Limbo is an awe-inspiring and memorable game.
Created by Danish independent developer Playdead, Limbo is a beautiful sidescrolling puzzle platform game which has starkly minimalist visuals. The title’s main premise is pretty simple: a little kid wakes up in the middle of a forest, an ominous place where he encounters various puzzles which he is required to solve in order to rescue his sister. The nameless protagonist never utters a word and is just a fragile child who has to deal with an extremely hostile world. It should be noted that the game doesn’t actually convey some of the aforementioned plot elements and I know these details from reading descriptive summaries somewhere as Limbo has no dialogues and uses no words at all. In fact, the story itself is open to interpretation.
Although Limbo can be compared to other modern puzzle titles like Braid and even Portal, the game is quite unusual because it mixes elements such as black and white visuals with an unforgiving difficulty. Whether you play it on the PC, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, the basic control scheme is extremely simple as only a few buttons are required to interact with your surroundings. In addition, the game’s physics are realistic and this is both good and bad. On the one hand, this allows you to gracefully jump platforms, climb ropes, and avoid pits and other numerous traps, but on the other hand, this also means that any reckless moves you make will undoubtedly have a serious and instant consequence. For example, sometimes even a small depression in the terrain poses a huge problem when you’re quickly trying to outrun an enemy or when you want to avoid a trap.
Something that quickly stands out about Limbo is its gloomy setting. The game has this grim atmosphere that contributes to the extremely somber tone it aims for. Additionally, a minimalist approach quickly becomes apparent and even though the visuals are pretty mild, the game seems to take you on an existentialist journey in which you’ll definitely want to reach the final destination just to get some clear answers, but beware, as you may end up not getting any answers at all. Why is the boy there? What is he really looking for? What are those other people doing there? Why everyone wants to kill you? Why is this game so hard?
The extreme difficulty is the second element you’ll probably notice the first time you play. Here, you will die… a lot. The main character will perish in some violent, gruesome and shocking ways. Everything around you seems to have been created to kill you and most environments are full of traps and enemies. The world of Limbo is a diabolical one. Dangerous enemies roam around and along the way you’ll encounter giant bugs (like spiders and mosquitoes) as well as “other” people. Some run away from you and others mercilessly attack you. Moreover, in certain parts you’ll distinguish corpses of other adventurers that seem to have taken part in the same journey as you but perished, and you’ll see their dead, motionless bodies, warning you of the perils ahead.
Death is coldly depicted. Spiders will use their legs to impale you, you will drown, sharp blades will cut you in pieces, floors will electrocute you and so on. There are dozens of different ways for you to die and every single time the inevitable happens, you’ll witness an animation which shows your protagonist’s latest moments. Instead of detracting from the experience, this treats death as something unpleasant that you’ll definitely want to avoid, not because you don’t want to replay the same section all over again, but because you may be emotionally attached to the main character.
The fact that the game relies so heavily on trial-and-error encourages you to memorize the layout of the environment. There are many puzzles for you to solve and some of them can be maddening and infuriating. Fortunately and even though the game can be really punishing, puzzle design mixes many elements and incorporates innovative mechanics that add variety to the basic platform sequences. Although at first you’ll spend most of your time grabbing and moving certain items like boxes or bear traps, eventually you’ll have to deal with gravity, magnetism and other convoluted mechanics. Solving these refreshingly unique brain-teasers is even harder, but when you do find the solution to an intricate puzzle you’ll feel much more rewarded. There was one puzzle in particular that I found particularly convoluted in which I had to press a switch up and down in order to change the gravity of the section to move a box that was affected by it. The problem with this teaser was that the solution was pretty apparent and I really knew what I was doing, but the timing to move the wooden box to a reachable place needed to be so precise that at first I find it utterly impossible. Eventually though, I ended up releasing the required item and the whole process felt pretty rewarding. In any way, if you make progress and you suddenly and unexpectedly die, frequent checkpoints prevent further frustration and the lack of loading times provides a strong sense of immersion.
The puzzle mechanics are remarkably well done not only making the journey more challenging, but also richly rewarding. It definitely helps that the camera constantly moves to comfortable spots, showing you the best perspective of your surroundings just in case the next puzzle requires a quick decision on your part.
Limbo uses monochromatic black and white visuals that look simply superb. The greyscale aesthetics complement the game with a stupendous appearance and the minimalistic approach adds to the extremely suitable dark tone. Music on the other hand is pretty much inexistent and even though there are a couple of ambience noises and simple sound effects here and there, that’s pretty much it.
In conclusion, Limbo is an awe-inspiring and memorable game. It tells a simple but thought-provoking story in some really innovative ways. Its puzzles are great, controls are extremely precise, minimalist aesthetics contribute to the overall theme and gameplay is highly rewarding. Unfortunately, the game’s high difficulty and overly repetitive trial-and-error approach may not be suitable for everybody. But even when some of Limbo’s design decisions are more questionable than others one thing’s for sure, there’s nothing quite like it. Nobody should miss this game.