Review by DarkECOJak

Reviewed: 07/28/10

Take a Trip to the Other Side

Since downloadable games were first announced, my general opinion of them has been pretty constant. Besides a few worthwhile titles like Braid and Portal: Still Alive, I’ve found that downloading games is more or less a waste of money in terms of what you receive in the package. Maybe it’s the collector in me, but the lack of a disc has always made downloading games feel like they are expendable. For reasons like this I’ve prevented myself from using these services too often as nothing up to this point has truly wowed me. That was until I came across LIMBO, an Xbox Live Arcade exclusive developed by new up-and-comers, PlayDead Studios. It’s rare for me to get excited for newly released games in general, but the fact that my excitement was peaked for a downloadable title was nothing short of mind-blowing to me. It’s literally unlike anything I’ve ever played before.

LIMBO follows the tale of a young, nameless boy who, unaware of his sister’s fate, has entered Limbo in an attempt to find her. No more information is given throughout the game than this. In fact, the only place where any story is mentioned at all is in the game’s Xbox menu before you start it. The lack of story explanation may seem like a negative aspect at first, but from the second the game starts and you take control of the boy you quickly realize that this was very much intentional. Once you press start, you find the boy on his back in a forest with no rhyme or reason as to why he’s there. As the player, you come to realize that the boy has about as much knowledge of this world as you do and thus the exploration becomes that much more meaningful. I found this approach to storytelling to be surprisingly effective. It proves that less truly is more when done correctly.

As for the gameplay itself, LIMBO is essentially a 2D puzzle/platformer at it’s core. At first glance it seems like an average game of this genre, but the method in which puzzles are solved is what sets it apart. Only two buttons are ever used, one to jump and one to grab and move objects. The boy isn’t given any special powers or abilities, he can only survive. This makes figuring out challenges rewarding as you have very little at your disposal and must rely on your own sense off puzzle-solving know-how. These puzzles start off easy, but the difficulty starts to set in about halfway through. You’ll eventually find yourself flipping switches, maneuvering objects and even changing gravity. The latter half will have you scratching your head quite a few times as you must work to time jumps, avoid hazards and use what’s given to your advantage. LIMBO has been referred to as a “trial-and-death” game, so expect to die a lot during puzzles or just by traps scattered around. But the developers took this into consideration as a death will usually put you right back to the segment of a particular puzzle you were trying to solve. It’s very forgiving but does tend to decrease the difficulty (and aggravation) a great deal.

The first thing people usually notice about LIMBO is it’s art style. Taking a step in a completely new (and oftentimes awe-inspiring) direction, the game is presented in a black and white, silhouette-like style. The background of the world usually has a white or grayish fog with little visibility, which enhances the suffocating feeling of your inability to escape. The foreground, which consists of the boy as well as the objects you interact with, are almost like shadows and create a pseudo-3D look that’s both beautiful and horrifying. Just like the lack of narrative to move you forward, the graphics do their job at keeping the player from seeing too much and thereby making the experience much more personal. What you can’t see leaves more to the imagination. Even the boy himself only has his white eyes to show his small range of emotion… Alive or dead.

On that note, I’d like to bring up that LIMBO, although visually appealing, is absolutely not meant for young kids. The game received a T (Teen) rating but the subject matter made me wonder how this slipped by. When you begin the game it becomes immediately clear that you’re not welcome in this world. Everything else that’s alive wants to make you dead. This is normal for any game, but the manner in which it’s shown can be quite shocking to say the least. The boy can die in a variety of gruesome ways including, but not limited to, drowning, falling from too high up, being crushed, impaled and even fully decapitated. Although there’s very little blood, these silhouetted death sequences can be quite disturbing as they are depicted very realistically. Adding another layer to this is the fact that most other human character you see are very child-like in appearance and are often killed like the boy or seen as corpses that litter the landscape or hanging by their necks in the background. The world is meant to look extremely hostile and frightening and this is certainly achieved. I do, however, applaud PlayDead for including the ability to turn off the gore using the options menu for those who are easily disturbed by this.

There is very little music in the game which, given the overall tone, isn’t very surprising. Most of the noises you hear will be ambient sounds of objects and creatures, along with the boy‘s footsteps. You really do get the feeling of being all alone. The little music that LIMBO does have will usually coincide with a visual cue and is almost always ominous. If a threat or dangerous situation is ahead, the music will usually flare up to indicate it. Going back to the “less is more” tactic that the game uses frequently, when you do hear music it helps to set the tone.

It may seem like I think LIMBO is absolute perfection in terms of what an XBLA title should be. This is somewhat true, but there are some underlying issues that kept me from giving this game a perfect score. LIMBO is short… When I say short, I mean about 3 or 4 hours long. This wouldn't be a problem given the fact that it’s such a unique title, but not everybody will see fit to spending the 1200 Microsoft points ($15) to experience it. The length may also be diminished depending on how quickly you can solve puzzles and move on. There are a few hidden eggs to find that will unlock achievements and items for your Xbox avatar, but once you know where everything is you can probably blow through it in about an hour or two. I also found the game extremely easy for the most part. I’m someone who frequently got stuck on the puzzles in Braid for hours at a time and even had to look some up online. LIMBO may have you stumped for awhile, but nothing you’ll need assistance with. One other big issue for me was that the game’s ending was very abrupt and as much as I hate to admit it, thoroughly unsatisfying.

When you get right down to it, LIMBO is certainly something that should be experienced at least once. It’s a beautiful, creative and haunting game that leaves you unsure of how you’re supposed to feel when all is said and done. The length and price tag may pose a problem for those with tight wallets, but I’ve paid $60 for games that last 8 to 10 hours and didn't get half of the enjoyment or emotional involvement as I did with LIMBO. For a development team of, astoundingly, only eight people, PlayDead Studios did a fantastic job for their first dip into the gaming pool. If $15 is all it takes to see more games that are willing to take a chance and push the envelope in such drastic ways as LIMBO does, I say it’s a small price to pay.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: LIMBO (US, 07/21/10)

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