When you first boot up LIMBO and find your nameless protagonist face-down in the mud, it’s immediately clear that something is amiss. The boy wakes up alone, probably wondering where he is and how he got there. The deep woods inspire a sense of dread, and its silence further signifies that the next few hours are going to be quite lonely.
While Braid may deal in time trickery and P.B. Winterbottom specializes in cloning, this latest puzzle platformer’s biggest selling point is melancholy. LIMBO of course has a few mechanical hooks along the way, but its shadowy look and haunting atmosphere set this apart from almost any other game I can think of, downloadable or otherwise. The swinging traps and whirring saw blades are familiar; the quiet boat ride in between is not.
Rarely have I seen visuals and game interaction complement each other so well. LIMBO‘s film-grain filter not only evokes memories of the silent-film era, but it also creates a dream-like, surrealist feel that demands the player to fill in the blanks. Hidden areas off the beaten path are shrouded in blackness, and the silhouettes of the more industrialized sections also lend to the mystery. The depth of the background doesn’t necessarily change the gameplay either, but the world fills much richer because of those well-placed extra trees and buildings.
Early on, the promise of these visuals is fulfilled in a set-piece involving a giant spider. The beast is able to skulk around in the shadows, stalking the seemingly helpless boy and capable of striking at any second. While the game has a much larger story to tell, this spider has his own arc that is perfectly realized, too. Though I would hate to spoil this sequence, you’ll likely have some sympathy – or at least respect – for it by the time you’re ready to move on. (I’d go so far as to say that the game peaks early with this spider chase, but LIMBO frequently comes close to topping it in the second half.)
This takes up roughly a third of the short quest, which will require plenty of block pushing and lever pulling to complete. Unlike most side-scrolling heroes, the nameless boy has no offensive capabilities to speak of, and therefore he must best utilize the environment to protect himself. LIMBO‘s environmental puzzles are also a major draw. Developer Playdead cribs from the genre’s best, from Flashback to VVVVVV. Though the game doesn’t have a single, mind-blowing conceit like some of its peers, the puzzles are all well-constructed, take advantage of the convincing physics engine and are reasonably challenging (as long as you’re prepared for dozens of trial-and-error deaths.)
That said, I would urge any prospective player to go it alone. Though it may be tempting to have your friend on the couch help you through a stumper,Â LIMBO‘s atmosphere requires minimal background noise for the optimal effect. If you let it, the game can be an intensely personal experience.
A couple years ago when Braid was released, I loved the experience but couldn’t help thinking that relying on so much text to tell its story was a cop-out. LIMBO does not take such shortcuts. In the end, no grand mysteries are solved and no worlds are saved, but this somber game’s conclusion is incredibly satisfying nevertheless. Years from now, we’ll be referencing LIMBO‘s shrouded dream-scape as one of the ultimate examples of how less can be more.