Limbo Playdead Playstation 3, 4, and Vita, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U, PC (reviewed), mobile Released in 2010
The past few reviews might have highlighted that I am a critical man, even to games I truly love. Perhaps I am a little too hung up on Cave Story and perhaps Banished deserves a little slack, but this is a game I unapologetically do not like. Ladies and gentlemen: I dislike Limbo. Lynch me if you so desire.
Is this a nightmare?
The story in Limbo is difficult to explain, mostly because it’s so subtle and downplayed. If you’re the kind of person that enjoys dialogue and characters then this is the wrong place: Limbo is entirely silent aside from the unsettling noises of things that’ll kill you.
You awaken as a small child in a dark, ominous forest. To your left you hit a steep wall, so you set out on a journey to the right. First to see what’s out there, then slightly faster to survive what you found. To get a semblance of a real story you need to pay attention to details in the background and surmise your own explanation. And what it shows you is more than a little unorthodox as you move from forests to abandoned cities, to strange, inexplicable constructions. I found myself asking where exactly I was and what had happened to the world? Are there other people? Are they sane? Those are nice questions to ask, but there is so little attention paid to the storytelling that it all falls by the wayside as gameplay takes over.
Storytelling then comes crashing back in the room for the game’s finale, which honestly didn’t intrigue me that much. I read a few theories online, but none could really spice up what was a pretty dull and obvious pay off. I appreciate the subtlety in the early game, but wish it was carried a lot further and that more was done with some of the admittedly good side-stories.
Story score: 5/10
Torture via dull gameplay
Limbo is an artsy 2D puzzle game in which you control the aforementioned boy as he makes his way through the game’s trials. As you move to the right (for it always the right) you’ll soon encounter obstacles that you must overcome. These obstacles take on the form of physics puzzles, so you’ll have to run, jump, and pull on the components of each puzzle to make it through.
This isn’t like Portal where the nature of the puzzles is obvious. Everything is dressed up to give you the sense that you are in a dangerous world, trying to overcome monsters and devious traps. You’ll find yourself dangling over sawblades or narrowly dodging bear traps and boulders, or being hunted by creatures that roam this strange world. It nicely contextualizes the puzzles for you early on, but as with the story it fades away over time and becomes a rare treat.
That’s a shame, because the mechanics sure weren’t used as sparingly. The puzzles quickly began to feel samey as the same few tricks were rolled out time and time again. The first time a big parasite lodged unto my skull and began to mess with my controls it was disgusting and I enjoyed working around it. After the fifth time, it honestly lost its charm. Limbo is a short game, easily finished in two hours, but even then it manages to outstay its welcome by about 45 minutes. Controls could be a little tighter too, as your jumps are clumsy and hard to predict. Something I particularly dislike is that you keep jumping for as long as you hold up, so if you crawled your way unto a narrow platform and are still holding the up button, then the kid will merily jump off it it again.
Death will be frequent as you play and always instant. While the death animations are oftentimes hilarious and take away the frustration of being murdered, it could be a pretty big bummer to repeat all the steps of a needlessly long or slow puzzle. To the game’s credit it does handle death well, as you can quickly respawn after the animation and it’ll put you reasonably close to the step you died on, rather than having you repeat the whole thing.
Even then, it wouldn’t have hurt the game to stop making puzzles around the time ideas began to run out. Putting most of the final act in complete, pitch black darkness reeks of desperation to stretch it out just a little longer.
Gameplay score: 3/10
I just mentioned that Limbo is an artsy platformer, but that is really underselling it. Limbo spearheaded indie gaming’s fascination with bleak platformers about harsh uncaring worlds and it earned critical acclaim for its use of shadows as an art-style. The world you play in is grey, white, and black; even you are just the shadow of a boy with two white dots for eyes. I respect that people thought it was nice and environments are certainly detailed and dynamic enough to keep it interesting despite the minimal amount of colors, but I still can’t say I care much for it.
What the game lacks for me is something that makes it stick out. The big chase early on that everybody remembers from the game sets you up for something exciting and cool, only to then end it pretty soon after without filling the hole with anything else. The game has no music either, just ambient noises that, while doing a good job at setting up atmosphere, don’t really succeed at keeping interest high when the rest of the game begins to slump.
Presentation score: 4/10
You might have noticed a recurring theme in my criticism so far: Limbo is a game that makes a bombastic entrance for itself, only to then sit down in a cozy chair and never move again. Early on it sucks you in with an amazing first act with a frightening nemesis that has an amazing pay off, but after that it keeps trudging along with no idea what to do. Rather than doing another big trick it stammers out a few okay concepts that aren’t carried far enough to be compelling at all. That keeps up for another 90 minutes or so when the game just throws its plot twist at you and heads off to bed.
While my feelings on the presentation really just come down to me not appreciating the art-style and sound that much, I feel many other people would share in my disappointment at the game’s story and repetitive puzzles.