Publisher: Playdead Games
Developer: Playdead Games
Genre: Side-scrolling puzzler
Release date: July 21, 2010
Every now and again, I yearn for the good, old days. A time when you could walk into an arcade, drop one quarter into a machine and have fun with a game that only required two buttons and a joystick to control. Like millions of others, I spent way too much time and money in those places. Now, Denmark developer Playdead Games is bringing that feeling back with Limbo, a stark, minimalist side-scroller that gives you more enjoyment than you thought possible with just two controller buttons and an analog stick.
You play as a child (I assume it’s a boy, but it’s hard to tell, since all you ever see of him is a silhouette with two bright pinholes of light where his eyes should be). He wakes up in the tall grass of a dark, spooky, monochromatic forest. As he moves through the forest, he discovers that his surroundings are not friendly. He encounters huge bear traps, giant spiders with spiky legs, Indiana Jones-style boulders—and a group of unknown people trying to kill him. Later, he emerges from the woods into a city that turns into a clockwork, industrial nightmare in which even magnetism and gravity are tools for his survival.
Limbo, on the surface, is simplicity itself. All you need to do is guide the adventurous young lad through the environments, avoiding various perils along the way. You start out small, with easy (but not too easy) jump puzzles and platforming challenges, which gradually become more difficult and complex (hint: left-to-right is not your only movement option). Eventually you must use all of the wits at your disposal to solve the later puzzles, some of which have you altering gravity and avoiding deadly laser traps. And you do all of this with just three controls: move with the left stick, jump with the A button, and manipulate objects with the B button. This lets you concentrate on the situation at hand without having to deal with complex combos and other control schemes.
Limbo has the visual look of a silent German impressionist film from the early 20th century. The entire game is rendered in misty, soft-focus black-and-white. There isn’t a single word of dialogue, spoken or otherwise, and the soundtrack is mostly ambient noises (forest sounds, mechanical clanging in the city scenes, etc), but ominous orchestral chords break the silence from time to time, adding to the already overwhelming feeling of foreboding and danger. The early puzzles are easy enough, but near the end they become complex and frustrating; be prepared to die often, and sometimes in very gruesome ways. The death animations are explicit enough to prompt a warning on the opening splash screen and a Teen rating from the ESRB.
Although Limbo gets points for its stark, creepy simplicity, we never really know exactly why the boy is making this journey until the end, and then we can only assume. There is no opening cutscene, no chapter breaks; the game is a seamless, dark collection of puzzles to solve and traps to avoid, with no clue given as to what it’s all about. Who are these mysterious antagonists and why do they want to kill this boy? And why is he so driven to endure these life-threatening trials to complete his odyssey? As for more practical things, the controls can be sluggish from time to time, which spells certain death as the puzzles increase in difficulty. Also, there are no manual saves; there is only one saved-game slot, and that is filled with autosaves. But the game saves often and in logical places, minimizing the stress of having to replay long sections of the story. And there’s no hint system included, so you need to dig deep and try everything that comes to mind to get to the end (or wait for some helpful soul to post a walkthrough).
Sometimes the simplest things can also be the most effective; so it is with Limbo. From the creepy, fog-shrouded forest to the mechanical dangers of the big city and beyond, the game has style and atmosphere in great quantities, almost to the point where we don’t really care that we have no idea if this trip is really necessary. Expect to spend from six to eight hours from beginning to end, more if you want to spend time unlocking all of the achievements. But however you play it, Limbo is a journey that will haunt your dreams.