Playdead’s Limbo is at once frightening, stimulating, evocative and deadly. It’s a lingering concoction of art and mechanics, and one of XBLA’s most beautiful offerings yet.
When it comes to an ‘arty’ game like Limbo, comparisons are quickly, easily and lazily drawn to titles such as Braid. In both, the protagonist is a small, boy-like character, and the puzzles in each are certainly cerebral, but each title is fundamentally different in concept and execution.
Whereas Braid deals with the ebb and flow of time, Limbo concerns itself with altogether more tangible gameplay mechanics: physicality, friction, weight and mass, and how these real-world properties can be used to devise myriad conundrums and solutions.
The look of the world is less corporeal, the adventure taking place in the unearthly, side-scrolling purgatory of the title. Microsoft may be selling Limbo as part of the Summer Of Arcade, but Playdead’s game looks more like a winter of discontent, coloured with a monochrome palette and given depth by ethereal shades of grey. The existence of the world and the young boy’s adventure within it is never contextualised by narrative because it doesn’t need to be. Limbo’s world is arguably more effective without such cumbersome contrivances.
Limbo’s landscape is its narrative: a world of hanging corpses, devious traps and frightening monsters that’s eerily silent for long stretches of play, with nothing but the solitary hissing of an abandoned record and the faint tip-tapping of the boy’s feet providing acoustic accompaniment.
But there are moments when music does creep in – slowly, surely, a low tremor will roll, accompanied by bright, lingering notes – and it’s during these strange, solitary moments that Limbo reveals just how transcendent its world can be.
It’s a game of quiet beauty, scattered liberally with ingenious design. The puzzles rarely repeat themselves; one moment you may be tasked with luring a giant arachnid from its nest, the next running from the reach of its trunk-like limbs.
You may find yourself altering the polarity of magnets; escaping traps set by Limbo’s shadowy inhabitants; avoiding electrical neon tubes; changing water levels; or trying to stay upright in a slowly rotating room. Limbo’s ideas are relentless, each new challenge demanding a rethink of how the world’s physics can be used to overcome an obstacle, avoid it, or remove it from your path. Like Portal and Braid before it, Limbo’s solutions don’t come easily, but only after a solid understanding of the mechanics that underpin the beautiful aesthetic has been reached. And usually after several deaths, too.
Death comes quick and without apology in Limbo, a game for which the ‘trial and error’ approach is the only approach. It comes messily too – the young boy repeatedly drowned, crushed, impaled, decapitated, spiked, splattered, eaten or worse, usually leaving behind a mess of sticky entrails as a reminder of your last mistake. Disturbing, maybe, but it’s done with a clever knack for humour. The sudden snap of a bear trap around the little boy’s neck just as you think you’ve hatched a solution to the puzzle ahead is a smirking reminder from Playdead that, in Limbo, nothing is ever quite as it seems.