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Limbo Review

Brad Gallaway's picture

Lost (and Found) in Shadows

Limbo Screenshot

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. Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

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.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360  
Developer(s): PlayDead  
Genre(s): Puzzle   Weird   Arcade   Horror  
ESRB Rating: Teen (13+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Limbo is undoubtedly a great

Limbo is undoubtedly a great game. However, one of the few things i believe it does not really succeed at the trial & error when solving puzzles.

This can be because you are sliding some slope and you failed to see where you needed to jump off or because you should not have activated a switch or something. That means that death by trial and error is something that is in the game a lot, especially if you fail to understand how a particular puzzle is solved.

Braid managed to overcome this by "cheating death" basically and thus integrating these trial and error situations in a much more organic manner and also within the game's storytelling.

The reason i am commenting about this is that i am constantly comparing Braid and Limbo now. I think you are more of a Limbo fan than a Braid fan so i would like your take on where you think Limbo is better than Braid.

This is a little difficult

This is a little difficult to answer since I think a lot of it comes down to personal preference, but I will try to do my best...

The first part is that for me, Limbo has a much stronger and more appealing art style and aesthetic. The strong blacks and whites are very powerful, and that kind of imagery has a more potent effect on me than Braid’s style.

In terms of gameplay, I prefer Limbo’s kind of puzzles. I honestly didn't have a hard time with very many of them, and I do think that most of the puzzles can be solved without dying if a player is careful about observing the situation. A little guesswork is involved and good reflexes certainly help, but my feeling is that players who pay very close attention will be able to avoid most of the dying and repetition that some players reported.

Looking at Braid, I found it to be much more frustrating and unintuitive. Perhaps that's just the way my brain works, but I very often found that it was hard to tell whether I was doing the right thing or not. I haven't played Braid in a while, but I clearly remember thinking that there were several puzzles that came down to split-second timing and wondering whether my timing was off, or whether I was trying to solve a puzzle wrong way.
I'm sure that some people would say that Braid is an easier game than Limbo, but I found the reverse to be true.

In terms of story, I did not feel that Braid did a good job of integrating gameplay with the plot. To start with, the plot was nearly unintelligible to me and it took a lot of research and FAQs before I finally got down to the "real" meaning about the atomic bomb and such. Without those FAQs, I don't think I would've ever understood it. In this instance, I felt as though the developer had the idea for the plot, and then sort of shoved it into the game without really making the two things come together. I know there are plenty of people who say that Braid is pretty wonderful in this sense, but I just don't see it. I certainly don't feel it. It seems needlessly esoteric to me, and that's never a good thing.

By contrast, Limbo is more about mood and tone and feeling. In fact, I would say that story doesn't really even enter into the game until perhaps the last scene, and even then, it's so wide open to interpretation that you could see the game in any number of ways. Although I do love story in my games, Limbo's approach in focusing on atmosphere without including a concrete narrative is a very valid way to go, and I appreciated it very much. If nothing else, I can say that I have very strong feelings and reactions when playing Limbo, whereas when going through Braid the most I felt was frustrated and confused.

So, there's the answer to your question. I'm not trying to say that one game is necessarily better than the other since so much of this is totally subjective, but in my personal view, it's pretty clear to me which one is the better experience.

I'm in agreement with Brad,

I'm in agreement with Brad, and I enjoyed Braid quite a bit too.

Although I did enjoy the writing employed in Braid's text areas, I felt it was all poorly integrated into the gameplay. It simply takes too much legwork to pull meaning from Braid by tying together the platformer gameplay, the time bending mechanic and the text. Once I started to read online FAQs about how the game is a commentary on the atomic bomb, I thought to myself that I'd be disappointed if that was what the text was about.

I feel Kojima made instructive commentary on weapons of mass destruction less ambiguously, yet more earnestly, in 1998.

Limbo's story is spare for sure. Only Pong or Geometry Wars (or similar ilk) have had less story. Limbo has about as much story as Pac-Man. Hell even Pac-Man had cutscenes.

But I view Limbo more like a visual poem. Poems never have to contain subtext or metatext, it just has to encourage feeling and self-reflection through descriptive, lyrical imagery. Poems are obviously created through meticulous, thoughtful design, as this platformer/puzzler has.

Limbo isn't my favorite game of the year. Red Dead Redemption is. But Limbo is perfect in ways that Red Dead Redemption can never be.

Where i believe Limbo really

Where i believe Limbo really excelled at was how they allowed the player to slowly learn the game without the need for a tutorial. You never felt that the game required you to do anything that you never knew could be done. Right up to the end.

Braid on the other hand did have a few puzzles like that and for me it was the harder of the two games. However, although Braid's puzzles were not as intuitive as Limbo's i really appreciated how it forced me into a different way of thinking. It pushed my boundaries so to speak and i genuinely felt like the smartest guy in the world when i solved one.

I agree that on storytelling both games are too vague and blurry. If you need to go outside the game to learn what it about then there is no point. Also Braid's attempt of storytelling through txt between the worlds was a minor "failure". Such storytelling should ideally be ingrained into the gameplay.

What i will always love about Braid is that it has shown what games should be about in the era of high budget AAA titles. It took a saturated and supposedly mature genre and gave us something fresh and unique. It was all about a guy's willigness to see his vision through. Limbo (and Winterbottom) are part of this legacy.

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