The haunted mansion concept might have been done before, but solving the secrets of the dark and sinister walls at the old Castevet mansion in Insomnis, this short first-person horror title does not feel like a road retred, with its puzzles instead unveiling an intriguing story and tension-filled experience.
Created by a grand total of two people, this title will tear your nerves to shreds and uses – in my opinion – the perfect balance of horror and interactivity (which I’ve touched on before) by taking as much functionality and control away from the player as possible and then frightening the bejesus out of you with a tense soundtrack and the threat of ‘something’ appearing out of nowhere to steal your soul.
The game starts as you learn that your grandfather has bequeathed his entire estate to you upon his death and, as presumably his sole living relative, its up to you to visit his home and go through it. An easy enough task – or so you’d think – as it seems its still resident to something eager to show you the disturbing events that the walls have recently been witness to.
Clues are dotted around the house for you to discover and apply to puzzles that progress the story linearly, as well as postcards and written reports that act as backstory collectibles, and despite its relatively simple formula, is done excellently, with each puzzle having a reason for taking place in that specific location and in that order. They are also super freaky and always had me dreading what would happen if I actually solved them.
You are also utterly powerless from preventing anything that occurs in front of you, other than shining your rather ineffective flashlight at it or picking up objects. Contrasting with horror title Outlast though, which also takes all potential abilities away from the protagonist, there’s no need to hide from your pursuers in cupboards under the threat of being bludgeoned to death and there are no lives or health bar to speak of, but the fear of the unknown is always that much more terrifying, and as you are being guided through the house to fill in the gaps of your estranged grandfather’s past, there’s absolutely no let up.
The conductor pulling the strings in this regard is a soundtrack that has you completely wrapped around its finger. It’s not particularly varied but doesn’t need to be, as when the freaky pulsating drone that occupies the audio track stops entirely to a deafening silence, you pray for it to return as the fever pitch-level tension puts you on tenterhooks and convinced that something is about to jump out at you.
Playing the secondary role in supporting the sky-high tension is a clever level design that not only has you learn every nook and cranny of the house off by heart, but combines it with the game’s lighting, or lack thereof, and restricts your view to such an extent that it allows for newly built tension from each story thread to be sustained, even though it’s often the same hallways that you are walking down.
In fact, Insomnis achieved what I hope every videogame would – it completely turned my expectations upside down, by putting together elements that I have long considered poorly implemented. A true horror title with limited functionality made it terrifying, and its puzzles had a justifiable reason for their existence when so often they seem artificially included as filler gameplay. Poor lighting also doesn’t seem like it’s penalizing the player and instead aids the experience.
It’s not all faded sunshine and wilted roses though, as there are reminders that you’re not looking at a AAA title, with its runtime (4-5 hours) and some of the trickier elements lacking. The character models, for example, contrast to the quality of the Unreal engine’s environment detail and the amateurish voice acting defuses tension at inopportune times, but overall, Insomnis’s memorable set-piece puzzles, and its ending, which gives you a couple of choices on how to wrap up the fates of the characters, will more than likely have you thankful that you took the jump in playing it.