The Good: Thrilling creepy visuals, nice mix of puzzles which tend to stress thinking and not controller twitch speed. The Bad: Quite short, no replay value. The Ugly: Nothing.
Indie gaming companies have gotten a lot of mileage out of the sidescroller game model. Boasting jazzed up graphics and meticulous physics engines, these games have come a long way from Mario Bros. and Duke Nukem (yes, Duke was a sidescroller long before he was an FPS). Integrating adult themes and intense artistic styles with sidescroller gameplay, I think Limbo will appeal to a wide range of gamers, both casual and hardcore. It does clock in a little on the short side – I just about finished it in my first sitting, something like about 2 ½ hours – but the haunting artwork and quirky puzzle style were enjoyable.
It’s easy to describe a game like Limbo, but really hard to get the impact of the experience across. Underneath the hood the game is a sidescroller in the classic mold – climb ladders, flip various switches, drag boxes around to climb on and weigh down buttons, avoid monsters and traps – but there are some neat physics things going on as well, like flipping a switch that causes the world to rotate on its axis, floors becoming walls, ceilings becoming walls, everything in sight reacting to the new gravitational direction. The game is also infused with an Ingmar Bergman-esque sensibility, the interplay of light and shadow is gripping, glowing motes in the air, the gamespace possessing a kind of rasterized flicker similar to old black and white movies. The whole game is in black and white, and grey, lots and lots of grey, and it has an intricate level of detail, like giant monster spiders which have tiny hairs on their legs and bodies, looking so real in image and motion it’s like they rotoscoped an actual spider. The game meters out new puzzle elements cleverly over its forty-ish chapters, adding boxes, switches, moving platforms, electrified floors, monsters, traps, water effects, gravity reversers, and a whole slew of other factors that keep the action fresh. That said the game is about three hours long or less depending on your solution rate, and I can’t see a reason to run through it again unless you’re one of those people who like delving in to unlock achievements.
There is the feeling of a deeper mystery about Limbo. I mean, it’s titled Limbo, and there is plenty of death imagery, spiders, flies, and outlines of decaying corpses and rotting piles. There are images of suicides such as hangings and drownings. The world itself has the feeling either of a place quickly cobbled together, stagnant, or falling apart, and occasionally other people are seen running the machines that are trying to thwart your progress. The game begins with you simply waking up in this place without any indication of anything before it, so it begs the question, are you dead? Is this not simply limbo but The Limbo? I’m not quite done with the game as I write this review, and if there is an overall mystery about this game, perhaps some larger storyline of your attempted suicide and that all of Limbo is somehow just that, Limbo, I haven’t seen it yet, though some of the games imagery is suggestive of such a story arc. I will go so far as to say if there is ultimately no point to the game, I will be disappointed. When I was a kid I could play Mario for hours with no more plot motivation than collecting coins, but Limbo with its high artistic concept and gloomy foreboding mood seems to have promised something more, hence leaving open the possibility of letting me down. I shall see, but it’s not a spoiler I intent to reveal here.
Look, no one is going to uninstall New Vegas or Crysis 2 to make room for Limbo (not that you’d have to, with terabyte drives so cheap and Limbo consuming a sparse 100-ish MB). It isn’t that kind of game. It’s a casual quickie spin into a fascinating and beautiful world with some head-scratcher puzzles. I like that for the most part it tests primarily your thinking capabilities, without resorting to hard-to-accomplish and time out ducking or jumping exercises to increase the game’s difficulty. The visuals are shivers-up-your-spine creepy, and from the first to the last, though those two points are not very far apart, I’ve enjoyed my time in Limbo.