Limbo Review

In 1929 Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali collaborated on a short film called Un Chien Andalou. It had no story, but was rather a collection of surreal images with only the slightest trace of narrative thread (it also started out with a man slicing open a woman’s eyeball with a razor). Limbo, the first game by Danish developer, Playdead, is Un Chien Anadalou’s videogame equivalent. While the game description on XBLA tells us it’s about a boy looking for his sister, that’s never made explicit in the actual game. Limbo is really about moving a boy from left to right on a 2D plane through one horror-filled machination after another. If this sounds appealing to you, you’ll probably find a lot to like about Limbo. Just don’t be surprised when it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The most striking thing about Limbo is its unique black and white aesthetic. Employing silhouetted foregrounds with hazy, out-of-focus grey backgrounds and a heavy dose of jittery film grain, Limbo looks like something you may have dreamt after a night of watching The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari followed by a round of Mario. With the playspace generally fading to black along the edges and little in focus, it makes exploring the deadly world of Limbo all the more imposing. It’s bold, striking, and in a medium that spoils us with new images, Limbo has what it takes to stand apart at the top of the pack.

More surprising is how Limbo sounds. Best played with headphones, Limbo’s aural palette is filled with nature sounds like rain drops, wind, twigs breaking, etc… The music is subtle enough that it blends in gracefully with the natural sounds and you often won’t notice it’s even playing until a particularly dramatic moment.

The actual game design is simple but clever, consisting of environmental puzzles and tricky platforming challenges. The controls are as minimalist as can be, with the “how to play” screen consisting only of buttons for “jump” and “use.” The puzzles grow in complexity, with switches for changing water elevation levels to mind-controlling parasites allowing you to only move in one direction, eventually leading to zero gravity machines. The game is very good about not recycling content, so every puzzle stands out on its own. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s all consistently polished without a single unfair solution in the bunch.

The platforming side relies far more on trial and error, but sensible checkpointing and short reloads make it rarely frustrating. In fact, dying is often its own reward with some spectacularly gruesome death animations adding lots of menace to the proceedings.

Atmosphere is paramount to Limbo’s success and it’s here where it excels. There’d be times when I’d delve deeper and deeper into a new area as the lighting grew dim and the music became increasingly brooding and oppressive. After solving a few puzzles and performing a handful of death-defying feats, the reward would be a brightly lit area full of butterflies and punctuated by more uplifting melodies. The key to Limbo is how much it shifts the player’s mood without doing anything overt. It’s the deliberately paced sense of dread and relief that makes Limbo’s scant three hour running time feel as epic as most games quadruple its length.

What I suspect will be the chief sticking point for many is the game’s almost complete absence of story. While ambiguity is all well and good, some degree of context would do wonders to add importance to the nameless protagonist’s plight. This all culminates in a spectacularly abrupt denouement, which while expertly choreographed and quite moving, feels out of place and fails to give any extra meaning to the whole affair.

Then again, perhaps the ending is not the point. The game is called Limbo, after all, placing emphasis on the journey rather than the destination. It may leave you scratching your head, bewildered and a little disappointed, but it does little to detract from the captivating moment to moment experience prior.

For all its artsy aspirations, Limbo is closer to Gears of War than Braid. Don’t let the pretentious (in a good way) art style fool you, if you’re looking for any deep ruminations on the human condition you’ll be sorely disappointed. Limbo wants to dazzle and delight you with its bold aesthetic and harrowing set pieces. On this level, it’s a triumphant success, proving that you don’t need millions of dollars, huge development teams and flashy 3D graphics to get the job done. Ingenious puzzles, exhilarating platforming sequences and generous checkpointing conspire to make a fine puzzle/platformer. Limbo may be abstract, short and lacking in replay value, but for those looking for an epic, moving journey that can be digested in the span of a movie will find a lot to like in this avant-garde adventure.

Our Rating for Limbo
TGR Rating
Limbo is a fantastic puzzle/platformer with some of the most stylish music and arresting sounds in the industry. Only its lack of story and approximate three hour length will turn off some gamers.

Author: Jeffrey Matulef