Limbo is a work of art.
The video games as art debate is one argued for some time now, but even video game dismisser Roger Ebert would give pause, and possibly reevaluate his stance after seeing Limbo. The product of indie developer PlayDead Games’, Limbo is the story of a little boy searching for his sister in a shadowy, black and white universe that borrows heavily from German Expressionism and American film noir. This Xbox 360 puzzle-platformer (also available on PC and PS3) is equal parts brain-teaser and chilling audio-video experience — a 2D video game masterpiece that elevates the side-scrolling experience.
Limbo starts eerily with the black silhouette of a small boy lying into the middle of dark forest–initially, you can’t determine if he’s dead, unconscious, or sleeping. When you press the start button, his stark white eyes flicker to life and he slowly rises. This introduction, which is permeated with dread and morbidity, captures the suspense-filled design of PlayDead Studios’ beautifully-crafted world.
Everything in Limbo‘s universe strives to destroy you, typically in the most subtle, unexpected ways. Sure, there are brutal, in-you-face killings (such as stepping on an animal trap and having your head removed), but the most frightening and shocking deaths come from the more low-key butcherings.
For example, there’s a section of the game where you appear to approach what looks like thin tree or bush branches, but the camera pulls back a hair, and those thin branches are revealed to be the spindly legs of monster-size spider–a spider that lives partially offscreen (which makes the battle extra frightening). You will fail (a lot), but Limbo‘s deaths are rarely frustrating; trial and error is a necessity in order to decipher the tricky puzzles.
The gorgeous, haunting world is absolutely stunning, so much so that there are situations where you’ll pause the game to absorb the visuals. Early in the game you’ll guide the boy to the edge of a large cliff, the image of which appears to be duplicated in the misty background. It’s a majestic sight that inspires you to see more of the loveliness, but should you venture down the slope without heeding your steps, you’ll be swiftly impaled on a spike. That is Limbo destroying you with its sights.
Audio is especially minimalist; there’s barely a sound to be heard. Normally, a killer score and booming soundtrack adds to a game, but by scaling back, PlayDead Studios isolates you in the Limbo universe, which heightens the tension and suspense. This is reinforced by the lack of other living things in this world, especially humans. And in the brief moments when you do encounter other children, Death’s hand typically comes into play.
Still, the environment often plays fair by presenting cues to signal danger, help you solve puzzles, and defeat enemies. If you’re at the base of a cliff and see dust particles trickle downward in your direction, something constructed to wreck you is rapidly approaching. Nothing is arbitrarily placed into the world; it’s just a matter of figuring out why it’s there.
PlayDead Studios’ has done an excellent job of seperating the barrier between game and gamer. Not only are the controls super-tight, but there is absolutely no loading, eliminating the idea of “levels”; you simply flow from one adventure-puzzle scenario to the next without break.
You’ll notice a decided lack of actual gameplay details in this review — a conscious decision. As Limbo is all about surprises and puzzles (not enemies and boss battles), it’s prudent to keep the reveals to a minimum. Just take this with you: buy Limbo. Buy it, tell your friends to buy it, tell your family to buy it, tell your iPhone-playing friends to buy it. Action jockeys may not appreciate the slower pace (or barebones story), but if you can appreciate creative puzzles (some of which are hair-pullingly hard) and excellent design, this outstanding title — an instant classic, if you will — is a library requirement.
You can buy Limbo at Amazon.com for $15.94.