31st May2019

‘Among the Sleep’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

among-sleep-switch

Krillbite Studios’ existential horror adventure Among the Sleep was originally released in 2014. This Enhanced Edition came to PC in 2017 and is now arriving on consoles. The enhancements include “new dialogue, better performance and visuals”; and while it has elements that betray its low-budget, early-gen origins, it is still an effective nightmare with an original setting.

The title Among the Sleep intriguingly refers to the point between waking and sleep – somewhere vivid for young children as they negotiate the boundary between reality and the imagination. You play a kid on their second birthday. Mum puts him in his cot and leaves the room. Something terrible happens, so you pick up your best friend Teddy and embark on an adventure, first into the darkness of the house, and then into a realm of dreams.

The core gameplay is familiar: traverse the environment, solving simple logic and physics puzzles, whilst avoiding the threat of the enemy. What makes Among the Sleep different is that the world is made up of everyday items that seem alien and outsized because of your age. A chest of drawers is a mighty barrier – you’ll need to slide open the drawers to create steps to climb up. What the puzzles lack in variety and ingenuity, they make up for in purpose. Your quest is to recover specific memories, to complete the picture of your mother. Each memory takes the form of an object – a music box, say, or a book. The concept plays on the essential childhood fear or separation. You are willing Mother back into existence through the inventory of the imagination. The shock ending arrives only too swiftly, barely three hours in.

Your enemy is a nameless horror: a crazed Mother made from shadow; some awful misapprehension of an infant mind. She stalks you, and in these sections there is some light sneaking and hiding. She’s not too difficult to avoid, and there are few of the frustrating, show-stopping insta-kills of Alien Isolation. When things get too dark, you can hug Teddy – he acts as a torch, illuminating what’s around you.

On Switch, performance is reasonably smooth in docked mode. It appears to waver between 25 and 40 FPS, but it rarely chugs and the loading times are brisk. However Among the Sleep fares worse in handheld mode, especially later on, when the combination of more complex level design and warping screen effects drop the framerate considerably.

among-sleep-screen

Some of the animations betray the limited production values. In the cutscenes, Mother is particularly stiff, and the voice-acting isn’t top-tier. In-game, the physics are solid – but less so certain objects in the environment, with frequent clipping breaking the immersion. The world you traverse would appear to be a playground, but it’s largely an illusion; most objects cannot be manipulated or climbed upon unless absolutely necessary for progression.

It’s worth picking out the sound design for praise. A creepy cacophony follows your every step. The everyday sounds of creaking floorboards or laughing children are rendered alien, ringing with echo and reverb. Adult voices come and go, sometimes with words and sometimes in the form of breaths and gasps. It’s very unsettling.

The first challenge with Among the Sleep is getting your head around the concept that you are an adult mind in control of a tiny, confused, stumbling child. But I was surprised by how much the game made me empathise with this vulnerable little sprog. What a weird place the world is to the uninitiated. And, despite its myriad of technical flaws, what a weirdly ambitious and impressive game this is.

Among the Sleep is out on Nintendo Switch now from SOEDESCO.

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