Limbo Review

By Jake Gaskill - Posted Jul 19, 2010

Playdead's Xbox Live Arcade title Limbo is like a gorgeously constructed mix of Lost, Edward Gorey, LittleBigPlanet, and just a dash of Portal thrown in for good measure. It is one of the most haunting and finely crafted games of the year, downloadable or otherwise.

The Pros
  • Hauntingly beautiful art design
  • Simplistic, yet genuinely terrifying
  • Brilliantly crafted puzzles
The Cons
  • Creepiness sadly tapers off toward finale
  • Eventually, it comes to an end

One of Limbo’s greatest achievements is how much it manages to do with seemingly so little. The presentation might literally be black and white, but the mystery, tone, and story are anything but. When you wake up as a little boy in the middle of the deep, dark woods, you can’t help but wonder where you are and what's going on, while at the same time, the art direction is so arresting and the atmosphere is so damn terrifying that all you really start caring about is surviving. That is, until you witness something entirely unexpected -- which happens on a regular basis -- and you focus up for a second and realize how lost you really are in this bizarre and twisted world (and just how multilayered the game truly is).

It’s precisely for this reason that the game reminded me so much of “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” by Stephen King, and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” There is a level of sophistication and respect paid to the children in these works that you just don’t see very often. I’m sure there are countless other examples, but these are the first two that came to my mind, because they are two of my favorite modern “adult” kids stories, and Limbo does a brilliant job of capturing this essence but because it’s a game, it’s able to be effecting on a level that no other medium allows. (But that’s the topic for another discussion).

Reaching Another Level

Limbo has enough character and confidence in its vision that the developers could have easily just let the game ride solely on both and call it a day, but instead, they managed to create satisfying and intense platforming built solely on two actions: jumping and grabbing (In fact, it plays very much like LittleBigPlanet in this sense). The puzzles themselves are deviously crafted, and there is such a fantastic variety of them in terms of style and design, that you’re always facing something new and challenging, and they fit in perfectly with nightmarish tone of the game. The deaths are also particularly vicious, and there’s actually a gore filter for those younger players who might not be ready to witness a bear trap pop a kid’s head off like a cork.

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The only downside to how strictly constructed the puzzles are is that, like Portal, your first run through will probably take around five hours, depending on whether you feel like taking your time or rushing through it, but your subsequent playthroughs will last a fraction of that time. My second playthrough lasted just under an hour, and that was with a few deaths here and there. But also like Portal, this had zero impact on my overall enjoyment of the game, even though that initial sense of experimentation and discovery will never be there again.

The only other minor (and I mean, very minor) issue I had with the game was that, while the progression from environment to environment felt totally natural and flowed beautifully, it also meant that a lot of the more creepily frightening elements (giant spider, strange “others” who inhabit the world, etc.) kind of taper off a bit in favor of more elaborate/deadly platforming and puzzles. The atmosphere stays consistently unnerving throughout, but the latter part of the game, just before the thoroughly bizarre and stunning conclusion, lacks the kind of “Lost”-ish uneasiness and mystery that so dominates the earlier sections.

Very Few Above, A Lot Below

Tiniest of criticisms aside, Limbo is a top to bottom masterpiece. The last time I was this enthralled with a game world and a narrative (despite the fact that there is absolutely no explanation whatsoever about who the kid is, what happened to him, if he’s actually in “limbo” in the traditional sense, etc.) was BioShock, one of my favorite games of all time. It grabs hold of you at the title screen, and doesn’t let you go until after the credits roll. The ending definitely leaves the door open for a sequel, but while I can’t wait to see what Playdead has planned for it, I’m totally fine playing Limbo 100 times in the meantime, as it is without hesitation one of 2010’s best games.