Since it began, Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade has given us some of the most unique platformers of the last few years. 2008 gave us the time-twisting puzzler Braid, and last year we were treated to a vastly different take on what a platformer could be with Trials HD. This year, Playdead Studios brings us Limbo, a highly stylized puzzle platformer that is as awe-inspiring as it is creepy. Limbo’s barebones control scheme combines with a wonderfully simple, yet layered, aesthetic to deliver an unforgettable experience that is unmistakably genius.
Limbo opens with a boy awakening in the middle of a forest, but from there, everything that happens is completely up to interpretation. There isn’t much of a narrative, but the developers plant story seeds throughout the game, and leave it entirely up to you how deeply to read into it. Themes of loss and abandonment are most prevalent, but buried underneath layers of subtext is the idea of hope. You’re never really sure what your goal is until the very last frame of the game, and even then different people are going have a different idea of just what they accomplished. It’s a smart story that will have you talking long after you finished, which is something you don’t see in video games very often today, particularly those of the downloadable variety. At times both mesmerizing and haunting, the boy’s adventure will always have you thinking, and the fact that Limbo is able to say so much without saying anything at all is quite impressive.
Since it utilizes just two buttons, one for jumping and one for interacting with objects, Limbo’s minimalist controls allow you to focus on what’s happening on screen, and show that a game can still be great without using every button on the controller. Initially, Limbo simply asks you to run and jump. As you progress deeper into the world, you’ll find unique gravity puzzles that question Newton’s laws. Magnets, pulleys, and water puzzles also appear, keeping every minute of the game fresh, and different than the last. The game does a great job of slowly introducing players to more complicated puzzle solving as the game progresses, and though you’re going to die a lot from trial and error, there’s a terrific sense of accomplishment from completing any of the game’s puzzles. Thankfully, Limbo has a great checkpoint system that saves after almost every step of a puzzle, so you won’t have to retread too many of your steps after one of your many deaths. Limbo could have been punishingly difficult, but the developers made sure to keep the game well balanced for players of all skill levels without ever skimping on challenge. There are some hidden glowing orbs to find scattered throughout the game world, and there’s also a leaderboard comparing completion percentages, which will give you reason to play the game more than once.
The stark and chilling landscape in which Limbo takes place is the true star of this game. On screen, the game invokes the feeling of a Japanese shadow puppet play if realized with current generation graphics. While much of the game is suspenseful, the death animations are particularly disturbing. Watching a disembowelment only through shadow is extremely affecting, and will give you pause. The depth of field is obscured at times by rain and fog, but you’re still able to make out the silhouettes of children hanging by their necks and cityscapes you can never quite reach, intensifying the fear of the unknown. Limbo’s dreary world creates a feeling of desperation, and though you’re never sure why you’re trying to escape, you feel compelled to continue on in hopes that you’ll be able to get free. The feeling of despair is brought on even more by the score, which is at times absent, but kicks into overdrive when peril awaits. So much of Limbo relies on the “less is more” axiom, and though the presentation at first glimpse seems simplistic, it actually adds an incredible amount of depth that many games wish they could reach.
Limbo is anything but just another platformer. It’s a brilliant take on classic conventions, and the way in which it’s presented only adds to its genius. Though it’s a bit on the short side, Limbo sets the bar for the 2010 Summer of Arcade extremely high. Both trying to solve the game’s puzzles and trying to interpret just what’s happening will put your brain to work, and that’s a good thing. It’s been a long time since I’ve had both sides of my brain challenged by a game, and I had just as good a time playing this game as I did talking about it with other players. You’d do well to add this game to your library.