Perhaps more than any other genre, horror seems tailor-made to experience in virtual reality. Having a love for all things scary, I eagerly anticipated The Inpatient’s release on PlayStation VR, awaiting the chance to plug in and be thrown into the dark, gloomy hallways of the Blackwood Sanatorium, an ideal setting for a terrifying experience if ever there was one. With Supermassive Games’ recent track record of narrative-based titles, and more specifically the frighteningly good time of their 2015 teen slasher franchise starter Until Dawn, I had every reason to be excited. Sometimes expectations can be dead wrong.
The Inpatient tells the story of what happened in the sanatorium sixty or so years before it played its role as a derelict set piece in Until Dawn. As such, this is a kind of pseudo-prequel, although it works as a standalone title and the two games are only tangentially connected through their settings and a few easter eggs. Unfortunately, this means that the game’s main draws for existing series fans – finding out what led to the clinic being shut down and the origin of the wendigos – aren’t really capitalized on. Main events take place off-screen, in distant rooms and holding cells in the asylum, with only faraway screams and shouts to serve as evidence of something horrible happening, and suddenly – presto! – now you’ve got monsters stalking the halls and grounds in scripted scare moments. The unnecessary “amnesiac patient” routine is equally wasted, failing to pay off in any meaningful way or satisfying moment of revelation.
To be fair, the opening minutes actually seem quite promising. The game begins as the player character, currently strapped to a chair in a dark operating room, is undergoing treatment to help him (or her, as you can choose your preferred gender and skin color) remember who he is. While it’s mildly disturbing to immediately find yourself the subject of experimentation, it’s only a momentary confinement, and before long a hospital orderly is pushing the still-immobile protagonist in a wheelchair to his cell.
You’ll become far too acquainted with your quarters, as a good third of The Inpatient’s three-or-so hour runtime is spent stuck there, at first alone, then later with a cellmate. Only intermittent dream sequences allow you to leave these confines and stalk the spooky dreamscape hallways, and here is where the game puts to good use the kind of disturbing potential it has. Shadowy figures beckoning from dimly-lit corridors, doors opening and closing on their own, nightmarish imagery, ghostly voices and sounds, and the odd jump scare pepper the clinic’s salons and morgues with literal hair-raising tension.
The initial stress brought on by VR immersion, with all real-life light completely blacked out by the helmet and headphones directly streaming the horror to my ears, is easily some of the realest I’ve ever felt during an interactive experience. The maddeningly slow walking pace you are forced to endure further stretches the thrill to its maximum limit. During select early moments, the urge to pull the headset off and assure myself of my benign actual surroundings grew pretty hard to ignore.
However, some of these same design choices started me on a downward spiral toward boredom elsewhere in the game. The dark lighting works wonders during moments of fear, but the scenes in your padded cell – the ones taking place in broad daylight – look similarly dim, filtered to really push the feeling of being in another time. Instead of mentally transporting you, though, it largely just results in making the otherwise detailed environments dull and uninteresting, a problem compounded by the general lack of interaction with your surroundings. The incessant palette of browns, blacks, and dark greens begins to overwhelm the original feeling of immersion with a crushing sense of depression. At first I wondered if I had somehow missed the option of adjusting the graphical settings, but I hadn’t – there aren’t any. The very few glimpses of natural lighting during flashback memories are little more than a tease, immediately replaced by the game’s standard washed-out and poorly lit visual aesthetic.
Likewise, the ponderously slow walking speed loses its appeal when taken out of context of the scary scenes. For one thing, having no other pace to choose from sooner or later undercuts the horror itself. Knowing that running from danger isn’t even an option makes it that much easier to resign oneself to what may come. The Inpatient isn’t a stealth game in which danger must be avoided, but rather more of a gallery of hallways to traverse, complete with unavoidable spooky sounds and pop-up scares.
The inability to escape danger also lessens its bite, since you eventually figure out that nothing can really harm you anyway. Being completely defenseless and incapable of avoiding peril would make for a very short and frustrating gaming experience if the monsters could truly impede your progress in any way. In fact, there’s nothing that gets in the way of slow and steady advancement toward the ultimate finish line – no puzzles, no combat or sections that require care and finesse, no dead ends caused by bungled decision-making. A few collectables are strewn about here and there, and a couple of characters can be interacted with, but there isn’t much to support a lot of satisfying gameplay.
Sadly, The Inpatient is not a case of sacrificing gameplay at the altar of storytelling either. Early scenes seem to promise a late-game payoff by asking questions about your identity and why you’re there. Fevered flashbacks and nightmarish dream scenarios raise the stakes, as an involving backstory definitely seems to have been the designers’ intention all along. However, these questions get almost entirely left by the wayside once the focus shifts from “stuck in a cell” to “escape the facility,” as neither you nor the surviving hospital staff have any idea of who you are, and nobody really cares in the face of blind survival. I’ve played the game two complete times and I still only have the vaguest grasp on the tale that was meant to be told before the requisite tie-in to Until Dawn’s narrative gets in the way.Continued on the next page...