There is an undeniable artistic element to what Playdead has brought us – a visual aesthetic that certainly puts it on par with titles like Flower and a gameplay component and vague narrative that's quite reminiscent of Ico. It certainly walks the "art game" walk, and you can definitely use the technical jargon when discussing it – but more importantly than all that is the fact that Limbo is fun. Skip past the break to find out why it's so much fun.
I need to clarify that statement. Limbo is fun – if you're a fan of platforming games filled with puzzles that require a little thought to navigate and that place an emphasis on "try-and-die" game mechanics. As someone who grew up before the 8-bit era, Limbo was like a high def walk down memory lane with some of my favorite games growing up. I suspect this is why the title has divided gamers – those of us old enough to remember how cruel games on the NES could be look at Limbo and see the perfect marriage of old school difficulty with modern graphical touches and convenience. Younger gamers, weaned on titles packed with tutorials and where the overriding goal of a 2D platformer is to just "keep moving right" seem slightly lost in this game's world. Neither side is wrong – fun is subjective, after all – but I think faulting Limbo for things like "not having a tutorial" (the game uses two buttons and an analog stick...) is missing the point.
Anyway, the game is a monochromatic dreamscape – essentially the antithesis of every brightly colored Mario or Sonic game you've ever played. It's converted noir film aesthetics to videogame form. The world of Limbo exists in shades of black, gray, and something in between. It's beautiful – one of the most visually striking titles I've ever seen. I see it and immediately think "this is what Madworld should have been aiming for with its use of black-and-white." Players take control of a young boy – he's just a dark shadow with two white eyes. You never know his name, you never know where he is, you never know what he's trying to do. What you do know is that you've woken up in a forest filled with hanging silhouetted bodies, nasty booby traps, and gigantic spiders and that you have to somehow get through it.
I'm told that if you read the game description online it tells you that you're searching for your missing sister. I'm not really sure that even matters – in fact, in some ways, it's like Halloween II to me (the Rosenthal one, not Rob Zombie's...) in that it attributes a motivation to something that didn't need it in the first place. I played through Limbo not knowing the "sister" angle and it didn't hinder my enjoyment one bit. The game never mentions it anyway because there's no dialogue in Limbo in the first place.
The gist of the game revolves around traversing this dark and dangerous world. Early on, our hero wanders through a forest, but the latter stages of the title shift to a more steampunk setting. Truthfully, Limbo is less interesting when that shift occurs. The gameplay is as engaging and fiendishly clever as it was all along, but the indoor steampunk setting just isn't as unsettling or interesting as the forest. It's also not nearly as gorgeous, although it does have its moments.
Basically, players will guide this nameless little boy though the harsh world – platforming and solving puzzles each step of the way. This is the beauty of Limbo to me. We can all gush over how amazing it looks from a visual standpoint, but the real artistry comes in the game design. There are hard games and there are cheap games. Ninja Gaiden on the NES was cheap. Limbo is just hard. However, it's not that "rip your hair out and toss a controller across the room" kind of hard. Instead, the guys at Playdead have done a really great job of making the game's difficulty curve not only consistent, but fair. Save for the addition of one new way to solve things late in the game, Limbo follows a very set form of logic. It's never predictable, but puzzles are always capable of being solved with the things in your immediate vicinity. If you try twice and can't make a particular jump, it's because you're not supposed to make it – not that the physics are wonky. Moving boxes, flipping gravity, working with magnets – all of these things are part of the puzzles the game throws at you. None of them are impossible to solve, but a few will have you sitting there scratching your head as you try to break out of your own rigid thinking to find the way the developers want you to go. This makes the "a-ha!" moment when you finally get past a tricky brain-teaser all the more satisfying.
If you look at the screenshots, it might appear as though Limbo isn't really a horror game. It looks kind of cutesie with its little kid and relatively simple graphics. I assure you, it really is a horror game, though. It's not a survival horror experience like Resident Evil, but the title does have a very creepy ambience that runs through it from beginning to end. Add in the lack of a soundtrack save for some ambient noise and the level of spookiness rises another notch.
My only real complaint with Limbo was voiced by a colleague of mine – he pointed out that you could argue that Limbo peaks too early. I'm inclined to agree. There are several segments relatively early in the game that are so intense that the rest of Limbo's big moments never feel quite as grand in comparison. It's sort of like Scream – Craven sets the bar so high early on in that film that he can't ever top it the rest of the way through. Sure, the audience is on the edge of their seat thinking "if they did this in the first act, imagine what's ahead..." but when that next big thing never materializes, it's a bit of a letdown.
That complaint aside, there's no denying that Limbo is not only one of the best downloadable games to come out this year, but one of the best games in general. It's only about four hours long, but for 15 bucks, it's not a bad deal. I had more fun with this game than most of the full-on triple A titles I've played, which proves that good games aren't solely about cutting edge graphics and complicated gameplay mechanics or online deathmatches – there's still room for classic game design and simple, but effective, visual elements in the field. I can't wait to see what Playdead does next.