Limbo Review

Lost (and Found) in Shadows

Limbo Screenshot

HIGH Seeing the game in motion and realizing it's not a cut-scene.

LOW The post-zipline area at the end is the game's only "cheap" puzzle.

WTF With that ending...

While publishers and developers bemoan the current "gotta go big" mindset of massive resource teams and million-dollar budgets, crafting eye-melting blockbusters isn't the only way to succeed. Quality can't always be achieved by focus groups and impossibly high polygon counts—there is much to be said for inspired design and creators who pour themselves into the work. I can't think of a better example than something like Limbo.

A small, devastatingly sincere art-house title on Microsoft's Live Arcade download service, I found Limbo to be of superior quality when judged from every possible perspective, easily eclipsing the majority of "AAA" releases this year. From the first few moments of play it was blindingly apparent that PlayDead's creation was something special, and I was pleased to discover that elusive quality maintaining itself throughout.

Best described as a work about mood and tone, the player guides a small, shadowy boy through a hostile, enigmatic world which offers nothing but vague suggestions and danger. To say anything more about it would do both the game and prospective players a disservice—in Limbo, discovery is everything.

Presented through an impossibly beautiful mix of blacks and grays that resembles nothing so much as a silent-film reel of some ephemeral netherworld, the experience is a perfect combination of form and function. While play can be succinctly described as 2D platforming and problem solving, the presentation of Limbo's physics-based puzzles goes hand-in-hand with its richly evocative visual style.

Careful observation of silhouettes in the boy's surroundings will often reveal clues to the obstacles barring his path; subdued images of death, decay and razor-sharp edges reinforce the stark brutality of the world, while at the same time alerting the player that caution is necessary. Small, easily overlooked handles can be of import, and unassuming tree branches often hold answers. Those with cool heads and a good grasp of Limbo's world will be rewarded with successful negotiation of elegant challenges that blend seamlessly with its reality.  

Other aspects of Limbo are just as brilliant. The conservative use of sound (and silence) support feelings of isolation in an alien land. The lack of life bars or menus put the focus squarely on the experience itself, and the streamlined control scheme is never a barrier to the player's desire. The animation of every element is flawlessly believable—so much so, in fact, that I'd be willing to wager certain sequences will be permanently etched into the minds of many players, able to be instantly recalled (with a shudder) years from now.

Quite honestly, I found myself instantly and utterly immersed in the small boy's travails—at times captivated, at others, horrified. Limbo is without question a visceral, virtuoso performance of the kind that grips a person from start to finish. I have no doubt whatsoever that PlayDead and Limbo are going to be on a lot of people's lips starting this moment, and on a lot of numbered lists come December. Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains animated blood and mild violence. Parents should be aware that while the game might give the impression of being safe for children, it's actually quite unsettling in many areas and the main character can be killed in extremely gory ways. The gore can be turned off in the menu, but even so, I would recommend parental guidance for children playing this game.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that the end of the game features an antigravity area that heavily relies on audio cues in order to inform the player when the gravity is about to switch. Without being able to hear, that section is significantly harder and will likely present a frustrating challenge. Otherwise, there is no dialogue in the game and no other areas that I found so audio-dependent.