The Past Within Review (PC)

Co-op puzzle titles are becoming a favourite recent trend of mine. After the excellent We Were Here games and Escape Academy, I’ve been looking for a new title to scratch that particular itch. Enter Rusty Lake’s The Past Within, a co-op puzzle title with a twist – and one that is an easy recommendation.

The hook here is that while two people are required to solve the puzzles, you’re not technically playing together. There’s no lobby to join; instead, players must communicate to follow a couple of questions and answer them correctly to set up the right scenarios for each player. That sounds more complicated than it is, with myself and puzzle fiend Gray set up in seconds. It’s a smart way to do things though, as this allows players to cross play on PC and mobile with no need for direct connection outside of a way to voice or text chat. We used Discord in the background as the game suggests, but it’d be just as easy over a phone call or even text message.

Future players get this cube to play with using the past’s clues

Once in, players are separated by being in different times – one in the past, one in the future (based on the answers to those initial questions). The only hint we get is a letter in the past informing us that the writer has invented some sort of time travel box in the future, where two people can communicate through time.

From that, we’re left to our own devices to figure out what to do. This involves a lot of clicking about to see what might move or change, or drop an item, or give us one of a handful of jump scare moments. Each player then has to communicate what they see in the hopes that one of them may stumble upon a clue that the other can use.

One example would be a series of hidden codes found in the past. Relaying these to the person in the future will then give them a clue as to where the next code can be found. and so on and so forth. Each individual puzzle is usually only a few steps long before dropping an item and moving on to the next one.

Past players must navigate this cubic room to find clues and answers

That’s not to say they’re not tricky. While we got through the game in about 3 hours, there were a couple of moments we got pretty stuck. Granted, both times were a case of one of us not seeing the forest for the trees, but the obtuse nature of the puzzles meant we were looking for things that weren’t there.

Outside of these few moments though, the puzzle difficulty was pretty well pitched. They had just the right amount of obtuseness to them while still giving each of us something to latch on to to keep things moving. There’s also the option for players to go through again with different solutions by answering those initial questions differently. Again, it’s a great set-up and effectively doubles the playtime on offer.

The presentation of The Past Within is great too. In the past, the 2D hand-drawn art gets a sepia-filtered look, while in the future we’re presented with a 3D cube that we can rotate around to solve the puzzles – think something along the lines of The Room. There’s a tinge of horror to proceedings too, with a few creepy flashes and the aforementioned jump scares.

If I had to nit-pick, I’d say that the story wasn’t overly interesting and there were those few puzzles we got stuck on that could have been a bit less obtuse. There’s also no hint system in place so for one of them we had to resort to a little Google-action unfortunately.

Conclusion

We’ve been wanting to see more co-op puzzle titles and The Past Within is a fantastic entry to the genre. Smart pacing and an interesting premise and set-up make for an evening well spent with a friend.

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This game was tested and reviewed on PC (via Steam). All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by the publisher.
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Good
  • Good pacing
  • Interesting co-op set-up
  • Generally well designed puzzles
  • Mild horror elements used well
Bad
  • No in game hint system
  • A couple of puzzles were a tad too obtuse
8.5
Great
Written by
I've been gaming since Spy vs Spy on the Master System, growing up as a Sega kid before realising the joy of multi-platform gaming. These days I can mostly be found on smaller indie titles, the occasional big RPG and doing poorly at Rainbow Six: Siege. Gamertag: Enaksan

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