Independently developed games are becoming mainstays on today’s home consoles, as the addition of storage space and reliable internet connections have opened new worlds to game fans looking for something new, as well expansions on older concepts and ideas time may have otherwise forgotten. Done well, indie games can offer a much-needed escape from the predictability and socialized experience of bigger-budget blockbusters, allowing developers to concentrate on delivering a more intimate experience.
Such is LIMBO, a stunning debut from Danish developer PlayDead Studios for the Xbox 360’s XBLA that bends familiar two-dimensional gameplay with a wholly unfamiliar nightmare landscape. It presents a dark, colorless world in which a small Boy must venture forth to save his Sister from an unknown force, and not everyone will survive the experience; not everyone should.
The game’s narrative is limited to a single blurb, visible only when actually purchasing the game in the XBLA Marketplace, that reads “uncertain of his Sister’s Fate, a Boy enters LIMBO.” And that’s about it, as the game simply drops the Boy into this dark and colorless world of freakish shapes and monstrous inhabitants, with no cinematic cut-scenes or other clues to just what the hell is going on here. Old-school and retro fans will immediately recognize shades of 1993’s Out of this World, a game whose desolate art style and minimalist structure were obvious inspirations here, although LIMBO’s stark and often disturbing aesthetic often make that game feel like Disneyland by comparison.
Interaction is entirely through the Boy’s small repertoire of moves that include running forward, jumping, and the ability to push or pull certain objects along the way. He can also climb and swing across ropes and will hoist himself onto ledges and other semi-climbable obstacles, but even these limited abilities seem designed to help further the feelings of actually being in this dark and dreary world of monochrome madness; having him wield weapons to defend himself or perform superhuman abilities would have felt out of place in the context of what’s been established here.
From running on rolling rocks to pulling ladders, the simplest of puzzles can involve otherwise mundane tasks, at least early on. Venture farther and you’ll soon find yourself up against giant spiders and troupes of ‘lost boys’ who want you dead, and your only way out is to navigate what’s in front of you. Perform the right sequence of events and you’ll be allowed to proceed; perform them wrong and you’ll die.
And you’ll die – a lot. LIMBO is so unforgiving in its puzzle structure that it’ll likely turn off players hoping for a simple romp through the darkness. Death itself isn’t just unpleasant; it’s shockingly gruesome. The Boy’s various death moments are handled with a surprising lack of empathy for the player’s feelings. Ledges will smash his small body forward while bear traps will decapitate him in a single snap, almost making you long for a simple drowning or the righteous skewer of giant spiders (which happens, by the way). The idea of a game that takes such obvious glee in finding new and creative ways to dismember and destroy a small child may sound positively troubling, but given the stylized look and feel of the characters bloodless response (death can be reset in an instant), it’s artistic enough to make sense in context.
Thankfully, well-placed checkpoints make the process considerably less frustrating than it might have been otherwise, and these serve to open up the game’s increasingly complex puzzles to countless deaths before figuring out the right sequence of events to proceed. Some may criticize this trial-and-error style gameplay as being somewhat outmoded, but I found the game’s willingness to keep players constantly on their toes both fresh and exciting, and worth dying (in-game) for. Later levels introduce the concept of reverse gravity (much as with Super Mario Galaxy) and other variations on the genre, all of which serve to keep players questioning their sanity and their pulse racing.
On the surface LIMBO’s dark visuals recall those of many of today’s indie games, in which two-dimensional landscapes are rendered with Flash-like graphics and an impressive physics engine to handle the impressive animation. But it’s here where the PlayDead artists distinguish themselves by carefully crafting one of the most unpleasant and troubling worlds ever seen in a videogame. There’s also an ever-present digital fog that covers the screen and looks like something out of an early 90s Trent Reznor video, and the Boy and the game’s other motley band of inhabitants seem constructed out of shadows, with white eyes or other ‘light sources’ their only distinguishing characteristics. The result is like an interactive Rorschach test blended with a landscape seemingly ripped from Tim Burton’s own twisted imagination.
The game’s minimalist soundtrack is appropriately matched to its moribund visual style, and the sparse use of sound effects is extremely effective. Play this one with a good sound system to get its full effect and you won’t be sorry.
There are a scattering of different Achievements to collect – including one to complete the game in one sitting – as well as a standard Leaderboard to keep track of scoring, but even these can’t help stretch the game’s relatively short playtime out much longer than a good 3 – 5 hours. Given the lack of any opening or closing narrative to help tie things together and the linear nature of the gameplay itself, there isn’t much left to the experience once you’ve played through and seen everything. Whether or not people will find the game’s higher price worth it will depend entirely on how
With LIMBO developer PlayDead Studios has crafted one of the most intriguing gameplay experiences of the year, for the XBLA or otherwise. With dark visuals and twisted sense of purpose it’s relatively short running time of 3 – 5 hours actually works to its advantage, as the game manages to squeeze so much from its concept that you’ll likely come away more than fulfilled. The game isn’t for everyone, as its unforgiving puzzles, coupled with an unrelenting desire to kill its protagonist as many times (and as gruesomely) as possible, might turn away those looking for a less depressing experience. Still, for those looking for an intimately playable experience like will stay with you long after it’s over, it’s time to step into the void.