There are times when the download services allow you to play a title that would probably have never seen the light of day otherwise. If there was ever a title which expresses this more than any other then it’s Limbo, the incredible opening salvo to Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade event for 2010.
Set in a surreal black and white world, the game places you in the role of a little boy as he journeys to discover the fate of his sister. There’s little included in-game to set up this backstory, but it’s not something the game honestly needs. Limbo is all about the journey it takes you on, rather than the how’s, why’s and wherefores. This ethos of keeping it simple extends to the games controls – the thumbstick guides your character around, with one button used for a small jump and another for performing actions like dragging and climbing items.
Along with the basic premise, the striking visual style sets the tone for the truly remarkable game that follows. Creating a title which works solely with a monochrome palette will certainly have posed an incredible challenge, but creators Playdead have given careful thought to every facet of the games appearance. The world it conjures up is crammed full of little details, with everything from the player kicking up little stones and dust as they move, the misty shapes and scenes in the distance as you explore, and the bugs and insects that flutter just out of reach. Befitting Limbo’s style the audio is kept to a bare minimum in order to provide maximum effect; the whistling of the wind through the trees and the shrill call of eerie sounding wildlife is enough to give you a chill, while the scant occasions where music is used are designed to raise your skin up into Goosebumps.
There’s a deliberately intense atmosphere that pervades throughout Limbo, one which is sombre and melancholy, creeping and foreboding. It would be easy to spoil large portions of the game by explaining why, but we aren’t going to do that here. To truly understand why, a player needs to experience the bleak and often unremitting nature of the game’s countless gob-smacking moments for themselves. Likewise for those delicious moments when the game builds on its own themes and leaves you admiring the creativity on display.
If the visual and audio side of things aren’t enough to evoke that primitive sense of dread from deep within you, then by the time Playdead have finished teaching you a short, sharp lesson you’ll be watching the screen intently, fearing for the fragile little life of your on-screen character.
When death comes in Limbo (and there’s no escaping that you will die a lot), it’s often brutal and jarring. It’s meant to be. A litany of sudden death situations awaits you, and those who try to rush through will find themselves falling foul more than anyone else. Playdead have pushed the player into advancing slowly, leaving little choice but to soak up the atmosphere. At the same time death is handled so well that it never punishes you unfairly. Instead, with its generous and almost seamless restart points, the emphasis is on coaxing you to learn from your mistakes. The game won’t guide you by the hand, in fact some of the puzzles are so fiendishly clever that they’re the digital equivalent of serving up a backhanded compliment and slapping you down from becoming too cocky, but neither will they unfairly bar you from progressing.
By now you could be forgiven for thinking that Limbo is a rather joyless game, but this is where Playdead have actually done something incredible The game’s puzzles are so well thought out that solving them or overcoming each adversity actually provides you with a deep sense of satisfaction, enough to counteract the gloom it paints on your senses. This is an incredible testament to the thought that has gone into the game, turning the players progress through it into the actual reward. It would be easy to scoff at this description, but it isn’t until you’ve played Limbo that you can truly appreciate just how it manages it.
If we had to nitpick and say that Limbo has a slight downside then it’s that the game suffers from a jarring ending and is only a few hours long. However the latter is only noteworthy because you won’t want it to end, torn between wanting to keep going and prolonging the experience for as long as possible. While it’s incredibly easy to bemoan a games length in terms of actual hours, it becomes an afterthought when you consider how much it offers within that time. Limbo is a title which will provide a real hit on the senses, something that many retail games cannot even come close to. Likewise it’s easy to proclaim that Limbo’s gameplay has been done countless times before, but never has it been done with such impact.
For that reason it’s impossible not to recommend Limbo to those looking for something that will provide not only a visual treat, but something quite remarkable that will stay with them after completion.