As you may or may not know, I like to start off my reviews with some sort of anecdotal offering that (somehow) relates to the title Im reviewing. More than anything else its a way of presenting my lifes story, a memoir if you will. Unfortunately its presented in small pieces and over 30000 volumes. Today however, I have no anecdote to share; I am virtually at a loss for wordsso lets just jump right in.
Danish independent developer, PlayDead Studios has emerged into the gaming spotlight with the release of Limbo. Limbo is presented as a sort of physics based puzzle/platform title exclusive to the Xbox 360, downloadable through the Xbox Live Arcade. While the gameplay isnt new, the presentation is something that has ramped up the industry expectations for what PlayDead come up with next.
I really need to get this out of the way up front; I was blown away by this game. Since playing Limbo I have been questioning all of my core beliefs in relation to what I look for in a hit game. Lets see if I can break this statement down into some form of coherent, contextually relevant, review. Limbo opens with a vague shadow of a person lying among more shadows and silhouettes. Slowly we see eyes open and the figure rises showing it to be a young boy obviously disoriented and out of place. You are in the middle of a forest setting with no clear sense of direction. There is no narrative; no tutorial to walk you through the games story; no flashbacks to explain who, why or how but there is a strong inclination to find your way.
The game progresses through simple surroundings ranging from forests to towns to industrialized complexes, all the while you are tasked with solving various environmental puzzles for no other reason than to get to the next puzzle; of course you try to figure out what the game is about but nothing is presented to provide that structural guidance. The game remains in a shades of gray with shifting backgrounds full of shadows and fog. There are no musical tracks to create dramatic moments instead we are treated to an endless amount of ambient noises. Upon careful consideration, as the player, you are able to identify different scenarios and opportunities through the subtle visuals and sounds presented.
The controls are of the most basic/instinctual in nature, following the minimalist form of the game itself. You can move up, down, left or right; you have a button for jumping and a button for manipulating different objects (pushing/pulling/activating switches). The controls work well with the use of ladders, ledges, traps and other in game objects that make you forget you are only using 2 buttons.
The puzzles and traps spread throughout the game are presented for only one reason; to kill our hero. There is no downplaying this aspect of the game as the only way forward is through trial and error. Whats refreshing is that all of the puzzles are different enough that you dont feel you are simply repeating the same actions over and over. In fact, no 2 puzzles are alike and because of this you wont know what to expect and your character will die at almost every trap.
While the puzzles are unique, they fit very well into the game and the surroundings so there is a real drive to identify what to do next in order to move on. So instead of hindering, every death presents itself as an opportunity to learn the trick of the puzzles themselves. But the animations when our hero is killed are often shockingyou really feel that you are guiding a young boy in the game so when death is presented without warning in various, grisly fashion you cannot help be taken aback. Of course this simply helps to propel the need to successful complete each challenge and placing checkpoints near these puzzles helps as you are immediately presented with the task you just failed.
So here we are, playing a side scrolling game that is absolutely devoid of color, has no musical soundtrack, no explosions, no real story to speak of, no clear antagonist, where the deaths come brutally and often, where you use only 2 buttons to complete puzzle challenges... if I were to present this pitch to most modern gamersthere would be a resounding defiance to even contemplate bringing this title to market. However, it is for these exact reasons that the game succeeds. There are no loading screens; none, notta, zilch. The sense of impending doom is heightened by the ambient noises and the lack of color draws you into a cataclysmic sense of urgency. You will spend your time away from the console thinking and analyzing what youve playedand I dont just mean how to solve a puzzles but also creating your own story line, trying to work out the meaning behind the images
There are issues with Limbo, the first of which being that it is a puzzle game and while enjoyable there really is no reason (other than achievements) to go back to previous challenges. The second problem is that the game is very short; 3-5 hours at best, while this is not unheard of for an XBLA title, the fact that the game ends in such an unanticipated and abrupt manner makes the whole game seem shorter.
I can say for certainty that I have truly enjoyed my time playing Limbo, so much so that I have played it through 3 times and Im looking forward to a 4th. I am encouraging everyone to get out there and get this game, not only will you be entertained but youll never look at XBLA titles the same again. Besides, my wife is enjoying this loss for words stage Im going through and hopefully, PlayDead will see the need to offer a Limbo 2.