Review: Limbo

Limbo is a sidescrolling platformer for Xbox Live Arcade created by Danish developer PlayDead Studios.  The game’s apparent simplicity belies devilish level design, and its striking visual and audio styles are superbly orchestrated to create a lonely and foreboding atmosphere.  Though wonderfully crafted, the game is only a few hours long, and at 1200 Microsoft Points, has PlayDead given you enough bang for your buck?

As Limbo starts, the player character, a small boy, awakens in a silhouetted forest.  No explanation is given for how he got there, or what he is to do.  In fact, the only explanation of the game’s plot or setting is a brief synopsis in its Xbox Live description.  Apparently the boy entered Limbo to search for his sister.

Because it’s a sidescroller, and I’ve been trained by years of gaming that in sidescrollers you run to the right, I ran to the right.  Turns out this game is no exception, and you do spend the majority of your time running to the right.  Much like the games of my childhood, there is no tutorial, trial and error is your teacher.  As you run to the right, you will encounter puzzles, most of which will kill you on your first attempt, many times without any kind of warning.  However, despite mechanics that might be considered unsporting, to put it mildly, in other games, Limbo manages to avoid frustrating the player.

In Limbo, as in most sidescrolling platformers, everything wants you dead.  Traps aren’t always apparent as such until the first time they kill you, and PlayDead has created many kinds of traps to keep you on your toes.  Though deaths are frequent, the equally frequent checkpoints keep the game from becoming frustrating; PlayDead has neatly divided the game into separate puzzles with a checkpoint before each, allowing the player to simply keep trying each puzzle until they succeed, without having to repeat long sections of the game.

Limbo is divided into themed areas, but the changes are gradual enough that it doesn’t seem obvious.  New mechanics and traps are introduced as the game progresses.  For the most part the additions aren’t cumulative, but PlayDead always seems to reintroduce an old trap just as you’ve stopped looking for it.  Each section of the game is unique enough that you never reach a point where you have the game “figured out” and can breeze through the puzzles; each one requires lateral thinking, and you can’t use the same trick twice.  The changes are nice, and throughout my playthrough nothing felt overused or old.

The platforming is spot-on.  The game has only two buttons, jump and activate, which are used to great effectiveness.  Jump is self-explanatory, and activate is used to grab objects or operate switches.  It’s always clear what it is possible to grab or activate, and which jumps are possible and which are too large.  That is not to say, however, that the path forward is always obvious; it rarely is, though the game never leaves you entirely stumped either.  Knowing that I can grab a box doesn’t mean I know what to do with it, but with some tinkering I can probably figure it out.

The game’s visual and audio styles create a sense of supreme loneliness.  There’s not a trace of color in the entire game, and it’s rare that you see any other living things.  The stark outline of the player against the lighter backgrounds adds to the effect, as does the lack of sound.  There is almost no music in Limbo, and what music there is is very understated, often consisting of nothing more than a bass rumble.  The game isn’t silent, however, possessing just enough ambient noise to highlight the deep quiet.  Limbo’s atmosphere is it’s greatest strength.

Limbo is a superbly crafted game, with the gameplay and design elements all exactly where they should be.  The game is very short, however.  I didn’t time my playthrough, but it took somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four hours, with little replay value to be found.  Though a great game and a great experience, there might not be enough of Limbo for everyone to be satisfied with their investment.

Developer: PlayDead Studios

Genre: Sidescrolling Platformer

Time: Three to four hours

Gripes: Short for the price, little replay value

Get it for the: Wonderfully crafted atmosphere, devilishly clever level design, and spot-on platforming.