Review: Limbo

It's finally here - so how does it play?

Your first tentative steps in Limbo will be ones of bewilderment and awe – this looks like no other game, its monochromatic graphics distinctive and powerful and the animation, from the boy himself to everything else around him, is stunning.  The Xbox 360 has played host to some great looking games in the past, but nothing on the console comes close to the wonderful visual style on offer here with this new downloadable Arcade game.

Limbo is without plot, voice or narrative – especially if you ignore the hokum introductory one-liner and interpret the game how you wish – the only driving force the desire for the player to see what lies around the corner.  Stripped down to first principles, this is a side scrolling, two dimensional platformer but to pigeonhole it so specifically is to do Limbo a considerable disservice – it’s much more than the sum of its parts and certainly isn’t something to be taken lightly.

With just two buttons in use – jump and an ‘action’ button, used for pulling and pushing, mainly – Limbo starts off gently enough.  The first area of the game, a twisting, multi-layered forest setting isn’t just the most endearing in terms of graphics, it’s also where the game’s most intriguing puzzles lie, peppered with a real sense of innocence and discovery. Once past the relatively open surroundings of the first section the game starts to bring in a more industrial setting that slightly spoils the otherwise beautiful, ethereal setting that greets the player at the beginning.

Technology and humanity often jars with nature in games like this, and for good reason – Flower made a point of doing exactly that in its closing level, for example – but whilst Limbo’s locations are considerably more diverse than the evergreen PlayStation 3 title, it’s the early presence of metal, energy and electricity in this game that marks the game’s change from nature to desperate and worrying tales of humanoid tragedy rather abruptly. Conversely, it’s worth pointing out, a brief section atop a huge, flickering ‘hotel’ sign was a particular highlight for me.

Still, by the half way point, when trees, logs and water have made way for cogs, lifts and buzzsaws, you’ll be more than familiar with what the game is expecting from you as it introduces each new challenge.  From one puzzle to the next, each more difficult than the last, the boy at the centre of this story must face grizzly set pieces and some undeniably scary situations – it’s gory too, excessively so, and although there’s an option to dial down the death sequences that doesn’t skip over the various nasty puzzles – this isn’t a game for kids on all kinds of levels.

Limbo isn’t shy about representing death as both throwaway and poetic, often on the same screen, and whilst the traps that halt the player’s progress can often feel a little cheap and under-signposted (be prepared for some trial and error) there’s plenty of areas in the game that require delicate thought and a sensitive approach to those poor souls that weren’t so lucky in this strange world.  Using a downed ally as a floating stepping stone over continuously dangerous water is another particularly powerful stand out moment for all the right reasons.

Limbo’s also very clever about playing its cards close to its chest, constantly pushing the boundaries in terms of gameplay ideas, always inventive with its puzzles and still somehow saving the best concepts until the finale.  For example, the first major enemy you’ll face, a giant spider, is both terrifying and deliciously resilient to injury (forming the centrepiece of a good few sections) but a clever twist moments later will have you giggling to yourself with glee.  The presence of other humanoid inhabitants keeps the tension up, too, especially when trying to halt your progress or scurrying away in the background working on new traps.

But the game’s killer mechanic has to be the possession segments, where you’re unavoidably infected with a parasitic bug and thus forced to walk in a single (predetermined) direction until you’re reversed by a strong light and, ultimately, freed from your zombie-like trance by a hungry bird, ready to peck out whatever it is that’s burrowed into your brain.  Couple this new restriction with flooding water and other time-based, physics-enabled puzzles and you’re onto a winner, changing what would have been dull backtracking into thoughtful and exciting top-tier platforming.

It’s good, then, really good.  The graphics are to die for and the audio, an understated soundtrack and some excellently produced sound effects, is just as evocative.  Limbo might only last a few hours but what’s here is, for the main, gaming gold.  Titles like Limbo don’t come around often enough, but this will be remembered for years to come – an amazing experience and one that every gamer should ensure they play through.  Undoubtedly the best game on the Xbox Live Marketplace, and thoroughly knocks Braid into touch.

Pros:

  • Incredible graphics and sound
  • Perfect controls

Cons:

  • It’s over too soon
  • Limited replayability

Limbo’s a stunning game.  It’s haunting, powerful and – mostly – pitch perfect in terms of pacing and difficulty.  Sure, it loses its way a tiny bit towards the end, resorting to tired videogame tropes that risk spoiling the overall experience, outstaying their welcome just a little bit; but Limbo shouldn’t be missed by anyone, it’s an utterly compelling ride and despite the 1200 Points price tag it’s well worth the money.  This is gaming as it should be: refined and precise, but with a real tale to tell.  What you read into that story is part of the fun.

Score: 9/10

Limbo is out today on Xbox 360 Live Arcade.

59 Comments

  1. Wow, this looks fantastic. It’s frustrating not having a 360 to play stuff like this on. The art style looks both bleak and beautiful at the same time, and strangely eerie while maintaining bith innocence and a sinister streak (at least that’s what I got from looking at the 5th screencap. Holy Sh*t!)

    • I found that quite strange as the 5th screencap gave me a cold shiver, which even my cherished Dead Space didn’t manage.

    • Bleak. Yes, that’s a good word for the game.

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  6. This looks brilliant, really hope it comes to PSN soon.

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  9. i just can’t help it, whenever i see that silhouette i think of that mutant with the big forehead from futurama.

  10. i just played the demo.
    and wow.
    i’d like to see anybody claim games can’t be art after playing this.
    proof you don’t need to spend millions to make a great game.
    the controls, like you said, pretty much perfect, and despite being drawn pretty much completely in greyscale is is a gorgeous game.
    maybe this is just my interpretation but it seems to me the trial and error gameplay fits with the whole limbo theme, like you have an eternity to make it through these trials and death has no meaning there, wherever there is.
    had a bit of trouble with that spider until i figured it out, but it wasn’t the game at fault, it was because i missed something not because of some gameplay mechanic that didn’t work or anything like that.
    my only concern is that it’s a bit pricy.

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