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Delayed Reactions: LIMBO

For those who like:
Braid, A Boy and his Blob, Trine

+ Eerie and unique design
+ Frequent auto saves
+ Logical puzzles
+ Trial-by-death is both fun
and horrifying

- Controls a bit loose
- Limited replay value for casual player
- Might be short for some

Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.

In the world of Limbo, ignorance, while anything but bliss, makes for a wonderful, if sometimes horrifying, experience.  Limbo, developed by PlayDead Games exclusively for Xbox Live Arcade, is a place filled with dangerous creatures, obscure characters, foreboding contraptions, and endless conundrums where every wrong turn (and even right turn) has the potential to lead to certain death.  Nagging questions like ‘Where is my sister?  How did I get here?  Am I dreaming?  Am I dead?  Why are my eyes glowing?’ come and go without explanation.  Long-winded dialog trees, moral or ethical decisions, and complex objectives that define success or failure have no place in this world.  In truth, Limbo appears to be everything an uninformed participant would perceive it to be: a 2-D game dripping with style, yet suffering from the kind of simplicity that would leave most players wanting.

In this case, however, Limbo’s Spartan design and ‘trial-by-death’ mentality is what makes the game so memorable.  By straining out all extemporaneous details, I am able to focus on what is ahead of me rather than why it is there.  The game sets out a definitive goal: rescue my sister.  Beyond that, I am told nothing.  And I’m completely okay with that from beginning to end.  In fact, what I begin to learn about Limbo, the deeper I delve into its menagerie, is that, like a dream, it isn’t supposed to be explained.  It’s simply supposed to be experienced.

Ever since my first, brief encounter with the game earlier in the year, Limbo’s design has enchanted me in a way I never expected from such a restrictive color palette.  Limbo utilizes a wonderful technique of blending extreme moments of light and shadow together with a particular level of grain, blur, and parallax movement that firmly places it in the realm of the surreal.  In addition, discordant musical cues and muted audio effects like hesitant footsteps against the ground, deadly electric currents that run through the floor, or a giant spider strikes that shake the ground, do much to enhance the game’s tone without going so far as to undo it entirely.

Puzzle design also benefits from playing the cards close to the vest.  Just when I think I’ve encountered every type of multi-legged nasty or impedance, the entire world shifts in a way I never see coming.  Obstacles that seem otherworldly stitch themselves together in such a way that my progression and (inevitable) expiration never become stale.  And because Limbo is not a particularly long game, by the time I reach the obvious conclusion, needless repetition is all but avoided.  It’s the kind of thing I wish more games would be aware of: once is fun, twice is trying, three times is enough.

If I have to take umbrage with any one area of Limbo’s presentation, it’s the controls.  While the physics and the general object interaction in the game feels quite good, some aspects of jumping onto a platform, grabbing onto a ledge, or swinging from a lengthy rope feel muddy and unresponsive.  As was my experience earlier versions of the game, it’s the difference between jumping over the bear trap aimed at cleaving your torso from your lower extremities or landing squarely in it.

While Limbo won’t take the genre into to any sort of ‘undiscovered country’ never experienced before in the 2-D space, I think it has certainly carved out a swath of gaming real estate that’s worth checking out.  For the rabid ‘completionist’ it’s the kind of game that screams out for speed-runs and second, even third, attempts where dying as little as possible is the ultimate goal.  As for the rest of us, Limbo’s greatest achievement is that it always plays to its strengths, providing an experience that horrifies, delights, and makes death just another part of the journey.  Overall, Limbo receives my highest recommendation.

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The Crib Notes: Limbo
Developer:  PlayDead Games
Publisher:  Microsoft Games Studio
Where’s it going to:  XBOX 360 (XBLA) – 1200 pts
When’s it getting there:  July 21st, 2010 (NA)

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