Leonardo da Vinci was once quoted as saying “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. You could apply that thought to many things in life, including game design. At the same time, when not used properly, the utilization of simplicity in something like game design could also lead to the opposite end of the spectrum and become something far from sophisticated. When it comes to Playdead’s Limbo, specifically its recent release on the Vita, da Vinci’s definition applies more than perhaps any other case I have seen. The reality is that Limbo is a simple and short game, lasting roughly five or six hours, but don’t let that turn you off. It accomplishes more in that short span than most games do with 40+ hours of game play.
As a nameless child, whose identity is obscured by the darkness of the world around you, players must venture through a dark and depressing world in pursuit of a young girl, presumably your sister. The world around you is dark and devoid of any detail, consisting of simply various tones of white and black. This goes a long way in helping to get you into the mindset of a small child. You’re alone and everything around you is scary and intimidating. Rarely do video games do so well in sucking you into the mindset of the main character(s) as well as the developer has here. It doesn’t take long before you feel drawn back to looking at the world through the eyes of a child, even if you haven’t been one in a couple of decades.
The game starts off simply enough with you simply running and jumping throughout the environment. The game never really evolves beyond the simplistic control scheme it starts out with. You don’t ever do anything except for walking, jumping, and grabbing onto objects, be it ropes to swing by or crates to move around. Remember, you are a young boy. You won’t earn any super powers or abilities, you simply have to move forward with the limited abilities you have as a child. That goes a long way in conjuction with some ingenious puzzle designs that are all physics based.
It seems almost lighthearted early on, that is until your character dies for the first time. I was completely taken back when I missed my first jump over a chasm and witnessed this small child impaled on a spike. It was gruesome despite having any intricate-graphical detail or blood. Something as simple as the image of a small, faceless boy falling to his death just caused me to set back in my seat. I didn’t want to see that gain and this is coming from someone who has poured hundreds of hours of his life into games like Mortal Kombat and Call of Duty.
There is a lot of moving crates or boxes to reach higher ground or figuring out how to manipulate environmental objects to help you overcome your physical shortcomings (levers and pulleys for example). It all works your brain without ever truly taxing it. This goes a long way in keeping players interested when they get stuck in a certain area. This even applies to a couple of “combat” sequences, if you can even call them that. Taking on a giant spider or rogue group of shadowy figures attempting to kill you forces you to look to the world around you in order to overcome such obstacles. That doesn’t mean that it won’t work your nerves though because there are times when you don’t have crates or rocks to use and must resort to picking up and using the dismembered bodies of children. Calling it disturbing would be an understatement however the manner in which Playdead utilizes is done in a tasteful manner, as strange as that sounds.
The one aspect of Limbo that impressed me more than anything else is the incredible sound design. The subtle use of music in the form of real-world noise creates an unmatched ambience that really drew me in. The same thing can be said for the sound effects. Listening to the world around you is just as important as scanning it with your eyes. There are often times when you can’t find any clues around you and are seemingly stuck, but listening to the world around you will lead you to the tools / direction of your solution. Perhaps this is the sound of an object blowing in the wind a few screens over or the “creakiness” of a tree branch that lets you know that, perhaps, it can be broken off for your usage. When it comes to the audio, it iss ingenious design that is flawlessly executed from start to finish. Just plug in a pair of quality headphones to your Vita and you will see exactly what I mean; this game shouldn’t be played any other way.
My only real concern with the game is that this feeling wears off after you have played through the game. There isn’t anything that drives you to go back and see the world again; you already know the solutions to the puzzles and the surprises that you run into don’t have the same effect the second time around. However, it is an adventure that you should experience once, even if you never play it again. It may only be six (or so) hours of gameplay, but it is six of the most enjoyable hours I have ever played.
Despite its simplistic appearance, Limbo is an impressive adventure. The puzzles are captivating and easy to lose yourself in without getting too frustrated. There were many times I would lose track of time trying to figure out a certain section and before I realized it, a good half and hour or so had gone by. In other, similar games those situations would frustrate me but here I found myself captivated by the nameless boy’s drive to do forward. It is very easy to do this throughout the entire adventure.