Limbo is a side-scrolling platformer that’s a distant cousin to the Mario Brother titles where your controls are merely “go left”, “go right”, “jump” and occasionally “pull or push something”. Beyond that, there are few comparisons to be made to the arcade-style Mario series. Where Nintendo brings you a bright, circus-y universe, Playdead brings you a world of darkness, hostility, and mystery.
Limbo plops you, a nameless little boy, on the 2D horizon of a dystopian world in which there’s no safety and no ally. From there, you forage forth in an attempt to merely stay alive and press forward. No pre-amble. No cutscenes. No backstory. You run, jump or climb over the jagged, ruined terrain where everything that moves — living or not — is trying to brutally murder you. The world is stitched together with dark, gauzy, black and white layers that have a rich (though sometimes cold) celluloid tone. You’ve never seen anything quite like Limbo in any other game, and what it offers your eyes is very much a joining point between “design” and “artistry”.
Mood is why Limbo stands apart from other games that try to create immersion and tone. Unlike simple Hollywood-inspired thinking which assumes that something gets scarier, the more you explain it, Limbo tells you nothing and lets your imagination fill in the details. It reminds us of ID Software’s original Doom game of almost 20 years ago in which you were surrounded by demons and satanic iconography without having any back story or explanation. Limbo does the same; everyone and everything around you hates you. Interestingly, there are no in-game tutorials or hints at any point, which only underlines further how the only help you’ll get is your own mind. It is a world in which you will always feel very alone.
As you travel through this landscape, you’ll find that a little boy can die in a number of surprising and horrifying ways. In fact, you’ll often learn the parameters of a deadly puzzle by accidentally walking into it the wrong way, and the next thing you know, your severed head is rolling down a hill. Thankfully, Limbo is forgiving to mistakes; after death, you re-appear intact right next to the puzzle where you left it and aren’t forced to repeat dozens of steps to return to the spot where you made a wrong move. The immediacy of Limbo is a welcome design quality. You’ll often find yourself playing five or ten minutes at a time, knocking out a couple of puzzles and then coming back later to knock out a few more.
The best of what Limbo has to offer, however, is good, old fashioned gameplay. Though most reviews you’ll read (including this one) applaud the look and feel, it really comes down to lot of smart puzzles that demand some nonlinear thinking and often reward a bit of creativity. It’s also worth mentioning that Limbo has an enormously creative and memorable ending — very much worth sticking it out.
It seems that, in so many ways, Limbo reflects some attitudes that were part of an era when we didn’t expect to see photorealistic graphics and we didn’t think of social networking as a checkbox feature. It’s the sort of game about which you’d tell your friend “try it this weekend”, as opposed to the sort of game where you feel like you’re signing a membership contract (complete with all the responsibilities and fees). This isn’t meant to say that the modern MMORPG or online team-shooter isn’t a great load of fun, but Limbo takes you quietly by the hand to a place where few other games try (or know how) to go.
There are few legitimate criticisms that can be levied against Limbo: It’s got a unique theme that you’ve never seen anywhere else, interesting and challenging puzzles, a huge serving of mood and atmosphere, is packed to capacity with content from beginning to end, and wears a decent price tag. Little more could be asked from a game this complete and self-contained. It does exactly what it sets out to do.
If one were to raise an eyebrow, it could very well be at the gruesome and unsentimental violence, which is even more disturbing because it’s perpetrated against a helpless boy. Let’s face it: If you aren’t bothered by seeing a child (even in silhouette) being stabbed, crushed, drowned, cut in half or electrocuted, then it might be time to ask yourself some tough questions about your emotional health. There’s no arguing that Limbo is not a child’s game. The simple controls and the youthful protagonist may lead someone to think Limbo is tailored to a younger crowd, but don’t believe it. Limbo will give your kids nightmares.
One could take issue with how Limbo’s leaderboard and achievements are utterly lackluster, but we’ll give Playdead a full pass on this. While it’s true that very little was done with the “scoreboard” facet of the game, it’s so entirely unconnected to the feel of actually playing that there’s nothing lost by it. In fact, we’re not sure it’d be very fun to be pulled out of the world to compare achievements and scores, so Playdead may have unwittingly saved Limbo from being less of an experience by doing such a ho-hum job of distracting people who were trying to have it.
The only other thought about Limbo that seems reasonable is that this could make a simple and effective iOS game. It’s a game with simple controls, visuals which are both lush and system-light, and a very small storage footprint (a mere 128MB on my hard disk). Perfect for the iPad. In fact, it seems even more ideal for the iPad than it does for the Mac.
What Playdead set out to do is exactly what they accomplished. A brooding, sometimes disturbing mind-bender which is easy to learn but hard to master. More impressive, even, is how they managed to do something new with the visuals and doubled-down on atmosphere instead of realism. It’s one of those rare times when the difference between a “hit” and an “achievement” could not possibly be clearer.