The Inpatient review
Going to acknowledge the elephant in the room: this is my first review of a VR game. I had concerns that, as something of a late-comer here, there might be too many details about the experience of VR itself that would distract from being able to focus on the game appropriately. I’m pleased to report that I am now a master of dancing around my living room, in my underwear, while a giant glowing Playstation helmet gives me the powers I need to constantly trip on furniture that I swear to God was far enough away that it could not hurt me. In pursuit of better video games journalism, I actually bailed on the game featured in this interview to get myself better familiarized with other VR titles first.
I also put on pants. Just want you to appreciate how hard I’m trying here.
The Inpatient on Playstation VR is the third title in the strangest trilogy of games in history. Until Dawn was a 2015 title that saw a group of teenagersstalked by a supernatural being on a mountain, and played as an adventure game with interactive quicktime events. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is a 2016 entry that marked one of the intro PSVR titles and carries with it the scope and issues that come with that; it’s an on-rails shooter set on the literal rails of a rollercoaster. And now we have The Inpatient.
The first thing to notice about The Inpatient is that it makes no attempt, either in-game or in-marketing, to tie itself to the series Until Dawn despite being a prequel to the events of that game set 60 years earlier.
I have so many questions about what is happening before even getting into the game. If this is meant to let the game stand on its own, or to make the connections to the flagship title pop as late game surprises, then that’s a noble endeavour. But Until Dawn is also a celebrated horror title among those who actually played it, and leaving the name off the prequel makes it look like a semi-known games studio is just dropping a middling looking VR title onto the Playstation store. This review is probably the first time you heard these two games were linked, but that’s overwhelmingly because I doubt you heard that The Inpatient exists at all.
Until Dawn was celebrated for its choice system, which returns right out of the gate for The Inpatient. You’re in an asylum,strapped to a chair, while an elderly doctor keeps shoving his face directly into yours. The claustrophobia and power-game that launches this experience is wildly effective. The standard fare amnesiac storyline is completely overshadowed by the effect of what you’re immersed in -- including the use of flashbacks which burst to life like technicolor jump scares. There’s a halfway decent mystery introduced in a fully realized location at the Blackwood Sanatorium. You meet some nurses,doctors, and other patients; but then the game grinds to a brutal halt.
You spend the next hour of the game stuck in a single room. You are indeed an inpatient but dear god did it make me impatient for anything to happen. You can see the machinations of the storytelling machine setting up around you. There are always two choices in dialogue responses which are thankfully presented in conjunction with the tone in which the lines will be delivered, so you don’t say something that seems friendly only to find it was delivered as an attack. You can say each line of dialog into the speaker on your controller, which is a great way to immerse yourself further in the game, and also make your roommate come check on you, just in case something terrible has befallen you.
It's the tech version of letting the audience know: Mayhaps we bit off more than we can chew.
There are also loading screens that mask themselves as blackout jump-scares, which escalate in frequency as the game continues. It is ineffective at first and by the end it is completely infuriating. It's the tech version of letting the audience know: Mayhaps we bit off more than we can chew.
All of this gamifying of what is basically a TellTale adventure cannot redeem that fact that you’re stuck in a single room. Admittedly, there are ideas at work here, setting up tension for what comes next and occasionally breaking away to quick nightmare sequences as you sleep in your cell at the end of each day. But for a game with a less than three hour runtime, this feels like a cheap workaround. Depressingly, I became convinced that this was somehow the entire game and nearly bailed. That’s when some kind of monster tore through the hospital, killing everyone, and freeing me from my cell.
Here we go.
As I attempted to exit my room, I ran into a problem that I became convinced was a problem with me. I tried to adjust all of my VR gear. I moved the camera. I restarted the Playstation. I took to the internet to double check that I, the “New VR Boy”, was not making a fundamental mistake in how games like this function. It turns out there is no fix for what I had encountered, and unfortunately it must become the focus of my interview.
Controls in The Inpatient allow you to move your body forwards and backwards, while making small adjustments in pre-determined angles. Your head can look in any direction, and you will need to move your controller to aim your flashlight into the darkness as you attempt to navigate the haunted hallways of Blackwood. But no matter how you adjust the settings for making turns with your body, it is nearly impossible to keep your head, your flashlight, and your body facing the same direction. This means that walking -- the simple act of walking -- is nearly impossible. It is the single greatest frustration I have ever experienced in video games. Whoever made the decision to give your head a separate set of Resident Evil style tank controls is, perhaps, history’s greatest monster.
It is an embarrassing situation to be in. The Inpatient is a great looking game, and a clever experience with multiple plotlines to explore. The world is fantastic with every corner and window and blinking light fully realized. It has style but also gives you all you could want from a Hannibal VR experience, and the voice acting is top-notch across the board. There are choices with stakes and some sequences that illicit pure terror while others dip into the nightmares of metaphorical dream logic.
But also: I cannot walk through a god-damned door.
I cannot walk in a straight line.
I ran around my living room twisting my head at bizarre angles in hopes that I could pick up a piece of paper in game that was six inches slightly outside of where The Inpatient believed myreach could exist. Some items are highlighted so brightly that you can see what you’re looking for from multiple rooms away. In the same veinI also spent thirty minutes trying to realize that I could call an elevator using the “call elevator” button because the game had no prompt to show me I needed to raise my controller at an angle instead of using the “interact” button I had used the entire game.
At multiple points, instead of speaking into my controller to make in game choices, I simply and flatly begged a stranger to “Make it stop.”
Then I tried to do an escort mission behind a person I couldn’t follow because I was trapped on a table I couldn’t see, so I resorted to looking down -- into the broken glitchy insides of my own virtual body -- in an attempt to decipher which direction my feet were facing. Turns out I had turned my body completely around and was now trapped within myself. I then missed an entire series of jump scares because I was looking the wrong way and had become stuck on a hallway. Not against the walls of the hallway but unable to proceed forward, backward, or at an angle through the hallway. I am exaggerating none of this for humorous effect. At multiple points, instead of speaking into my controller to make in game choices, I simply and flatly begged a stranger to “Make it stop.”
But... But there’s so much good here. The Inpatient is a smartly made game that creates effective tension and scares amid a slow burn that also offers a real amount of replayability while also being the rare prequel title that improves the world of the main game by providing a complicated and powerful backstory. It is also, despite my best efforts and the aid of all resources online, a completely broken experience. I worried that I wasn’t prepared enough to review this title, but it turns out that the game wasn’t prepared for me. Similarly, the true horror of The Inpatient is that looks like the best scary title available on PSVR right now, but a truly worthwhile game is imprisoned behind a wall of design choices that only an actual monster would make.