Review: Limbo

ON THE EDGE OF HELL

Developer: Playdead
Genre: Puzzle Platformer
Platform: Xbox 360 [Xbox Live Arcade]
Release Date: July 21, 2010
Compatability: File Size 117MB | HDTV 1080p
Rating: 9.0

Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade has showcased a fantastic array of titles since its debut in 2008. From the hilarious co-op madness of Castle Crashers to last year’s Metroid love letter Shadow Complex, the period from July to August has been so rich in quality that the rest of the year on the platform can seem rather barren by comparison. It’s a pleasure to say that Limbo, this year’s first Summer of Arcade release, more than lives up to the high standards set by its predecessors.

The first game from Copenhagen-based studio Playdead, Limbo sits neatly in the puzzle-platformer sub-genre. Its closest analog is probably 2008’s Braid, though Limbo leans more towards the latter category than Jonathan Blow’s critically acclaimed effort. You play as a young boy. Whilst the game’s description makes reference to a search for your sister, any such exposition is absent from the game itself. A forest scene fades in from black, your character blinks awake and it begins. The brilliance of Limbo’s storytelling is in its minimalist approach. No explanation is necessary; the game’s ghostly backdrops, dormant machinery, and infrequent glimpses of hostile children suggest just enough to provoke doubts and questions in the player’s mind. Taking its cues in this department from Team Ico’s previous works, Limbo is refreshing in that it offers few answers to the questions it inevitably raises. It asks players to forget about ‘why’ or ‘how’ and instead concentrate on the feelings which the game conveys so wonderfully: fear, uncertainty and loss.

In Limbo, there is no one to help you.

The boy is the perfect vessel for this. Not only is he animated beautifully, but he’s one of the most empathetic characters seen in a game for a long time. Again like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, the player bonds with the silent protagonist in a way not possible in any other medium. The first time you wander into a bear trap, hear the harsh metal snap, and see the boy’s eyes blink shut is a moment not easily forgotten. Sound design is also key here; the game’s soundtrack consists of little original ‘music’. Rather it is scored by ambient environmental noise, be it the chirp of insects, the drone of a generator or the whine of a buzz-saw. It’s a dynamic accompaniment which is eerie, terrifying and hauntingly sad in equal measure. The muffled footsteps and laboured breathing of the boy help to communicate the desolation of the character’s surroundings, whilst also serving as a constant reminder of his frailty. This connection between player and character, which develops further over the course of the game, only deepens the heartbreak felt at its conclusion. Limbo’s ending is profound and understated, and it reaches its emotional zenith in the few, brief moments after the credits have rolled.

Moving on to examine Limbo’s aesthetic, one thing springs to mind instantly: the game is flat out gorgeous. Restricting the palette to black and white can seem limiting on paper, but in practise Playdead have managed to create something both identifiable and alien at once. Screenshots are instantly recognisable, though the game has to be seen in motion for its beauty to be truly demonstrated. It transitions from forest to swamp to industrial site without a single load screen, and this continuity weaves Limbo into one exquisite tapestry. In 20 years time, the next-gen realism of today’s games may not stand up. Limbo unquestionably will.

You will die a lot in Limbo.

On a basic level, progression in Limbo involves travelling from left to right in order to reach an ultimate goal, as in most platformers. Little is new here and in terms of gameplay, Limbo offers scarce innovation. What is present though is certainly well-executed. Controls are tight, movement satisfying, and the many morbid traps and obstacles require timing and dexterity to navigate. There is nothing which will particularly test a New Super Mario Bros. veteran, but then the real challenge in Limbo comes from its brainteasers. The game’s first two-thirds can be navigated quickly and smoothly, but proceedings did grind to a halt when I was confronted with a room-filling, mechanical monstrosity of a puzzle.

Despite this the game is paced well overall, with no idea outstaying its welcome, and subtle environmental hints preventing frustration from slipping in. It’s a perfectly measured experience which unfortunately ends rather too soon. This is less of a problem than it might be though, as the game lends itself well to replaying. The hidden achievement ‘eggs’ alone will keep some invested, whilst the game’s meticulous construction and atmosphere will be enough for others. I’ve played through from start to finish three times now, I’ve cried a little, and I know I’ll pick it up again in years to come.

Reviewed by Ross – August 15, 2010

Graphics
The ‘restricting’ black and white palette is gorgeous. Limbo’s animation us top-notch.
 
Sound
Again limited original music but impressive environmental sound effects. You will feel alone listening to Limbo.
 
Fun
A very original game which cannot be missed by all Xbox 360 owners. You will enjoy Limbo to the full. Great.
 
Final Score

 

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Responses

  1. You sir, are a fine writer.

  2. This is a wonderful game. well worth the money.


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