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SummaryA modern (art?) masterpiece
- Limbo succeeds on so many levels it's hard to know exactly where to begin, not just because it does such a vast number of things right, but because it successfully integrates every component together into such a cohesive, well-oiled machine that it's nearly impossible to separate them, even for the purposes of a review. But I guess I must try, and the first thing that I'll lavish praise on is the graphics, which are simultaneously beautiful and haunting. This is an indie game, no doubt about it - 2D platformers have, in recent years, become extremely popular as a genre for the indie scene, and it's been common to delineate these games as "indie" by their graphical presentation, which tend to be stylistically unique, at least from the mainstream. In this sense Limbo has a quintessentially "indie" look, but it is unlike anything out there - the game is completely monochromatic, there is only white, black, and shades of grey. And yet it doesn't feel simple, in any way. A depth-of-field effect makes the background recede, which gives the world a definite sense of three-dimensionality; and it's surprising how much detail the game's artists were able to impart to silhouettes.
- This helps to give the game one of the most disturbing atmospheres I can recall having ever encountered in a game. The aesthetically dark world is only part of it. You control a little boy, who wakes up in a forest. From that point on the game begins - no backstory, explanation, or dialogue of any kind is offered throughout the entire game. You have to make your way through a terrifying world full of traps, monsters, and dangerous environments. When you die - and you will die, again and again - it is brutal and violent. The indifference with which the game hurls you through these obstacles again and again feels almost malevolent. Did you ever play Portal? Imagine a voiceless, humorless, infinitely more sinister GLaDOS creating a world just to test to see if you can get through it alive. In a very oblique way, that's what Limbo feels like.
- As such, Limbo is a very heavy experience. It's not a game that I would recommend playing "just to pass the time". This is a game to meditate on, to think about while you're playing, and especially afterwards. Even though no real "story" is offered, the ending does reveal that there was a goal from the beginning, although you weren't privy to it until then. My friends, Limbo is one of the most convincing arguments one can make for the proposal that video games are art. I won't go off on a diatribe on this topic (that would be a long rant, not suitable for this review), but Limbo really struck me in a way that I've rarely been struck by video games in the past. When the game ended and the credits rolled, I just sat there and thought. I reflected, I wondered, a million different things ran through my brain, all of which could be traced back to the experience I had just completed. It's a game that, if you have the right mindset, can set off an atomic bomb of rumination. It won't change your worldview, or challenge your beliefs, but it will make you pause and reflect.
- Underlying and bolstering these elements is sound design worthy of the video game equivalent of an Oscar. The music is minimalistic, and most of the time there is none. While in some games, the music can be what determines how you should be feeling at a given time (and this is true of any kind of audio/visual media - if you didn't notice that before, you will now), in Limbo it's almost exactly the opposite. How intense a situation is can cause you to project your emotions onto the soundscape, and make the music sound more menacing than it actually is. I may be getting a little abstract here, but if so it's only because I don't know how else to describe the sound design. It's simply brilliant.
- When it comes to the actual meat of the game, in this particular case I'll discuss the general world design, it's as good as anything else. Limbo is a puzzle-based platformer, and it doesn't disappoint. The nice thing is that this game can be just as much about intelligent puzzle design as it can be about twitch reflexes, and the mix of the two can create some very tense-muscle moments. There's a portion early on in the game, for example (and if you don't want any spoilers, insomuch as this game can be "spoiled", skip the next few sentences), where you come up against a giant spider-like creature blocking your path. In order to get past him, you need to set a bear trap in the appropriate spot, and then get him to try and smash you with his legs, only to have them cut off by the trap. Actually obtaining the trap is not entirely obvious, and requires a bit of nonlinear thinking, and then once you get a hold of it you need to walk under the spider's legs so that he'll smash them down in the trap - and you have to know exactly when to run out of the way. This is but one example of many, and the combination of these two elements provides a gaming experience that is wholly satisfying - I was never physically or mentally bored when I was playing Limbo.
In addition, the actual environments you traverse are fascinating, all the more so because you can't see any fine details. A forest, a village, a motel, a factory - your brain fills in what is not explicitly shown, and these locales become richer, realer, and, logically, much more disturbing. Who knew the silhouette of a motel sign could invoke such feeling. Where are all the patrons? Why is the electricity shorting out? What, in general, happened that caused this place to fall into such disrepair? These kinds of questions are never definitively addressed in-game, but as you travel through this eerie, almost-deserted world, you'll be thinking these things over and over. The mystery grows.
- The control scheme is kept bare-bones simple - you can only run, jump, and push/pull objects. There are no complex moves, no menus or HUD, nothing to distract from your main goal, which, despite the game's name, is escaping from the hellish world you find yourself in. The controls are responsive and there were very few times I ever felt the need to blame my lack of ability on the fact that "I jumped!! Come on!"
- As a final note, the length of the game is absolutely perfect. Limbo will take you no more than five hours to finish. This is a game that begs to be finished in one sitting or two, so you can get the most out of it with the least number of distractions. Some people may complain that the game is too short, but I felt that it really didn't need to be a minute longer than it was. To me, this was a very satisfying feeling.
- Honestly, in terms of all elements of the gameplay and the more technical components of the game, it is flawless. Probably my biggest complaint about the game is the price tag - as of right now, this game costs 1200 Microsoft Points in the XBox Live Arcade ($15 USD), which is a bit steep considering the length of the game, and the fact that there is no other content other than the story mode. This is not to say the developers should have added anything extra to the game, but I do think that 1200 points is a bit high.
The Bottom LineBetween the graphics, musical score, lack of story, and controls, Limbo seems to embrace minimalism. What results is a game that forces you to fill in the blanks, but I don't know how anyone playing this game could not feel moved in some way by how Limbo unfolds. It's a game that is in turns horrifying, ominous, sad, and hopeful. Or, at least, that's how I experienced it - your results may vary. It's not a game that I think should be played, at least the first time, casually. This is a game that demands your full attention, not just because of the aesthetic beauty and entertainment it provides, but because you will simply get the most out of it if you fully immerse yourself in it's harrowing world.
This is not a game that lends itself to comparisons. Although, ultimately, most of this has been done before, Limbo's style and purpose are so much different than that of its contemporaries, even if the execution feels somewhat similar. Please don't miss this one. It's a game that will stick with you, that will make you think, heck, it may even change the way you view video games as an entertainment medium.
Not bad for an indie developer.