Webster’s non-religious definition of limbo reads: “A place or state of oblivion to which persons or things are regarded as being relegated when cast aside, forgotten, past, or out of date.” Well, that fits. In PlayDead’s creative and surprisingly addicting title, we find ourselves in a very dark world, where even our main character is merely a shadow with eyes. Everything seems neither here nor there; even when you’re progressing, you still feel mired in an unforgiving dream world. As time goes on, however, you realize other shadowy beings are invading your personal “limbo,” and hazards lurk over every ridge. It’s subdued yet captivating.
As you might’ve surmised from the available screenshots or videos, there’s a whole lot of shadow in this game. Just about everything is either flat-out black or a shade of gray. Occasionally, you’ll come across a few white design pieces, such as the cocoon in which you find yourself imprisoned at one point. Clearly, the intent is to generate a unique, engaging environment and the developers succeed beautifully. My only complaint is that it’s so devoid of color and evident life, one begins to feel somewhat detached. However, that’s a minor complaint as the gameplay blends nicely with the presentation. And suddenly, you can’t look away.
Like everything else about this production, the sound exists on the verge of…well, existence. It’s sort of there. There’s almost no soundtrack to speak of and the majority of your experience will be spent in creepy silence. But the sound effects are appropriately on-point and when the audio does swell – typically before you face a significant challenge – it hits you right between the eyes. These days, I don’t normally get chills anymore, but there were times when I literally shivered. And that was owing mostly to the quick albeit temporary influx of sound. A part of me wanted a low-pitched, persistent orchestral track, but that’s a subjective design opinion.
And speaking of design, few downloadable titles (indeed, few full-budget games) boast this impressive level of imagination and creativity. Limbo is about drawing you into a mysterious world and at first, it doesn’t seem like much. In many ways, it reminded me of Thatgamecompany’s Flower. While the two games in question are polar opposites in a dozen different ways, both begin with a whisper. It’s just a whisper; it tantalizes and teases, and while the overtly conscious part of yourself is going, “…okay, not sure where this is headed,” another deeper, less explored part is anxious and anticipatory. Remember when your lonely little petal touched that first flower? Well, it’s similar – in sensation only – to when you conquer your first puzzle in this unique quest.
Indeed, this game is a puzzler and platformer wrapped into one. All you can do is jump and grab certain objects for pushing or pulling. And considering the environment isn’t exactly overloaded with detail and complexity, you initially have to wonder how far the designers can take the concept. But you will discover the answer with an excited little grin. Every time they throw something new at you, the effect is immediate. You never saw it coming and it’s always an intriguing twist on the current formula, which continues to flex and bend. You’ll never do more than jump and grab and yet, they do so much with that seemingly simple mechanic.
The control is just about right; it’s responsive and only a tad floaty when jumping. It’s never erratic or unreliable, though, and you’ll have the controls mastered in a matter of minutes. The pacing is excellent. The adventure continues along without stopping; you can see that there are separate levels when you go to the menu screen, but there’s no additional loading once you start. You just go. And they know when and how to build up to big challenges, and when to give you a breather. I would’ve liked a bit of exploring; just some small paths that lead to goodies, or something. But I don’t mind the linearity and in fact, it keeps the player pinned in the moment. You always want to push forward.
I did find some of the puzzles to be a little obscure, especially later in the game. And there were a few very unforgiving parts that made me curse the platforming (not the quality of the platforming, but my performance). But other than that, it’s the overall design that makes the game an instant classic in the digital realm. So much thought is put into the scenarios that you’re forced to appreciate the work; in fact, you’re consistently praising the developers as you run along. There are a ton of amazing ideas here; some are better than others, but they all come together to create one of the most inspired, inventive interactive adventures of the generation.
Limbo is one of those games that just begs to be played. Even if it doesn’t seem like your cup of tea; if the style puts you off, if the puzzle-based aspect seems intimidating, it still demands your attention. It isn’t perfect, as one could pick out a few tiny flaws and questionable design and puzzle choices, but it’s guaranteed to be fulfilling. It’s the atmosphere that initially grabs us, and the gameplay that solidifies our long-term involvement. Just make sure you make it past the first “boss” (a spider) before you decide whether or not to finish it. Like I said, it starts with a whisper but really gets rolling, and you don’t have to wait long.
If you didn’t play it last year on Xbox Live, it’s time to download. Limbo is easily one of the best digital offerings available.
P.S. I should mention that despite the artistic, reserved presentation, your character goes through some hideous deaths. But they’re so funny you almost want to seem them more than once.
The Good: Singular, immersive atmosphere. Superb design. Imagination and creativity are off the charts. Solid control. Fantastic pacing, decent length. An appreciated challenge.
The Bad: Maybe too dark and silent. Jumping can feel a touch floaty. Tougher puzzles can feel obscure.
The Ugly: “Oh damn…I died hardcore.”
7/19/2011 Ben Dutka