Limbo

  • Type: Platformer
  • Developer: Playdead
  • Platform: Windows, Mac OSX, Xbox 360, PS3, Linux
  • Release Date: July 2010
  • Version Reviewed: Windows

A nameless boy, merely a silhouette against a ghostly background, awakens, eyes aglow, in a nightmarish, hostile world, unarmed and helpless; and you are equipped with nothing but the knowledge that the boy is courageously trying to find and save his sister.

Thus opens Limbo.

Limbo (or Minimalism: the Game, as I like to call it) is a two-dimensional platforming side-scroller; the debut title of Danish games studio Playdead. Aesthetically, it is as far removed from the traditional side-scroller as possible; eschewing the bright garish colours of traditional games such as Mario and Sonic for a high-contrast, chiaroscuro style. Masked by the flicker of old film grain, the stark, monochromatic aesthetics bring an odd beauty to the game; morbid though it may be.

In a world where everything from graphics to sound to gameplay are getting more and more envelope-pushing; more and more complex and intricate; it’s refreshing to see a game vanguarding simplicity. And (aesthetically, at least) Limbo does this wonderfully.

You will often find yourself going through large portions of the game hearing nothing but the rustle of your own footsteps, along with a low-level ambience and the occasional cry of an unknown creature. Sound is used expertly in Limbo, setting the tone of the game right from the get-go. And yet, despite its minimalism, many of the game’s puzzles hinge on little sound cues notifying you that progression has been made. During my first playthrough I spent what must have been quarter of an hour on a simple puzzle, getting more and more frustrated, just because I had assumed that a certain metallic clang was part of the general ambience and had just ignored it. I’m sure anyone who has played the game even a little will know which puzzle I’m talking about.

If I had to sum up the atmosphere of Limbo in a single word, it would be ‘lonely’. You’ll occasionally encounter enemies – mostly in the form of similarly silhouetted humans, sometimes in the form of, yes, GIANT SPIDERS – but they are few and far between. More often than not, it’s just you in a big landscape o’ nothingness; the massive indistinct forms looming out of the mists behind doing nothing to assuage the sense of sheer insignificance. And yet, despite the distinct absence of anything actively dangerous, there is a continuous underlying feeling of threat that pervades the game; which says a lot about the effectiveness of the atmosphere the developers have crafted.

Speaking of threat, I’m just gonna say this now: if you’re planning on picking up this game, be prepared to die. A lot. Fortunately, brutal as the game may be (and believe me, despite the rather cartoonish appearance of its hero, it is definitely brutal), it’s actually – fortunately – rather forgiving. Regardless of where you happen to die, you’ll respawn only a few feet beforehand, punishment-free, ready to reattempt the puzzle again. Just accept it and move on.

Unfortunately for me as a reviewer, being such a minimalistic game there’s very little to address. The pacing feels a little weird at times, and it perhaps ends a little too abruptly for my liking, but otherwise Limbo is a phenomenal game. Clocking in at around the four-hour mark (shorter if you’re familiar with the puzzles), it isn’t the world’s longest game; but fortunately every minute is used to its full effect. And even once the game reaches its climax and you quit the game, you’ll find yourself thinking about it soon enough, trying to work what the hell the last four hours were all about.

I certainly did, anyway.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

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