Game Description: Uncertain of his Sister's Fate, a Boy enters LIMBO.
HIGH Seeing the game in motion and realizing it's not a cut-scene.
LOW The post-zipline area at the end is the game's only "cheap" puzzle.
WTF With that ending...
While publishers and developers bemoan the current "gotta go big" mindset of massive resource teams and million-dollar budgets, crafting eye-melting blockbusters isn't the only way to succeed. Quality can't always be achieved by focus groups and impossibly high polygon counts—there is much to be said for inspired design and creators who pour themselves into the work. I can't think of a better example than something like Limbo.
A small, devastatingly sincere art-house title on Microsoft's Live Arcade download service, I found Limbo to be of superior quality when judged from every possible perspective, easily eclipsing the majority of "AAA" releases this year. From the first few moments of play it was blindingly apparent that PlayDead's creation was something special, and I was pleased to discover that elusive quality maintaining itself throughout.
Best described as a work about mood and tone, the player guides a small, shadowy boy through a hostile, enigmatic world which offers nothing but vague suggestions and danger. To say anything more about it would do both the game and prospective players a disservice—in Limbo, discovery is everything.
Presented through an impossibly beautiful mix of blacks and grays that resembles nothing so much as a silent-film reel of some ephemeral netherworld, the experience is a perfect combination of form and function. While play can be succinctly described as 2D platforming and problem solving, the presentation of Limbo's physics-based puzzles goes hand-in-hand with its richly evocative visual style.
Careful observation of silhouettes in the boy's surroundings will often reveal clues to the obstacles barring his path; subdued images of death, decay and razor-sharp edges reinforce the stark brutality of the world, while at the same time alerting the player that caution is necessary. Small, easily overlooked handles can be of import, and unassuming tree branches often hold answers. Those with cool heads and a good grasp of Limbo's world will be rewarded with successful negotiation of elegant challenges that blend seamlessly with its reality.
Other aspects of Limbo are just as brilliant. The conservative use of sound (and silence) support feelings of isolation in an alien land. The lack of life bars or menus put the focus squarely on the experience itself, and the streamlined control scheme is never a barrier to the player's desire. The animation of every element is flawlessly believable—so much so, in fact, that I'd be willing to wager certain sequences will be permanently etched into the minds of many players, able to be instantly recalled (with a shudder) years from now.
Quite honestly, I found myself instantly and utterly immersed in the small boy's travails—at times captivated, at others, horrified. Limbo is without question a visceral, virtuoso performance of the kind that grips a person from start to finish. I have no doubt whatsoever that PlayDead and Limbo are going to be on a lot of people's lips starting this moment, and on a lot of numbered lists come December.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains animated blood and mild violence. Parents should be aware that while the game might give the impression of being safe for children, it's actually quite unsettling in many areas and the main character can be killed in extremely gory ways. The gore can be turned off in the menu, but even so, I would recommend parental guidance for children playing this game.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that the end of the game features an antigravity area that heavily relies on audio cues in order to inform the player when the gravity is about to switch. Without being able to hear, that section is significantly harder and will likely present a frustrating challenge. Otherwise, there is no dialogue in the game and no other areas that I found so audio-dependent.
HIGH Every moment a spider is on the screen.
LOW A puzzle near the end that relies on a blind jump.
WTF The danger-free puzzles feel like they belong in another game.
Children do not have a permanent understanding of the world. They know so little, and must learn so much, that their whole view of reality gets rewritten daily, and sometimes hourly. Adults romanticize this experience with phrase such as "childlike wonder," but in their hearts most of them find the prospect of returning to that state horrifying. They engage in a perpetual quest for easy certainty, from holy books and ancient wisdom and whatever expert confirms their biases. Limbo exists to return them to that time of childlike terror.
Limbo possesses very few constant rules. The only actions the player can perform, at least initially, are running, jumping, and grabbing. Getting the little boy who stars in the game to progress relies on using the environment, which has an ever-shifting set of dangers. The rules that govern these threats change constantly, sometimes within a single screen, and demand a full understanding before you can move forward.
The game upends almost every rule imaginable, including the laws of physics. Gears slide together and start rotating the world, and gravity gets reset to point upwards or sideways. The game occasionally even seizes control of the boy's movement, stripping away what few powers the player has.
Can we criticize Limbo for making the player die over and over, for failing to instruct the player about its own rules so he can make it through unharmed? In short, does Limbo make cheap kills? Surely it does, and for the same sin we can also criticize pleasantly textured choking hazards and fun-to-touch electrical sockets and cleaning fluid that looks just like blue raspberry Gatorade. But there is a rule to all these things: the world is full of danger. That's Limbo's rule, too.
The experience of childhood terror encoded in the game's mechanics is complemented by the game's fantastically creepy atmosphere, about which Brad wrote eloquently in his review. The dark and mysterious visuals are at their best early in the game, however. As the player progresses, the symbols onscreen become less powerful, reaching their nadir when the game introduces laser-activated gun turrets. The danger here feels too literal, less fantastic and childlike than the giant spiders and weird tribesmen that inhabited the early game.
The late game commits another sin too, in that the player is granted too much power. Giant switches give the player control over the world's gravity, and while this makes for some reasonably interesting puzzles, they're often missing the element of danger that made the earlier segments cerebral and visceral experiences. Many of the puzzles in the last half of the game are too dry and frustrating, given how little they serve Limbo's central ideas. The very end of the game rescues itself by taking back its control of gravity and making sure that every puzzle has its perils, but in a sense this is too little, too late. The spell has been broken; the player has been reminded of his potential for mastery.
Although it goes astray when it empowers the player, in its best segments Limbo successfully conveys the disorienting and threatening qualities of childhood. Its world is a perilous place, full of hidden dangers, and governed by rules that seem impossible to understand. Do you remember what that feeling was like?
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail download and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains animated blood and mild violence. The main character, a child, suffers many gruesome deaths, but they're all rendered in silhouette.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Some puzzles have audio cues that are essential or extremely helpful, so the difficulty will be increased for players who have trouble hearing. There is no dialogue.