Limbo is an XBox Live arcade game, part of the Summer of Arcade that saw a slew of quality releases for the platform over the last couple of months. I remember leading up to the game’s release, I actually knew nothing about it, but kept hearing some buzz as people grew more and more excited. And even then, once I decided to look at a few screenshots, it was hard to get a sense of what people were so juiced up about. I remember people saying the same thing about Braid when it was released, and while I thought it was a good game, it seemed a bit overhyped and not as incredible as others made it out to be. In fact, I didn’t even finish that one.
However, after several of my friends raved about the short experience of Limbo, comparing it almost to Portal in its profundity and fun factor, I decided to give it a try. I downloaded the trial game, ready to play it and then toss it aside, never intending to click on that “purchase full game” option on the dashboard menu. But then I played the demo, and something happened. I was entranced by an atmosphere, thick and heavy and foreboding. I was lured by the puzzles and the platforming. And as soon as the trial ended, I didn’t hesitate to upgrade.
So what’s the big deal?
Let’s start with the basics. The description of the game on the XBox Marketplace sums up Limbo as the following: Uncertain of his Sister’s Fate, a Boy enters LIMBO… And that’s about all you get. There is no dialogue, no real cut scenes to speak of. The game begins in darkness, and a boy awakens in a grassy forest, surrounded by nothing but a few butterflies as the sun pours in through the trees. And then you start moving and exploring.
You see, on the surface Limbo seems like a run-of-the-mill indie platforming game. A 2D sidescroller tapping into nostalgia. Nothing about it really seems impressive at first glance. Its simple black-and-white art style isn’t flashy to behold in the slightest when you view screenshots, but becomes captivating when seen in motion. The dark figure of the boy set against the dark dangers of the world of Limbo is simultaneously exhilarating and frightening.
That’s right, frightening. I know I sound like I’m speaking in hyperbole here, but Limbo is one of the scariest games I’ve played. And not scary in a Resident Evil “boo!” kind of way. But scary in the sense of a building dread. That there’s something lurking around every corner. Some new menace, some new way of killing you: whether its spikes, bear traps, buzzsaws or simple gravity trying to do you in, everything is a threat. And let’s not even get to the living things. Let’s just say a large chunk of the first of the game is spent trying to elude a large spider that is actively hunting you while you are trying to solve puzzles to navigate your way through the world…
And speaking of things trying to kill you, you will die in Limbo. A lot. Limbo hearkens back to the old school days of trial-and error, but the consequences aren’t just a pixelated main character falling into the depths, never to be seen from again. No, the consequences in Limbo are all very real. You will watch the boy get mutilated, decapitated, skewered, impaled, crushed, battered and shocked to death any number of times, and the effect never seems to lose its shock value. Or at least to me, it didn’t.
The puzzles that kill you also make you feel both stupid and brilliant all at once. As I said earlier, comparing this game to Portal is fair and true in the sense that as you work out the puzzles of the environment, you feel both challenged and rewarded constantly. I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve played a game that truly stumped me, only to feel like a total moron when the answer was staring right back at me the whole time. Add to that the puzzles where the answer is obvious, but the execution requires careful timing and precision, feats of gaming mastery that make you cheer when you finally pull them off. Its crazy that in such a simple game, such complex things can be done, proving once again that gameplay is key.
While I’m gushing, let’s just say the game has some of the most fantastic puzzling/platforming I’ve ever played, and that includes Portal. Remember the last levels of that game, when you realize the kinds of things the game creators are asking you to do, and then you smile and think “this is crazy”. This is how Limbo made me feel. Without giving too much away, I’ll let you know that that there are an insane series of rotating levels that happen later in the game which instantly catapult it to classic status in my mind.
Speaking of simplicity, I wanted to mention both the sound design and the score. As soon as the game boots up, you’re greeted with the sounds of the forest, washing over the boy as he wakes up. As the game progresses, you navigate a variety of environments, and the only sounds are the ambient tracks of each environment or the grizzly contraptions that score their kills. It’s almost unnerving how eerily quiet the game is, and reminded me of the same feeling I got when playing the Myst games for the first time. In fact, the total sense of solitude becomes completely disrupted once you start to see the signs of other human life. It’s all very disturbing. On top of that, the game is only occasionally punctuated by a short bit of music, a gong or some other note that shows you the mood of the place you’re in. It’s creepy and almost always perfect.
There has been some talk about Limbo’s length, as well as its ending, but as we discussed on a recent thread here, I feel that pacing is a much more important thing to talk about. Limbo never feels like it’s short or long. In fact, I’d say the pacing in Limbo to me feels great. I never once got tired of the game as I made my way from puzzle to puzzle, traversing to new areas in search of… whatever it is that the boy ultimately found. The game ends on a mysterious, ambiguous beat, and while I feel that this can sometimes be a bad thing if mishandled, I think that PlayDead wrapped it in a way that was very poignant and appropriately mysterious.
I’ve had to debate it a lot, but I finally decided on giving Limbo the coveted “S” grade. It stands as a shining example of a game being more than the sum of its many excellent parts, from gameplay to design all the way down to the title screen. It already stands as one of my top games of the year, pretty close to Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect 2, which is no easy feat. I feel like it can easily enter the conversation along with the likes of Portal and Shadow of the Colossus in the “games as art” debate, as a short and sweet sample of what games can do when they are made with passion, thought and depth.
To put it simply: go play Limbo.
How does our grading system work? Check out our grade chart!