Good horror is hard to come by these days, as low budgets, rushed scripts and a lack of imagination have all taken a bite out of the celluloid genre. As gamers, we’ve been a bit luckier than filmgoers, but outside of Until Dawn and one or two others, there still hasn’t been a lot to write home about. That said, it’s not easy to make a truly scary game, and though many have tried, only a few have succeeded. Krillbite is trying to be one of those success stories with Among the Sleep, a pint-sized nightmare that is now available for Xbox One.
Funded through Kickstarter, Among the Sleep has made its way to Microsoft’s console after spending a year on PC and PlayStation 4, and does so with bonus content. Unfortunately, it’s nothing that anyone will really care about, and many will likely not even know that it exists. Why’s that? Well, because said exclusive bonuses happen to be different pajamas for the protagonist to wear, and the only way to change your clothes is to go into the game’s actual options menu, where the setting is packed away in obscurity. It doesn’t even really matter what you choose to wear anyways, be it the default jammies or something Xbox themed, because this happens to be a first-person game and you don’t look at yourself all that often.
So, what’s the whole thing about, exactly? Well, it’s best described as a walking simulator (or exploration game, if you prefer that term) that mixes its mechanics in with darkened rooms, nightmarish exterior locations and scares that are meant to make you afraid to sleep at night. The problem is that it’s simply not a lot of fun to play, as it prefers slow paced fetch quests and occasionally frustrating puzzles over anything noteworthy.
Things begin quite well, with a decently strong opening that depicts a young infant’s special day. His mother — who’s as sweet as she is doting — is busy baking a cake while her child sits in a high chair. What you may not know is that we are the child in the game. It’s there where Among the Sleep differs from every other title, because you actually get to play as a toddler who has only recently learned how to walk and stumbles after running for short periods of time.
Following the brief dinner scene, things shift to an upstairs playroom, where we’re put in a pen and told to play for a bit before settling in for a long night’s slumber. That’s when things start to get weird, as our birthday present — a stuffed bear with an odd bandage — comes to life. However, while this may sound like the beginning of a new Toy Story movie, it’s far from that, as it isn’t long before the game’s tone shifts from light to pure darkness. Literally.
In the middle of the night, a knock at the door and a blood curdling scream set the scene for an awake toddler to get up and explore. Something isn’t right. Mom’s in trouble and she needs to be checked upon. It just so happens that said venture starts a journey into a nightmarish dream world.
Over the course of the next two to three hours, we’re tasked with controlling our pint-sized hero and must crawl, climb and walk our way through dark and disturbing environments. There’s the spooky playground, the monster-laden swamp and some sort of a broken down old house, all of which are labyrinthine in nature. All you need to do to progress, though, is to work your way under, over or through the obstacles that litter your way, while searching for specific items (for example, the playground forces you to find several toys that must all be put on a seesaw in order to weigh it down). This is where the brunt of the gameplay comes from, and it’s almost all fetch quest related, to the point of tedium.
As you crawl (it’s faster than walking), you’ll hear bangs or get glimpses of monsters. However, it isn’t until the halfway point where the beasts really come into play, and even then they leave a lot to be desired. If they spot you, they’ll kill you, and sometimes they’ll just come out of the blue and snatch you up. It’s supposed to be a scary, hide-and-seek type of mechanic, but it just isn’t fun or interesting. In fact, it can be downright annoying.
There are also collectibles to find if you wish to earn all of the achievements and/or pad your playtime, but scouring each level for hidden, crayon-coloured pictures, is not something you really want to do in a horror game. It slows things down even more and ends up being a chore.
I know that I’m being hard on Among the Sleep, but it’s not an awful game or anything specifically bad. It’s just very ho-hum and unfortunately bland, which is too bad given the promise its premise showed. Playing as a toddler is a really interesting design choice, but the execution sadly leaves a lot to be desired as this particular tyke plays more like a tiny person than an infant. It’s hard to become immersed as a result, especially since you’re able to pull chairs and lift boxes without too much trouble.
Speaking of that, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the light puzzles that exist within this game, and how moving things around is integral to progression. You hold one shoulder button to grab onto something, then press the other to throw the items (if they’re small enough) and can use the joysticks to drag or turn them. It is what it is, but it’s kind of clunky and lacks the precision one would hope for.
Visually, things are okay and more than serviceable, although there’s a bit of slowdown from time to time. What begins with a rich colour palette quickly turns to a game of shadows once nighttime falls, and darkness prevails until the credits roll. Your only light comes from your talking teddy, who, when squeezed, emits a very faint glow. It’s almost too faint to be helpful, but I guess that’s the point.
The audio relies on bangs and other jump scares, and may catch some unsuspecting gamers off guard. However, as a horror vet, I found the experience to be kind of predictable. The ending wasn’t very surprising, either, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how cheesy the mom’s voice acting can be.
With all that being said, it’s tough for me to wholeheartedly recommend Among the Sleep. If you love horror, and can stomach some clunky puzzles and slow-paced fetch quests, then you may find some enjoyment here. It’s just not the game I was hoping it would be. I didn’t hate it, but the first half was much better than the latter, and things became a slog far too quickly.
This review is based on the Xbox One port of the game, which we were provided with.
Among the Sleep is unfortunately a rather slow, predictable, ho-hum and sluggish horror game, which prefers fetch quests over interesting and involved gameplay.