By Marty Mulrooney
Limbo is a puzzle-platform video game created by independent Danish game developer Playdead. Originally released in July 2010 as a platform exclusive title on Xbox Live Arcade, the Xbox 360 exclusivity period is finally over and Playdead have ported the game to the PlayStation Network (it will also be released for Microsoft Windows via Steam). At long last, PlayStation 3 gamers can get their hands on what is arguably one of the greatest downloadable indie titles ever made. Welcome to Limbo…
Limbo is described on the PSN store with the simple tagline: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” The game itself begins just as simply, with said boy awakening upon the floor of a dark, ominous forest. At least, he does as soon as the player presses X, causing his white, glowing eyes to open as he slowly pushes himself to his feet. The boy has awakened to a world without colour, a shadowy land of sparse light and plentiful dark. It is the player’s job to help him progress through Limbo and find his sister…
A pure 2D sidescroller, Limbo teaches its various gameplay mechanics naturally as the game progresses. The X button is used to jump or pull the boy up over ledges, with the O button used to pull objects – such as crates or tires – and activate switches. The left analogue stick is used to move the boy left or right. Although the controls themselves are the definition of simple, the puzzles based around them grow increasingly fiendish and it is to Playdead’s credit how beautifully they hold together throughout the course of the game.
The gameplay itself takes the form of trial and error – or as the developers refer to it, “trial and death” – with the boy often killed in a variety of inventive and gruesome ways. Although this may sound frustrating, the stunning aesthetics make every failure a beautifully-animated life lesson. A hidden bear trap may initially separate the boy’s head from his body, but learning from this mistake allows you to quickly leap over it the next time, before dragging it across the forest floor to remove the legs of a giant spider…
Unlike the majority of video games, Limbo cannot be easily dissected. The gameplay isn’t strictly new of course – Heart of Darkness on PlayStation was doing this sort of thing way back in 1998, complete with gruesome death scenes and a young male protagonist – yet somehow Limbo manages to make it all feel fresh and new again. Likewise, the graphics don’t offer much detail or technical prowess in any traditional sense, yet the silhouetted graphical style is one of the most breathtaking and impressive I have ever seen.
Many reviewers have incorrectly stated that there is no music present in Limbo. And certainly, there are long periods where there isn’t any, strong sound design doing all of the grunt work. However, when Martin Stig Andersen’s soundtrack does kick in, the lines between diegetic and non-diegetic sound are blurred to wonderfully creepy effect. Taking everything into account, Limbo is guaranteed to impress even the most cynical gamer. More than just a game, Limbo is an experience, a work of art. As such, it often feels unquantifiable. Yet it seldom frustrates, and often delights.
Any issues present are entirely subjective. The second half of the game moves towards a more industrial setting – complete with buzz saws and gravity puzzles – which many players may find less endearing than the forest-based opening. Furthermore, the storyline is left purposely vague and open-ended from start to finish, perhaps making Limbo the video game equivalent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I personally loved this ambiguity – the ending moved me in ways I still can’t quite explain or even understand – yet I know that it won’t resonate with everyone. Also, I guess the launch price (£9.99) could be argued as a little steep. Please note: none of these points bothered me in the slightest.
Limbo is a masterpiece. It says everything it needs to without ever uttering a single word. In the space of a heartbeat it can jump from being beautiful and reflective to become stomach-churning and palm-drenching. It haunted me for the five hours it took to complete. It has haunted me ever since. Limbo is an unforgettable, game-changing experience. Roger Ebert, eat your heart out.
10 OUT OF 10