally, subsequently seeing what kind of response it elicits in the other.
It’s great to be able to deliver these lines yourself and makes you feel like part of the “interactive movie” like no other game does in this way – even though (or perhaps because) the lines you deliver are scripted. Star Trek Bridge Crew received advanced and less scripted voice recognition later as well, but feels more like a game/simulator when compared to The Inpatient’s movie-like experience. And here, it’s an experience drenched in fear and paranoia.
The first half of the game is extremely conversation-heavy, and starts off very strong as you meet the doctor/director of Blackwood and several of the people working there. This heavy emphasis on conversations continues when you finally get to your cell and meet a cellmate, with gameplay and movement being very limited. Later on, gameplay doesn’t get much more diverse than walking over to a location and picking up an item or clue, but you do get to walk around Blackwood, meet more characters and see new locations.
In terms of pacing, though everything progresses slowly for the sake of suspense, this makes the game feel a bit uneven. Though unnerving, the series of conversations and flashbacks in my cell felt like too long of a prelude for what was to come, and once I was able to leave my cell things never developed into something quite as unnerving and exciting as I was expecting – instead I was just going through the motions in a rather linear fashion. Things were still creepy and fear-inducing though, and the two or three jump scares certainly were effective – perhaps especially so because of the otherwise slow pace.
The Inpatient’s control scheme took some getting used to for me. Comfortable with VR, I tend to go for full freedom of motion in terms of rotating – and prefer Move over the Dualshock. Of course walking around with Move controllers is a challenge, and in this game you use one button on the left controller to move forward while using that same button on the other controller to turn while holding down the button. These can be combined to try and move around smoothly, but it took me a while to get comfortable with it. I bet this would have been easier on a Dualshock gamepad, but being able to pick things up with your hands (using the trigger) is just so much more immersive.
Speaking of which, it’s the immersiveness of this horror/thriller that should make you want to play this game. The voice controls are great, but wouldn’t have been as effective without the excellent visuals and character animation that The Inpatient offers. The visuals here are superb for a Playstation VR game, and the setting and more match what Supermassive must have been going for – reminding me of my first experience with Wilson’s Heart on Oculus.
Although the game gives you the option to go back and collect additional memories that you might have missed before, or discover different paths based on alternate choices, I didn’t feel the desire to do that. The jump scares wouldn’t have been as effective, I would have had to make counterintuitive choices just for the sake of the story path, and that wasn’t worth three hours to me. That’s how long my initial playthrough was, which will no doubt make people look at the game’s the hefty price tag. I found three hours to be an excellent length for a psychological thriller/horror story though, especially considering its lack of traditional gameplay. Any longer and I would have lost interest, but now it felt like a nail biter of an experience that uses VR to craft a sense of terror rarely seen in videogames. There just are too many things keeping me from considering a second playthrough though, no matter how much the game tries to lure me towards one.