In Sound Mind Review – Non Compos Mentis Horror
In Sound Mind28th September, 2021
Mental Health is and will always be a complex topic to handle. Novels, films, TV Series and Video Games; the world is full of titles that looked to tackle aspects of mental health and abjectly failed. Why did they fail? It could be due to either a ham-handed approach to the subject matter or simply not understanding it. Whichever aspect of mental health you are looking to represent, depression, guilt, psychosis, or something else, it takes a level of nuance most people in entertainment aren't capable of managing. In Sound Mind, a play on words from the term "Being of sound mind", looks to represent mental health well and make a decent horror game.
Many debates can happen about games that successfully handle mental health: That Dragon, Cancer; Hellblade: Senhua's Sacrifice; Persona 5; Life is Strange, and Night in the Woods are all games that have you playing a character suffering. Games like Psychonauts and, surprisingly, Borderlands 2 (Tiny Tina) have you working through the problems of another party. In Sound Mind fits both of these definitions, but it is very much up for debate if it's successful or not.
There's only so much I can say about the protagonist's problems without giving the game away. Who is he? He's a psychologist called Desmond whose surname I can't remember, so I imagine him as the bloke from Lost. What's he doing? I want to say he's doing a Psychonauts, but that's not entirely accurate. The game's levels are the fractured mind of his patients; only in this situation, it's a little more complicated. Anyway, enough of that, moving on.
Desmond Miles isn't wholly of sound mind himself, which is the point of calling the game In Sound Mind. You know this since your cat is talking to you - always a good sign that something's going wrong in the ol' noggin - also the building and world around you are all falling apart. It's interesting imagery, and this continues throughout the game - even if the metaphors can become very heavy-handed, something of which I think the developers are keenly aware. I will say that there are some things I don't understand, but there's always a chance I missed the explanation or wasn't paying attention.
For example, some of the creatures you fight are shadowy figures with lamps for heads. Maybe I missed something, but it just doesn't make sense unless Desmond Belmont's been watching Family Guy recently, especially since these lamp monsters keep appearing in his head house as well as the head stories of his patients. They aren't the only constants either, with the primary antagonist being a cheap knock-off of Freddy Krueger. He'll contact you, keep telling you that he's going to be the one that kills you. Only, most of the game, he's about as threatening as a wet fart. Less so, actually, since wet farts have ruined my underwear. This guy wastes my time.
I'm not even sure if In Sound Mind is even a horror game for the most part. It certainly has horror elements, and some moments are genuinely creepy. However, it also delves into a wave shooter and faces you against several creatures you have to fight, ignoring the fact that, at the start, the game teaches you to use stealth to get around the lamp-things. So yes, it's somewhat disjointed. It feels as though We Create Stuff - the developers - weren't exactly sure which path to go down, so they decided to take a bit of both.
This isn't an issue; action-horror can work. It has been done many times in the past. What doesn't always work is the attempt to have Kreddy Frueger over there as an ever-present and looming threat. You are delving into the broken psyche of your patients, kitting out better than the Proteus. Even the writers know he isn't a threat because eventually he essentially says, "sod these bits of wordplay; I'm just going to kill you when I can", either he knows he isn't that threatening, or the writers ran out of ideas.
Slight tangent. Let me tell you about the most annoying part of the game. During the third of your patients' stories, you've got to solve a conveyer belt puzzle. Not too bad so far; the game is full of puzzles. The problem here is that a raging half-metallic bull thing represents your patient. So, you're in this underground area, running around trying to figure out which switches to pull, all while being chased by this annoying prick. This is not fun. At this point, I was about ready to turn the game off and call it quits.
Why did I mention that? Because of how it links to the end of the previous paragraph. In Sound Mind is interesting. Well, it starts interesting. The problem comes when the stages become a little too circuitous. I love to collect everything in games, but I just said "fuck it" and left by the end of the third level. I should explain that each area contains collectables that improve one of your four stats: health, stamina, speed, and stealth. You can use the piece of mirror you collect in the first patient's mind to reflect the world around you, temporarily highlighting the items to make it easier. The problem is how labyrinthine some levels get; I couldn't be arsed trekking back through the now-empty level to find them.
It's not like I needed them either. I didn't. You get to the stage where you're over-equipped; you find ammo in enough quantity to which you rarely struggle. Even with the boss fights, it's just about solving the riddle or map-based puzzle and defeating them a specific way. In Sound Mind doesn't even want you to solve that sometimes; Desmond Sycamore over there blurts the solution out loud. Tell me the answers if I die, not before I've even had the chance to fight the damn boss.
The final thing I want to say is what I started this review talking about, mental health. In Sound Mind can be relatively heavy-handed. However, it still touches upon many aspects and arguably the most important: fighting your problems is far from a single battle but an ongoing struggle. Fortunately, this comes across even though We Create Stuff, for some unknown reason, felt the need to put in a story about a conspiracy.
What annoys me the most is that a few small things take away from a genuinely compelling game, one that uses a fair few tricks and never once gets them wrong. Jump scares are few and far between, which is always positive, and the use of things like mannequins which only move while you're looking away as an aid, rather than an enemy, is something I thoroughly enjoyed. Add onto this a solid visual style and excellent use of music - particularly some fitting bonus tracks that fit the heads of your patients - and you've got something that is strong and worth recommending.
In Sound Mind can be heavy-handed and unfocused in both story and gameplay. However, it's still a good enough game that maintains enough atmosphere and has an interesting enough story that you want to finish it, which is more than I can say for other games that I haven't and likely never will finish. That and it's pleasantly unusual to see an indie horror that ends up having varied gameplay and rewards exploration with a variety of easter eggs and world-building elements, even if it relies on the shooting a little much.
PC version reviewed. Copy provided by the publisher.
In Sound Mind is a surprisingly compelling title, offering an interesting story and strong horror experience. However, some aspects start to outlive their welcome - if only due to annoyance. Tackling a sensitive subject like mental health, In Sound Mind could have really fallen flat if We Create Stuff didn't handle it well, and while it can come across as heavy-handed at times, this is generally well done and worth experiencing.
- A striking design that persists throughout the game.
- Great use of atmosphere, combined with excellent use of sound and music.
- Interesting story that touches on various mental health issues reasonably well.
- A reasonable amount to do, and with several collectables and easter eggs to make exploring worthwhile.
- However, it can be a little heavy-handed with the story and the metaphors, it also features a needless conspiracy side-plot.
- Certain aspects of the game are in dire need of balancing, with a few parts being almost quit-inducing.
- The UI is quite dated and not the easiest to navigate.