I’ve always believed that a story’s opening is directly correlated to its overall quality. Inmates begins very promisingly. You find yourself at the bottom of a nightmarish pit with no hints as to where you are or how you got there. Other humans, or possibly wayward souls, dangle in cages above. The entire place groans and shakes beneath your feet, threatening to crumble at any second. Is this a dream, or are you in hell? As you make your way to the top, the opening credits flash boldly across the screen. Had Inmates maintained this level of confidence past the opening, we would have a much more worthwhile experience on our hands.
Inmates is a psychological horror adventure developed entirely by one man, Davit Andreasyan. Playing as Jonathan, an inmate who wakes up in a derelict prison, your goal is to, of course, escape alive. This simple concept quickly spirals into something much more intriguing as you uncover the dark mystery behind your imprisonment. Though prisons have practically become a horror trope now, Andreasyan utilizes this setting to great effect. Each of the many locations, from the cafeteria to the infirmary, elicits an unshakable sense of desolation and unease. Most importantly, the use of the prison is in service of the plot, ultimately paying off in a twist that will make M. Night Shyamalan proud. With that said, Inmates is also part puzzle game and part walking simulator, and it is due to this mixing of genres that things fall apart.
“In its current state, Inmates plays more like a promising proof of concept than a finished product.”
The handful of puzzles that dot the prison halls are unfortunately far too easy. Though they often appear complex, none of them take long to solve. In fact, I only struggled because I kept overthinking them, trying to discern patterns and meanings behind each puzzle when all I had to do was match some symbols. One such puzzle actually managed to make me laugh out loud with its false complexity. It was a large grid of interweaving lines and dots meant to represent the locked doors of the prison. Turns out all it required was for me to mindlessly click on every dot — no thinking needed. Since there’s no greater meaning behind any of these puzzles nor do they tie into the story, they come across as a way to artificially inflate the playtime.
Similarly, other gameplay elements are also clumsily handled. Loose notes and photos reveal Jonathan’s backstory but are a bit heavy-handed in their exposition. One particular cell wall scrawling, if you catch it, practically spoils the entire story. Aside from a lone prison guard, there are no other enemies to be found. You don’t even get to fight or hide from him — he only ever appears in scripted sequences. Resource management comes in the form of matches, which can be used to light up the surrounding area. Strangely enough, however, matches are never necessary as all interactive objects and puzzles are located in the light (my playthrough ended with 60+ unused matches). With Inmates’ total length clocking in at just under two hours, none of these elements are given the proper opportunity to develop and shine. As a result, the gameplay feels like an afterthought to the story.
The limitations of a one-man development team are readily apparent in the technical aspects. The two cell blocks look nearly identical. Some assets are noticeably reused over and over again. Other characters, like the aforementioned guard, take away from the scares, as they’re poorly animated and lacking in fidelity especially when viewed up close. The quality of the writing and voice-acting don’t come close to matching the strength of the core story. Jonathan, in particular, never quite sounds distraught enough to sell the role a tortured protagonist.
At the end of the day, Inmates seems undecided on what it wants to be. There are not enough puzzles to call it a puzzle game and not enough scares for it to be a true horror. In its current state, Inmates plays more like a promising proof of concept than a finished product. It’s a shame that these different elements don’t form a cohesive whole, because — beneath the rough edges — Inmates has an original, worthwhile story to tell.
*** PC code provided by the publisher ***
- Dark, twisting story
- Prison location is justified
- Overly easy puzzles
- Lack of graphical polish
- Poor voice-acting