Score: 3.5/10 Platform: PlayStation 4 Developer: Supermassive Games Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Release Date: January 23, 2018 ESRB: M
The Inpatient is the sort of game the nascent medium of virtual reality needs more of.
Or at least it would be if it were any good.
The best VR experiences take advantage of the technology’s singular ability to immerse us in other worlds. They also throw conventional ideas about what a game should be out the window, boldly carving new paths in how we can be entertained through interactivity.
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To its credit, the PlayStation 4-exclusive The Inpatient does all of this. Set in a creepy, remote sanatorium in the mountains of Alberta, it puts us in the skin of an amnesiac patient undergoing some strange form of therapy. We suffer intense visions and nightmares, have a thoroughly crazy roommate, and are tended to by suspicious staff. We interact with other characters by talking to them. Not just picking text responses, but verbally talking to them. We’re provided dialogue options that we can speak aloud with inflection to respond to those around us. It’s a pretty cool idea that helps make the player feel even more a part of the story.
So far so good. We’ve got an atmospheric setting and an intriguing premise that could go just about anywhere, thanks in part to an ambitious choose-your-own-adventure style bit of narrative design in which the player’s decisions shape the events and outcome of the story. Key plot details will remain hidden or be revealed, and characters will survive or perish based on your responses and actions.
But the writers at U.K.-based Supermassive Games don’t seem to know how to make the most of what they’ve created.
My experience of The Inpatient, which lasted about two hours, was so full of plot holes created by my choices that by the time it ended I had almost no idea what had happened. It felt like a movie in which the key expository scenes had been edited out, resulting in something completely nonsensical and thoroughly unfulfilling. I had only a vague idea who my character was, and almost no clue what had happened to cause the many horrors I walked by and witnessed in the sanatorium.
I can imagine the game’s makers saying, “well, that’s why you need to play again, so you can make different decisions and begin filling in the gaps.” That would be a fair argument, if my initial experience was enjoyable enough to make me want to play again. It was not.
Making the Swiss cheese narrative even harder to bear is the stilted dialogue and wooden performances through which it’s delivered. I’m not sure if some of the actors’ unnatural, ill-fitting readings are simply a function of holes created by the branching narrative or just poor direction, but it doesn’t really matter. The result is the same: A thoroughly B-movie vibe that is at times almost laughable.
And it doesn’t help that much of what happens outside of dialogue sequences is just as poorly executed.
Movement is painfully slow. I must have spent nearly a quarter of my time walking at a snail’s pace down dark and empty hallways with nothing to do except brace myself for the occasional startle courtesy of a cheap jump scare destined to go unexplained.
And interactions with objects – door handles, pieces of paper, bottles – are intensely awkward, possessing none of the intuitive and immersive grace of other VR games. I watched as my arm bent at odd angles and struggled moving the controller to make my hand do what I wanted it to do.
Virtual reality in general and PlayStation VR in particular are capable of much better horror experiences than The Inpatient. But the medium is beginning to lose the glossy sheen that comes with all new toys. Developers need to start delivering the transporting experiences we’ve been promised, lest the masses, once delighted, begin to lose interest and shuffle along to the next technological bauble.