The Summer of Xbox Live Arcade began three years ago and has consistently brought us the best that the download service has to offer. Limbo fits comfortably right alongside titles like Braid, ‘Splosion Man' and 'Shadow Complex' as high quality showcases of what a comparatively small downloadable title can be. Limbo will grab you from it’s first moments, and will not likely release you until you are finished and pining for more.
Limbo tells the story of an unnamed child as he moves through a nightmarish noir fever-dream filled with deadly elements and mysterious backdrops. It has the unbroken forward progression of 'Half-Life,' the quiet unsettling atmosphere of 'Silent Hill 2,' and the simple yet diverse environmental puzzles of 'Ico.'
Less is Volumes More
Limbo offers to no exposition, no character development, and no tutorial. You awake as a child in the shadowy woods and you start moving forward. Everything you discover, everything you see and everything you figure out is presented without a single word of text, dialogue or on-screen prompts. There are no life meters, nothing to collect and only a couple of things hidden along the linear path. Because of this, Limbo never reminds you that you are playing a game, and because of this Limbo is one of the most engrossing, terrifying and brilliant experiences that I have had the pleasure of playing in quite some time.
It has been years since I have been truly nervous while playing a game. Recent offerings to the world of survival horror like 'Alan Wake,' 'Dead Space' and 'Resident Evil 5' have focused entirely too much on the idea that scary means scary looking things jumping out at you. In Limbo, almost nothing will appear unannounced, and the almost exclusively black color scheme means that the things that make you sweat are nothing more than recognizable shapes. The unsettling feeling of the game can be completely attributed to the atmosphere created within it. Everything is drenched in shadows and the foregrounds and backgrounds are unfocused, serving to obscure and hide the oncoming elements in front of you. You will often only catch brief glimpses of what is ahead and this is used to great effect when it comes to setting up sequences.
No Music, Means a More Interesting World
There is no music in Limbo, at least not in the traditional sense. Strange atmospheric noises pervade throughout the game. For the most part, the rustling of leaves, splashing of water and cracklings of branches and electricity are the only noises keeping you company. During some of the more intense sequences, a sound cue will crescendo around your narrow avoidance of death, effectively heightening the experience. Since these sound cues are rare, their auditory appearance always creates a memorable and intense treat.
Another reason Limbo outdoes any of the previously mentioned horror titles in the scary department, is that your character is a child. He can only jump about as high as his knee-caps, climb ropes and push and pull objects. The child does not have supernatural, or super-soldier abilities. If you think something might kill you, then it probably will, and it will do it fast, and it will do it one shot. Every encounter is intensified by your childhood weakness.
No Tutorials, Means A Better Understanding of the Character
The unnamed child’s skill set, is never explicitly revealed in a tutorial, which means the first few puzzles are all moments of self discovery. It gives you the opportunity to understand what this child is capable of on your own and he is a significantly more important character to the player because of this.
To further prove this idea, consider this. We could be told all of Spider-man’s abilities at the beginning of his story, but when the audience has the opportunity to learn what he is capable of alongside him, we become more involved with him as a character. We learn what he can do at the same pace he does. This is one of the reasons classic gaming characters like Mario or Sonic are so much more memorable and compelling to us as adult gamers. We weren’t told what they could do, we figured out what they could. Limbo executes this idea of learning who your character is, by learning what he can do, perfectly. And finally, I have a played a game before, and I assume you have as well. I don’t need to be told that the (A) button is the jump button in a tutorial, I can figure it out on my own.
No Narrative Background, Means a More Compelling Diegesis
The game begins in a forest, but you will make your way through pump stations, factories that seem to produce nothing and perhaps most disturbingly, recognizable elements of lived in cities. The intentional lack of detail means that you never get a really good look at anything, and without prior exposition, you are free to make your own assumptions about what sort of world Limbo is or was. I don’t want to say too much in fear of ruining some of discoveries the designers have set in place for you to find, but just know that you are not alone in this mysterious place, and you are not welcome.
All of This, and the Nightmare Plays Like a Dream
All of this praise, and I have yet to cover the actual gameplay. Puzzles are difficult, but never impossible, which is especially praise worthy considering the complete lack of spoken or written direction. Everything makes sense after a few moments of contemplation, and every bit of forward progression is a blissful reward. You’ll be creating platforms, avoiding bullets, leaping over chasms, avoiding traps, battling mind controlling slugs and eventually manipulating gravity to get to to the end.
Couple all of this with a poetic ending which offers a small recluse of light in a world of complete blackness, and you have the makings of a gaming masterpiece. If you want to justify your favorite hobby as a means of emotionally engaging interactive art, look no further than Limbo, and don’t look back.
There are so many things to be appreciated about Limbo, both in the ideology of games as art, in which Limbo is a prime example, and the design philosophy that games need to be fun. The simplistic yet gorgeous art direction, the scant yet absolutely effective sound cues, the limited yet engrossing storytelling and the unsettling atmosphere all come together to build a full experience, one that will not be forgotten for quite some time. Limbo is easily one of the best games to hit Xbox Live Arcade to date, and one that I am eager to play all over again.
Final Score: 9.6
Reviewed by Kyle Hilliard | 07.19.10
- A perfect example of games as interactive art
- I only wish there were more
Summer of Arcade: Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (7.0) | Hydro Thunder Hurricane (8.0)