Review by SneakTheSnake
"My opinion of the game is also in limbo."
There are games coming out these days whose presentation proceeds them, but not in a way that games have in the past. Games in the past have promised on a killer franchise, or exciting gameplay, or even alluring graphics. Sometimes the pedigree of the developer can cloud the judgment of a game based solely on its own merits as a game, not as an element of popular culture or product of national or gaming culture. Limbo's reputation came before the game itself, at least based on the press I read of it, based on its atmosphere. Its ambiguous storyline, and its completely grayscale graphics. Who am I to criticize it? How can I point out flaws in what is an arthouse game of sorts, a game whose aesthetic has been praised by critics and fans alike?
I can hang my head in shame, then, because, much like The Unfinished Swan, I find the game difficult to rate because of its attention to detail over its game length. As a game, I find Limbo to be eerily beautiful, one which borders more on experience than on the traditional definition of game. The narrative is left more or less to our imaginations, and I like that too. As an investment, however, I find that it would be to the gamers' interest to wait until the game's price matches its length and level of substance. For anyone looking to see how effective a game's atmosphere can be, play Limbo. For those who like puzzle platformers, play Limbo. It's a far cry from what's popular in the gaming mainstream, and, for me, that's a good thing.
The story to Limbo is purposely ambiguous. You play as a little boy who is lost in a near-barren landscape. From environmental clues, one can ascertain that it's a long-abandoned landscape you're wandering along on, one filled with traps and hazards seemingly laid out to take out intruders like you. No one resides in that hotel you're climbing on, no one is camping in the forest you're trudging through, and no one works in that desolate factory. The few other individuals you run across are more or less out to get you as well. There is no dialogue, there are few interstitial cutscenes. This is not the save-the-princess nonsense of a plucky protagonist, nor is it the gripping chronicle of a nation at war, nor is it a fancy JRPG hero looking to save the world from destruction. It's you, your character, wandering through this lost world.
I like that, too. The game's atmosphere is positively top-knotch. It's a change, granted, but it's for the better. I can't guarantee that the game will completely suck you in, but it will likely enchant and perhaps even enthrall you. It's enjoyable, it's creepy and it will most likely get your attention.
The gameplay is more or less that of a straightforward puzzle platformer. Your character will traipse from area to area and have to contend with traps and the occasional enemy. Elements in these puzzles include ropes, pushable boxes, switches, gigantic spiders, bear traps, electric surfaces, gravity-switching buttons and switches which control magnetic charge. Almost anything will kill you without a second's notice; you'll likely die quite often. Respawn points are plentiful, so you won't have to backtrack much. In fact, you'll never backtrack; the game is designed as being completely linear, and paths to older puzzles are blocked off once you complete them. I don't mind the occasionally trial-and-error gameplay or cheap scares, if only because the checkpoints are plentiful and the some of the puzzles require a bit of experimentation to find the solutions to.
Perhaps besides the graphics, the puzzles are the heart and soul of Limbo. A few are rather standard push-pull puzzles, and a few puzzle rooms act as introductions to more complicated puzzle elements, but when the game truly shined for me was when I had to have my wits about me to solve some of these puzzles. They felt extremely clever; I would not want to give any solutions away. It suffices to say that, even though these puzzles all contain only a few elements that can be manipulated in each puzzle (for example, a box placed along an incline and an elevator), the puzzles themselves are deviously clever.
I wish there were more of them, though. I enjoyed my time with Limbo, but it was over so quickly. I understand that that's how the developers wanted it, but I'm sure they could have eked out a bit more content here. Limbo clocks in at a few hours, and that's okay, I suppose, but I expect a tiny bit more for my investment. In essence, one has less than fifty true puzzles to play through; a good thirty of them are excellent puzzles / challenges (as some of them require more of a platforming acumen than an inclination toward true puzzle-solving). That's when you know you have a good game; that not only do players want to get sucked into the game's world and allow themselves to be immersed for hours on end, but that they're sad when the game is over. There are a few secret goals to accomplish, but the game is a short, linear playthrough.
You'll enjoy it while it lasts. The game has a lot of downtime - time in which your character wanders from one area to the next - in which there will be a full one or two minutes of nothing but ambient noise and sky-high trees. When the game gives itself time to breathe - I wish sometimes that other games would do this - that in itself can be both intriguing and rewarding. It's fun to make it like Journey, to postulate what the characters are doing, how they got to where they are, and why their world is the way it is.
As said before, the graphics in Limbo, from the menus to the environments to even your character, are completely grayscale, and hauntingly beautiful. It's surprising, the variety of environments, atmospheres and feelings one can conjure up with simply a scant selection of colors to use from. Even the small boy, who is entirely in silhouette save for his small eyes, makes the game somehow relatable, understandable, intriguing.
There isn't much sound to speak of, and that only adds to the atmosphere. There aren't musical interludes or voiceovers here; the excellent sound engineering has gone almost completely into realistic-sounding clanks, howls and scratches as the boy navigates the treacherous terrain. You can't rely on shadows for these puzzles, but you can rely on the sounds; you begin to depend on the noises in the distance as indicators of salvation or potential danger. You'll have a good sense of when predators will approach and how quickly they're moving based on their sounds. They only add to the scare factor; the game did have me jump a few times because of the graphic violence in the game. The boy will routinely get crushed, maimed, impaled, eaten, electrocuted and / or drown at any given moment and, in an important way, you'll almost feel it too.
I have nothing but praise for Limbo except for its scant length. The choice to make the game a little longer than movie-length is deliberate; I realize that. Sometimes, I feel that's done to help prevent the game from getting stale. It can be a good thing if the game design is especially weak or repetitive, but I didn't feel that way about Limbo. I liked what I saw and wanted to stay there. The atmosphere, the rewarding puzzles, the audio and visuals - they make the game what it is. There just should have been more. As it is, I would recommend waiting a bit to pick this one up.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/05/13
Game Release: LIMBO (US, 07/19/11)
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