There are a lot of ways you could describe Limbo, but the one that sticks with me the most is that it’s the anti-Mario. Both are puzzle solving platforming games but Limbo eschews Miyamoto’s vibrant, rainbow colored world for one that’s dark, dreary, and dangerous. Death is also handled very differently as Mario is never dismembered, decapitated, or cut into bits by a giant saw on screen.
In Limbo you play an unnamed boy (who I named “Billy”) who wakes up in a dark field near a forest. The game provides prompts as to what to do as you mostly learn by doing and dying. Some help available from the main menu but there are no in-game tutorials that teach you the mechanics of the game. This might be frustrating for some but it’s a nice bit of a throwback for old school gamers who might remember what it was like to have to learn how to play a game without having your hand held through tutorial levels.
From the field you venture forth into the dark world of the game with no reason as to why you are leaving and where you are going. This will frustrate some people is that there no real “plot” to the game, you just have to navigate Billy through an ever increasingly difficult set of puzzles until he reaches the end of the game. I did find the lack of structured narrative to be a bit off setting at first but then I realized that Playdead has provided gamers with a blank canvas to paint their own plot onto.
Is Billy dead and trying to escape from Purgatory? Is he trying to rescue someone or is it something else entirely? Who are the other other children in the game and why are they trying to kill me? Of course you can ignore all of this and focus on the devilishly clever puzzles but it feels like there’s a lot of room for interpretation, especially if you factor in how the game ends (which I will not ruin as it adds another level to the game).
The puzzles are grouped into themes though (such as gravity, water, and momentum) and are a combination of platforming and physics based puzzles. You’ll have to deal with giant spiders, bear traps, and even brain slugs as you try to get Billy through the game. While there isn’t a narrative to tie the puzzles together there is some sense of progression as you move from the forest to a cave area to an industrial area.
What you can’t ignore is the quality of the puzzles as they require mental horse power and quick reflexes. The cost for failure is Billy dying in a fairly gruesome manner. Honestly half the fun of the game was seeing the multitude of ways that Billy got sliced and diced. My particular favorite is the quick decapitation by bear trap with being quartered by giant saws a close second. For the squeamish there’s a gore filter that you can turn on that blacks out the screen when Billy dies but you still hear the sounds of the game, leaving your mind to fill in the visual gaps the game hides. While Billy is just a simple black cutout with white blinking eyes the world he travels through is a stunning Gothic fantasy replete with hauntingly beautiful gray-scale forests and cold gray factories. It’s an interesting mix as the foreground action is simply line animation presented against stunningly detailed and animated backgrounds. It’s an interesting experience and one that’s fairly unique in a world where games are measured by the amount of polygons they can cram onto the screen.
Sound design is minimalistic but perfectly complements the game. There is no soundtrack to the game but instead the game is littered with wonderful ambient sounds. The audio cues in the game can be a little too subtle at times but the overall sound-scape is perfect.
A lot of people will measure the value the game on a two dimensional scale of cost and length and if you’re in that group you might be a little disappointed that your $15 doesn’t get you much more than four to six hours of entertainment (or more if you struggle with some of the puzzles like I did).
However, if you’re one of the people that has a third dimension of enjoyment and quality to the grid you’re going to be very happy with your purchase as Limbo is one of the more unique gaming experiences I’ve ever played in that you’re in a constant feeling of unease while you play the game. Sure the game is fun and amazingly well craft but the world of the game is so bleak and it maintains that feeling throughout the game (versus something like Flower which has a triumphant return to happiness at the end).
Limbo is one of the more unique games on the market in that it’s open to a lot of interpretation and you never really feel at easy playing the game. If you’re open to these kinds of ideas the game is a no brainer purchase, if you’re not check out the demo and see what you think as you might be surprised at how good this title is.