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Limbo Second Opinion

Sparky Clarkson's picture

What you Don't Know Will Kill you... Twice

Limbo Screenshot

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? Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

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.

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

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Great childhood analogy! I

Great childhood analogy!

I think you "grow up" as you play the game and that's why it gets easier as you go along. You slowly overcome your fear of darkness, the unknown and even failure.

Maybe that is why you did not like the latter part of the game - you didn't want to grow up!

Pah, I think Limbo is

Pah, I think Limbo is overrated. All style, little substance other than a few brain teasers and definitely not as good as Braid.

Sure its very atmospheric and puzzle mechanisms are simple yet natural and effective. But I couldn't help but feel the much lauded art style was just a cop-out by the game developers. Like "Erm we don't really have any decent graphic developers so lets paint everything in a simple 2D and paint everything in black and shades of gray". Very cynical opinion I know but I'm not convinced that the final product, as effective as it was, was actually intended in the first instance.

And I agree that the game kind of loses it's edge in the second half. The puzzles towards the end of the game lack the subtle charm and intelligence of the ones nearer the beginning.

As for the the story, well WHAT story exactly? To me it was just a series of trial-by-death challenges, and I felt the game needed to provide more motivation than the curiosity of wondering what the hell it was all about to move forwards.

And can someone please explain the ending??

re: Alv

Alv wrote:

Pah, I think Limbo is overrated. All style, little substance other than a few brain teasers and definitely not as good as Braid.

I think the comparison here is useful, because despite their shared genre Limbo and Braid are almost complete opposites. Braid is very dense and detailed, both in its rococo visuals and in its sound design. It has a clear goal, a powerful protagonist whose skills and abilities obviously progress, and it is rich with information. In fact it is too rich; it has so much story (albeit vaguely presented) that it is difficult to find the through-line that represents its "truth". It's ambiguous because there's enough information present to support two dozen different hypotheses about what's going on. But, to the extent that we can tell something about the protagonist, it is that he is a man who knows a great deal but doesn't understand the things he wants to. The type of ambiguity Braid possesses puts the player in the same position.

Limbo, by contrast, is extremely spare. Ambiguity exists here because there's barely enough information to solidly support one hypothesis about the game. But again, this is appropriate because a child lacks both knowledge and understanding, even of his own motives sometimes. Which is a long way of saying: I'm not sure Limbo needs a story.

It doesn't surprise me that different people find different kinds of ambiguity appealing. I personally didn't enjoy the state of ignorance Limbo keeps you in, but then, by training and profession I am accustomed to dealing with data, not the unknown. Uncomfortable though it was, I thought the feeling served the aesthetic.

Alv wrote:

I couldn't help but feel the much lauded art style was just a cop-out by the game developers.

I could not disagree more with this assessment. Firstly, the art style serves a coherent aesthetic, as I've outlined. Moreover, the evidence from the game itself (for instance, the detailed backgrounds and the animation of the spiders) is that Playdead's graphical developers are pretty skilled. Also, I don't think making an intelligible game in grayscale silhouette is easier than creating one in color, so it's tough for me to understand how this could be seen as a "cop-out" even if, as you assert, Playdead's people were no-talent hacks.

Maybe I was being a bit

Maybe I was being a bit harsh with my initial criticism of the art style.

But I just didn't enjoy the game as much as what many reviews out there purport. It's certainly not a 9.5/10 (Brad's review) number-one-stocking-filler-best-of-year-great anyway.

It neither delights with the playfulness of World of Goo, nor stimulates with the cleverness and originality of Braid, nor absorbs with it's aesthetic and setting as does Machinarium, nor engages with the visceral quality of any number of full price mainstream productions.

I guess it's memorable yes, but I think this is only for it's unique art-style. But where Machinarium's art-style (and music) beautifully complements the story and setting, there was no story here... no setting to give the art more than a just superficially creepy quality.

As for the puzzle mechanic, it is praised for it's elegant and intuitive simplicity but can be equally criticised for offering no more than what one can expect of an extended Flash application.

I guess that's it. It felt like a decent Flash game. Like an extended and modern update of Crimson Room. Perhaps fun, perhaps memorable, but ultimately throw-away.

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