A small boy wakes up in a dark forest. He is alone. Not the most auspicious start for a videogame, but Limbo demands your attention from the very start with its minimalist storytelling, creative visuals and challenging platform / puzzler gameplay. It’s a game totally devoid of narrative besides that which you infer from it, but in its visuals and twisted, morbid humour it creates a dark fairytale more enjoyable than most big-budget titles.
The first thing that will strike you about Limbo is the stark black and white visuals. Through a series of filters, the murky, layered visuals combine with a slightly peculiar jointed animation system creates an atmosphere really unlike anything else around. This atmosphere is amplified by the minimalist, ambient sound and total absence of music or dialogue to create something that isn’t horror in the traditional sense, but is deeply unnerving. One of the reasons I find it so effective is that it doesn’t really reference film in the way that games that are designed to shock or scare so often do; it’s actually quite refreshing to play something that can really surprise you.
Limbo will surprise you in other ways too, not all of them so pleasant. It harkens back to the platformers of the 16-bit era, with Eric Chahi’s Another World and Flashback being particular touchstones. And yes, that means sudden, maddeningly unfair deaths that you will never be able to avoid the first time around. Usually these come in the form of traps, but often you will have to die repeatedly in order to iterate your way through a particularly complex puzzle. Blessedly, checkpoints are frequent and restarts are quick, so this is nowhere near as annoying as it could be. Traps are frequently recycled into physics objects that let you solve puzzles too, with deadly bear traps coming to your aid more than once.
Death is frequent, and it is brutal. It’s all the more shocking, at least initially, because your character is a child, but the game also asks you to do things that are guaranteed to make you squeamish. Using a child’s body as a stepping stone or a weight, killing pursuers by springing a series of traps you just successfully navigated, and using the huge body of a giant spider to plug a gap you need to jump all elicit shock and revulsion, but the game never lingers on them. They happen, and then you move on to something else. The game is similarly evasive on the meaning of it’s story, giving you just enough to construct some meaning or meanings.
The puzzles are really at the heart of Limbo. Objects, creatures and the boy himself all have consistent and believable physics, and this makes the game world satisfying and believable to play with. There are a great variety of puzzles, from simple block sliding puzzles, to moving around sawblades in rotating gravity, to great head-scratching puzzles when sinister parasites take control of your movements. Even when you’ve solved a puzzle in your head, they still require a fair amount of physical skill to get through them. They’re maddening and satisfying in equal measure, but never unfair.
Limbo is a relatively short game, lasting only four to five hours, and beyond delving into its meaning and collecting achievements, it doesn’t necessarily warrant a replay. Those few hours are amazing though, and are highly recommended.
Limbo is available now on Xbox Live Arcade, priced at 1200 MS points. It was developed by Playdead Studios and published by Microsoft Game studios.