I have one quite simple rule when it comes to any sort of entertainment, be it a book, a movie or, as in this case, a video game – if the content ever forces an intense emotional reaction from me than words of effusive praise will be soon to follow. Unless of course it’s a reaction of cynical hatred, all that leads to is me relishing in the opportunity to be an asshole about something.
On that note then, Limbo is really something special, at least up until the point where it becomes really something rather ordinary. I can see why the game has drawn so much praise since being first released on XBLA a year or so ago, but now, and perhaps this is because Limbo has lost some of that luster that comes with being the hot new thing, its faults are too big to ignore, and, oddly enough for a game so short, it rather overstays its welcome.
But first, those words of effusive praise I mentioned earlier. Limbo affected me in a way that few other games have, more so now that I’m playing most everything through the judgmental eyes of a critic. I felt an intense, almost physical connection to my character from the very start. I shared in his fearful confusion, the sense of dazed terror that you know something terrible is coming but you can’t think of how to deal with it. The first time I died, the forceful and unexpected rumble from my controller almost felt like the game violently lashing out at me for my failure.
Everything had been so eerily quiet and visually hazy that the sudden crash of sound and physical sensation elicited an audible gasp from my enraptured personage. By the time I was getting repeatedly stabbed in the head by a giant spider I had to gingerly hold the controller in my fingertips just to avoid the surprisingly disquieting sensation of digital death, which is both a somewhat embarrassing story to tell and a thrillingly emergent experience to have had.
Much of that is thanks to Limo’s stellar presentation that favors stark and naked minimalism to great effect. As many of you are no doubt already aware, visually Limbo takes place entirely in black and white, though it might be better to say “in shades of gray” since it’s a description that better fits the thematic purpose of the design. So too does sound favor a discrete nature, with nothing in the way of an ambient soundtrack save the sound of your own footsteps and a high pitched wind that seems to always follow the player no matter where you go. Only the sound effects seem to hold any weight in Limbo, abruptly shattering into existence and usually accompanying imminent death.
All this ambiance would be nothing without an entertaining game to back up and, for the most part, Limbo largely succeeds in this half of the gambit thanks to a constant stream of mostly ingenious puzzles. There’s the odd stinker here and there, not so much for bad design but rather an obtuse approach to instruction, nothing you can’t wrap your head around with a little thought though. Completing the puzzles is not always quite the same rewarding experiencing as working them out however, and Limbo’s boy is far from the smoothest avatar I’ve ever laid my hands on. He, strangely, feels somewhat out of touch with the rest of the game’s physics. Limbo is quite an easy game however so even with the addition of fiddly controls that can cause unnecessary failure, it’s rarely a cause for concern so much as the occasional mild annoyance.
Disappointingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, Limbo is unable to sustain its brilliance for the entire duration, and a little over half way through the game it starts to drag a little under the weight of repetition. Part of this is due to an unfavorable comparison to the game’s introduction and early levels, that are thrilling and innovative in a way that its later levels never manage to top, while the other notable flaw is that many of the latter puzzles are simply more complicated and restrictive versions of earlier challenges.
For the first hour or so of playtime I eagerly looked forward to whatever was coming next, by the time I hit the factory however I just wanted to make it to the end and had more or less resigned myself to the fact that I had now seen pretty much everything Limbo has to offer.
But then, as if just to screw with me, an intriguing and new mechanic comes along with barely ten minutes of playtime to go and is hardly explored at all. Infuriating me no end. For a game that’s hardly three hours long it’s amazing how bad the pacing is.
Like any artsy game, Limbo is a difficult beast to corral and any critique requires a degree of attention be set aside for elements that don’t normally factor into the quality of a game. So I’m bouncing between a score of 3 or 4. The former reflects Limbo’s status as a game, good but too misshapen to rise above the flaws and achieve something better. While giving the game a 4 is to take into account the artistic qualities of the experience, I wouldn’t call it great art by any means, but it is very good all the same.
For a few hours of well thought out and mostly challenging puzzles, coupled with one of the more affecting introductions to a game I have ever experienced, Limbo almost earns that four but not quite. At the end of the day, a game is a game as a game is a game, and in that regard I can’t give Limbo any higher a score than that which the game part earns.
Here are some actual screenshots of the game, because we’re not total dicks!
Limbo was released on July 21st, 2010 for Xbox 360, July 19th, 2011 for PS3, and will be released on August 2nd, 2011 for PC. Review is based on the PS3 version.