For the most part, video games can be seen as the equivalent of big-budget action movies. Even some of the more thoughtful titles can resemble Michael Bay films. From time to time, though, you'll encounter unusual video games that are more unique and artistic. Games like Ico or Braid are independent from rescuing princesses or killing enemies. Recent arguments brought up by critics like Roger Ebert discuss the idea of whether games can be art. Regardless of which side of the debate you're on, it's clear that some games take the extra step to be more than a television drama or action movie. Limbo is a game that is an experience first and a game second. It's fun to play, but it asks the buyer: Are you looking for a game or an experience?
Limbo is very light on the plot, and very little of it is revealed during actual gameplay. You play as The Boy, and you're looking for your sister. The only way I even gleaned this much basic information on the characters was through the game description on the Xbox 360's dashboard. Limbo is a short journey through a hellish landscape. Depending on how you're feeling, it can be fraught with meaning or an incoherent jumble of disturbing visuals. The eventual ending is short and a bit unsatisfying. The game doesn't feel like it finishes so much as it just stops, with the final puzzle leading to an ending sequence that feels distinctly disconnected from the rest of the game. It's still an interesting title, especially if you're the kind of gamer who liked discussing and analyzing Braid.
Where Limbo shines is in its atmosphere. The bizarre visual style gives the entire game an eerie, otherworldly feel. The environments and characters are simple but very distinct, and it's difficult to not to get caught up in the wordless story. The early segments, which take place in a forest populated by monstrous insects and strange humanoids, are a great example of how to create tension and fear without using a single word or cut scene. It is unfortunate, however, that the game trails off toward the end, with much of the clever atmosphere fading into more cliché areas. When Limbo is on, it is absolutely incredible. It is just impossible to not wish for more.
As far as the gameplay goes, there isn't a lot to learn. Limbo has only two buttons: jump and action. There are no levels, no long-term items and no weapons — nothing but your wits and an occasional item with which The Boy can interact. Limbo is a puzzle game, and in that regard, it's a very well-designed puzzle game. Reminiscent of games like Heart of Darkness or Out of This World, the puzzles revolve around figuring out how to avoid a nasty death. Everything you need to solve the puzzles is available at first glance, and the game promptly teaches you the physics and basic ideas necessary to survive. The puzzles are very fair in that you might die a few times, but you'll figure out what you did wrong and adjust your strategy when you try again.
Limbo has a wide variety of objects, but most stay around for a brief period of time. The game is quick to replace the various tricks and gadgets it thrusts upon you, so no particular puzzle overstays its welcome, although a few come close. One particularly clever idea involves a brain-sucking parasite that prevents you from turning around, forcing you to figure out ways to manipulate the environment to get around your new limitation. This is only used a few times, and the last time is clever enough to prevent it from being tiresome. This variety helps the game stay fresh, although it saddens me that certain clever ideas were not used more. Considering the game's short length, it feels like the developers could have reused some clever ideas to pad it out without hurting the overall quality. The overall difficulty is also fairly low. You'll die often, but the game doesn't punish you for dying, and the developers are very liberal with checkpoints, so you'll usually restart at the point after the last completed puzzle.
With that said, there are a few "gotcha" traps that aren't particularly entertaining. They're few and far between but are almost impossible to predict and will almost certainly lead to a player's death. Since you'll revive a few steps away from where you left off, the traps don't set you back much, so they don't cause a lot of frustration. The game features some basic platforming elements, but they're usually built into the puzzles. In a few areas toward the latter half of the game, you'll depend more on your jumping ability than your brain, but if you know what you have to do, there's a very reasonable period of time during which to execute your idea. A few segments have some kind of time limit, but they provide ample time to complete the puzzles.
One notable problem with Limbo is its length. The game is extremely short and can take between three to six hours to complete. There is a small amount of replay value in finding hidden "eggs" throughout the game, but it won't last very long either. This makes it a little difficult to recommend the game to those who want Limbo to keep them entertained. There's not a lot of replay value, and the basic gameplay doesn't hold up as well through multiple replays when you already know the puzzle solutions. It's possible that the intriguing atmosphere can tide you over where the gameplay can't, but that brings us to Limbo's other problem.
Limbo's is a very front-loaded game. The early segments are breathtaking and contain some of the most disturbing and effective sequences I've seen in quite some time. The puzzles are simple but feel naturally connected to the environment. The entire first hour or so of the game is incredible, but it gradually goes downhill once you defeat the first boss. The game never becomes bad, but the design goes from creative and haunting to average. The spooky forest and strange creatures make way for an unmemorable factory of death and destruction. Simple but effective fears like bear traps and spiders are replaced by whirring buzzsaws and automated machine guns. Effective natural set pieces are replaced by futuristic gravity puzzles that, while entertaining, feel decidedly average and slightly out of place. The game stops feeling surreal and spooky, and the atmosphere loses its grip.
A lot needs to be said about Limbo's art direction. The Boy looks like a shadow with glowing eyes, a design that is simultaneously creepy and endearing. When he dies, it is quick, violent and horrible. While M-rated games may feature exploding body parts and gouged eyes, they're nowhere as effective or horrifying as what happens to the poor boy. The entire game has a strange, surreal, spooky feeling that is difficult to match and incredible to watch, especially in some of the earlier areas. The game can be downright terrifying in its own way, which is quite a feat for a simple Xbox Live Arcade title. The sequences involving the spider drip with malevolence and are sure to make arachnophobes cower under their covers. The atmosphere isn't perfect, though, as the game feels very front-loaded. Nothing in the latter half, which includes neon signs and cold metal walls, comes close to the impression made by some of the simpler scenes from the first half, which is set in a disturbing organic forest. In particular, the wall-mounted machine guns feel like they were planned for another game.
Special credit also needs to be given to Limbo's sound. It's an extremely quiet game, and there is almost no music or sound. When you hear something, it is important. By using sound sparingly, it makes the audio feel far more effective and real. With that said, the game descends into video game clichés toward the end. One of the final puzzles involves a beeping timer that feels very out of place and seems like it would belong more in Mario than Limbo. For the most part, however, it is a solid example of "less is more."
Limbo is one-third a fantastic masterpiece and two-thirds a solid, if unexceptional, game. The first portion is incredibly well put-together and does a great job in evoking emotion. Perhaps this is why the second portion, despite not technically doing anything wrong, feels more workmanlike, more by-the-numbers and less special. Limbo is still fun and definitely worth playing. The only thing holding it back is the short length and lack of replay value. Limbo balances right on the edge of being unique enough to justify the cost. If the entire three-hour experience were on par with the first hour of the game, Limbo would be a masterpiece that's easily worth recommending, despite its length. Unfortunately, it doesn't, so the game's worth becomes a question of how much it grabs you. If the unique atmosphere and impressive art design are worth $15 (1,200 Microsoft points) to you, then it's certainly worth buying. If you're looking for more of a game than an experience, you'd be better off waiting for a markdown.
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