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Avatar ImageGamer Limit Review: Limbo
By: | July 19th, 2010 | XBLA
Indie |Review |XBLA

Every time I hear the phrase “art game”, I throw up in my mouth a little bit. Don’t take that to mean that I believe games should avoid making a statement or attempting to make us feel and think – quite the contrary. It’s because whenever that phrase is invoked, all meaningful critique of the game in question stops and everyone gets wrapped up in some Roger Ebert meta-nonsense. Meanwhile, the game sits forlornly on the sidelines as the Internet discusses everything but the important and salient points.

Can’t a game be artistic without having to be an “art game”? Can’t we just enjoy stellar gameplay and appreciate a masterful presentation at the same time? The answers are yes and yes. Never have I been more convinced of this fact than after journeying through PLAYDEAD’s indie platforming opus, Limbo.

Read on for the official review; I’ll be here brushing my teeth.

Limbo is a downloadable 2D puzzle platformer for XBLA, and despite the huge numbers of games in this genre being produced by indie developers in recent years, this one provides an experience unlike any other in its class. The plot of the game is quite simple - you are a boy who is searching for his sister. However, the minimalistic plot belies the sophistication of the story in this game.

Where the boy is and where the sister is are questions that are never explicitly answered; the game has no spoken or written dialogue or exposition to speak of. This leaves a large degree of interpretation up to the player. Those who care to speculate about the nature of the environment and outcome of the game will have plenty of food for thought, while others are free to focus on the fantastic gameplay or the truly sublime art direction.

The game is presented entirely in greyscale, and while this isn’t the first time a game has been rendered in black and white, it is certainly the best use of the technique that I’ve ever seen. This is for several reasons.

On a purely visual level, the graphics create a beautiful, stark, and otherworldly feel. I almost had the sensation that I was somehow watching the game through a veil. While there are “chapters” in the game, it is not presented that way. There are no transitions between segments - the player experiences Limbo as a single continuous level. Eerily expansive vistas and foreboding natural environments slowly give way to claustrophobic industrial settings; the game begins with a sense of isolation and vague threat and subtly ratchets the sensation up as you progress.

One of the things that makes this so effective is that the protagonist is a child. Presented in jet-black silhouette with glowing white eyes, seeing the juvenile shape and animations makes you more determined than ever to see the game through to its conclusion. I was invested in helping the boy avoid death as much as possible; believe you me, there’s a lot of death in this game.

Environmental hazards and traps abound, and the use of shadow will often make them a challenge to spot. If you’re speeding through an area, it’s very easy to mistake a bit of scenery for a mechanism of death, and vice versa. After a few gruesome deaths caused by you foolishly rushing headlong, the game eventually succeeds in placing you in the emotional shoes of the child. By this I mean that not knowing where the background ends and danger begins at times forces you to slow down and move more warily so that you can spot hazards; essentially, you become afraid of the dark all over again.

Layered on top of this is the superb yet sparse sound design. Limbo has no music whatsoever, relying only on ambient environmental sounds like waves lapping a shore or wind blowing in the background. The overload of sound usually present in most other games is replaced here with a sparing approach that adds dramatically to the otherworldly feel and sense of isolation. This also adds to the emotional penalty when you die; when the sound of a trap or other death occurs, you hear the clang, the thud, or the disgusting squish in its full glory.

Now that we’ve covered why the game is so successful in making you feel and think, let’s talk about how the game plays. The controls and animations are smooth as butter. The main character is a boy, but you’ll quickly get a good feel for his speed and exactly how far a jump will take you. This is an important element, as some of the puzzles will require precise timing and spacing.

Speaking of puzzles, Limbo features some of the most engaging puzzle and level design I’ve ever experienced in the genre. Variety is the key to the game’s success here. You’ll be dealing with platforming challenges or restrictions on the boy’s movement, as well puzzles based on object manipulation or a subtle understanding of the game’s physics.

Despite the simple black/white presentation, there’s always something new being presented to the player. Much like the recent Super Mario Galaxy 2, the masterful attention to changing the level design keeps the game fresh and fun throughout the entire 4-5 hour run. The length and the pacing of the game also remind me very much of Portal, where none of the puzzle types or levels ever wear out their welcome, and the game ends exactly when it is supposed to. There’s no fluff or filler in this title – it’s all good.

Now, before my invoking of SMG2 misleads you, let me clarify; Limbo is a grown-ass adult’s game. Completing the game represents a significant challenge, and will please those gamers looking for a hardcore puzzling experience. Players who are overly impatient or unwilling to play around with the game’s mechanics and physics might be quick to accuse the game of relying on cheap deaths or luck based puzzles, but that’s simply not the case.

The challenge in Limbo is firm but fair. While there is a healthy dose of trial and error in the game, you’re not just throwing darts at a dartboard. With each death you legitimately learn something substantive about the game’s mechanics or physics that brings you a little bit closer to solving the puzzle at hand.

I was reminded of Demon’s Souls in several ways; when you die in Limbo it’s almost always your fault, and there’s a massive sense of satisfaction to be gained when you conquer some of the game’s tougher puzzles. However, unlike Demon’s Souls, death does not carry such a frustratingly steep penalty in terms of gameplay. Limbo features an extremely robust checkpoint system, so while deaths are emotionally impactful, you’re not erasing any of your progress when you stumble into a hazard you weren’t expecting.

Helping this out is a well-designed difficulty curve that ratchets up smoothly in conjunction with the art design; as the background becomes more oppressive and industrial, the challenge level of the game follows suit. Yes, some puzzles will force you to put down the controller and think things over for a bit, and this is as it should be – if you’re not stumped by a puzzle game periodically then there’s something seriously wrong with games. However, with each new puzzle defeated, your mastery of the game as a whole improves, making for a superlative overall experience.

I don’t care if Limbo is classified as an “art game” or not; I’ll leave that question for gamers and writers with much more pretension and free time on their hands than I have. I’ll simply summarize by saying that Limbo excelled at doing everything I want a game to do – it made me think, it made me feel, and it was incredibly fun to play.

It might not have the length or volume of content that other excellent titles like Mass Effect 2 or Red Dead Redemption have, but pound for pound, Limbo is the best game I have played all year.

Rating Category
10.0 Presentation
From the masterful use of greyscale, to the meticulously crafted backgrounds, to the compelling character design, the visuals in this game ooze awesome and menace.
How does our scoring system work?
10.0 Gameplay
Inventive challenges along with great variety in level design make the puzzle platforming deliciously hardcore and enjoyable.
10.0 Sound
Minimalistic sound design gives added gravity and clarity to the ambient sounds of the environment and objects. Deaths in particular sound perfectly nasty.
9.0 Longevity
Clocking in at 4-5 hrs, you may find yourself tempted to revisit the game again to find all the secrets, enjoy the gorgeous visuals, or to take on the massive challenge of completing the game with 5 deaths or less.
10.0 Overall
I don’t care if Limbo is classified as an “art game” or not; I’ll leave that question for gamers and writers with much more pretension and free time on their hands than I do. I’ll simply summarize by saying that Limbo excelled at doing everything I want a game to do - it made me think, it made me feel, and it was incredibly fun to play.

  1. avatar Jickle

    This game is incredible. Spot-on.

  2. I have the points waiting! Thanks!

  3. avatar Wex

    Yay! Can’t wait to play it even more now.

  4. avatar LOLO

    You gave 1oo points at metacritic for Limbo? How much M$ payed you?

    • avatar Lollipop Lollipop ooo Lolli Lolli Lolli Lollipop

      Not as much as Sony is probably paying you to stick their scarce arcade offerings up your dung hole.

    • *pop* Buh bum bum bum

    • I thought it was strange that they would also pay me to praise a Nintendo 1st party title (SMG2) and a PS3 exclusive (Demon’s Souls) in the same article, but hey – as long as the check clears, right? :D

  5. Is it infantile that I laugh whenever I read “I threw up in my mouth a little bit?”

  6. Nice read, haven’t played the game myself but I laughed at your Demon’s Souls reference as I was thinking while reading “This sounds like what Demon’s Souls would be if it were a platformer/puzzle game…”.

    I agree with your sentiments about art games too! Very well said indeed.

    • avatar Anmol

      That sudane looks fab . I love anything chocolate peanut butter! I have skipped straight to dessert before only if the dessert is HUGE though, or else I’m still hungry!

  7. Sounds great. I would love to give it a try. Any word on a PSN release?

    • There is currently no PSN release announced, but it hasn’t been ruled out as far as I know. In order to be a “Summer of Arcade” release you are required to be exclusive to XBLA for at least one month.

    • …of course they are.

      It looks like they had PC and PSN releases planned and then changed their minds.

      If there is one thing that gets me really riled up its how Microsoft seems to love pushing independent developers into downloadable exclusivity. Limiting the amount of people that get to enjoy your product…can’t be good business. I hope Microsoft made it worth their while.

  8. Awesome piece, Sean! You’ve absolutely convinced me to pick this up – can’t wait!

  9. Shit… guess I need to turn on the 360 for long enough to buy and play this.

  10. I couldn’t stand the demo. Maybe I’ll play the game if it falls into my lap for free, but if the rest of the game is like the beginning, I’ll pass.

    • avatar steven

      The beggining of the game is very different from the rest, the demo kinda turned me off but something told me to get this and i was not disapointed in the slightest. i highly reccomend it even if you didnt like the demo

  11. avatar vic-tim

    this game is beautiful, but mostly one of the funnest games ive ever played imo the brutal deaths are my favorite part, but still an amazing game (ps3 is shit :D )

  12. avatar Fools Errand

    It’s a decent game, but by no means top tier. The basic problem is not length or ‘scope’ but that it fails to esplore in a meaningful sense being trapped in limbo, the relationship between the boy and his sister or any of the themes it hints at.

    It’s yet another Indie platformer with a clever gimmick (silhouettes) and not much else. I’m getting very tired of reviewers who confuse charm with serious exploration of a theme: can we not dig a little deeper? What were they trying to do in your opinion? Did they achieve it?

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