- Street Date:
- July 21st, 2010
- Reviewed by:
- Thomas Spurlin
- Review Date:1
- September 25th, 2011
- Game Release Year:
- Xbox 360
- Microsoft Game Studios
- ESRB Rating:
- T (Teen)
On the cusp between reality and an ethereal plane of existence, one left purposefully undefined by Danish independent producers PlayDead, LIMBO starts with a boy awakening in an obscure, frightening forest of shadows. As we see nothing but his blackened silhouette and the blistering whites of his eyes, he gets up and begins his journey through the towering trees, murky waters, and rustling shades that immerse him, the crunch of his feet on grass and dirt as the only consistent sound in a symphony of wildness. We’re uncertain exactly what this world is, as no title cards or explanations have been offered; the only glimmer of exposition, really, eventually comes in the young boy approaching a younger girl under a light-adorned ladder, whom we can assume might be his little sister. Don’t assume, though, that the lack of a verbose narrative leaves PlayDead’s brilliant, dark creation void of narrative.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
Just as the eyes and ears get acclimated to the gloomy aesthetic in LIMBO, which performs like a standard side-scrolling puzzle platformer, the little boy dies. It might not be the first trap, or the second, or maybe even the third, but eventually – upon the player’s first unaware screw-up -- the forest claims his life in grisly fashion: a large toothy bear trap, a jetting appendage from a massive beast, or even the depths of the murky water drowning him because a ledge was just inches from his leaping grasp. And they’re supposed to happen, as right after each grueling death, which doesn’t shy away from the brutality that the shadowy little boy endures (more than earning the Teen rating), he reappears at the point just before he met his end. Some might see this as an easy way to replay the puzzle at-hand, essentially PlayDead’s version of a checkpoint; it can also be seen, however, as the boy learning from his mistakes and reliving them until he gets it right.
The gameplay in LIMBO is straightforward, yet challenging in the confines of PlayDead’s level orchestration. You’re given three basic controls -- run, jump, and grab – to navigate through each of the practically-designed environmental puzzles, which involve dragging boxes, latching on to ledges, and relying on proper timing and positioning of the two to continue moving forward. The difficulty escalates as the boy seamlessly progresses through the disquieting world, but not just in the lengthening of spiky pits and extending the leaps that the boy must nail; LIMBO gradually – and thematically -- changes its environment from naturalness to the industrial, incorporating magnet fields, rolling boulders, electrified walls, churning gears, and fully rotating platforms. While the controls never complicate further, the world’s enduring metamorphosis and subtle, aware puzzle designs constantly surprise with their discreet spikes in difficulty.
No cutscenes and very few deliberate pauses interrupt the path between locations, which makes the experience in guiding the boy through LIMBO a completely immersive one. PlayDead’s art design culls palpable, shadow-heavy influence from German Expressionist silent horror films -- from F.W. Murnau’s Faust and Nosferatu to Carl Theo Dreyer’s Vampyr – as well as some faint film-noir elements to punctuate the brooding human emotion stirring in the atmosphere, complete with harsh grain and vignetting that pulls off the look of vintage film stock. Draping the game in grayscale accomplishes two things: for one, it achieves a distinctive, utterly mesmerizing artistic weight that creatively uses its simplicity to heighten the realism in object movement; but on top of that, it also takes some of the visceral bite out of the falling, impaling, and chilling other deaths that occur (though they’re still violent and shiver-inducing).
Navigating through LIMBO’s bleak puzzles remains exhilarating, deftly atmospheric, and frequently challenging from start to finish, and while it’s also fairly brief –a two or three night’s span upon the first play-through – its brevity wholly satisfies because it shows an awareness of its austere tone’s staying power. Once the puzzles have been solved, much like playing Portal or Braid, the awareness of the solutions takes some of the edge off in subsequent journeys through PlayDead’s world; there’s still the excitement in timing leaps and hitting triggers, but as you wrapped your mind around the gravity-pulling and box-positioning, it becomes too familiar, similarly to “thinking in portals”. Unique rewards are available, though, for those that venture back into LIMBO; on top of achievements for discovering small glowing orbs (peek closely at darker shadows and don’t be afraid to die while pursuing far-off locations), there’s also an achievement for completing the entire game in one sitting … and only dying five times.
The real appeal in returning to LIMBO comes in embracing the ominous atmosphere, which proves to be distinctly affective within its own interpretive form of narrative. You feel the immediacy of every jump and cringe upon every death endured, some comically animated but all at least mildly alarming, and it’s due in large part to PlayDeath’s artistic execution. But it’s also potent due to the subtle reminders of what the setting signifies for the young boy, who treks through a hellish barrage of obstacles on the hope that he’s eventually going to reach salvation, attain peace, or at the very least rediscover the young girl. Yes, that’s a hefty introspective topic for a platform game, and yes, it’s wholly feasible to sidestep that aspect and enjoy the pure complexity of the puzzles and shadowy atmosphere. Yet there’s a layer of depth there, not something to inspect but assuredly an element that elevates the experience, one that’ll put and extra spring in the boy’s step when he leaps to grab yet another ledge on his journey.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
LIMBO is a drop-dead gorgeous game, but it’s not an experience to fully indulge in the capacity of a flat-panel television – unless it’s to flex some muscle in the black-level department. Flickering, grainy images persist in PlayDead’s faux-Expressionist aesthetic, remaining slightly hazy throughout its 1080p rendering of deep, fluctuating black-and-white contrast, which remains inky and robust throughout. Some details remain intentionally hazy due to its artistic aims, such as the lines created by ledges and walking areas; however, there’s also a wealth of truly impressive minute details to embrace in the periphery, from small swarming flies and raindrops to the dust rustling behind the boy’s feet while he’s running. The graphics’ ability to capture his bodily eccentricities – and those of other living organisms – is supremely satisfying, which becomes affective and chilling during the game’s macabre moments.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
LIMBO’s Dolby Digital 5.1 treatment offers less room for debate. Atmosphere’s a big driver behind this experience, and the consistent rush of sound elements will stagger on more than a few occasions. Mostly, the buzzing flies, slight raindrops, the thud of a box and the splashing of water become the design’s bread and butter, alongside the consistent pitter-patter of the boy’s feet coming from the front-channels. But when it needs to telegraph more robust, fierce elements, such as the rolling of a boulder or the churning of gears, it reaches deep into the lower-frequency channel for throaty, well-balanced bass delivery. Furthermore, Martin Stig Andersen’s eerie score – which features some scratchy radio elements and a few Silent Hill-esque tones – rounds out the design impeccably. LIMBO does stay to the front of the design, with little to no noticeable echoes reaching the rear-channels, but the clarity of what it delivers from the front and the power of the LFE channel completely immerses those playing.
No matter how astonishing LIMBO’s experience is, the replay value almost purely hinges on indulging the senses again with PlayDead’s atmosphere. Once you’ve figured out how to position a box, time a cranked gear, or wait for an opportune moment to jump, the struggle to figure it out etches the solution into the mind, no matter how hard you might try and forget it upon a second play-through. Delving into the rich, haunting, antiquated presentation again, however, will certainly hold up through at least a second trip through the environment. On top of that, there are twelve (12) Achievements totaling 200 points to nab, almost all of which are achieved through exploration. For $15, the money-conscious can rest assured that they’ll get their money’s worth.
PlayDead’s orchestration of black-and-white vintage artistry and superb sound design injects a haunting, fierce atmosphere into LIMBO, a cleverly-designed puzzle-platformer that’s masterful within its minimalism. Where it lacks in direct narrative, it overflows the gaps with restless melancholy tone and purely challenging puzzles, delivered by way of a mix of familiar and inventive mechanics that remains engaging. Moreover, it’s surprising exactly how deeply felt the experience of a young boy trekking through the dangerous shadowy atmosphere can be, especially considering that a word isn’t spoken the entire time.
- Digital Download: 1200 Marketplace Points
- Dolby Digital 5.1
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