If one aspect of Catholic theology is to be believed, Limbo is a place you wouldn’t want to visit. According to some religious thinkers, it’s an underworld where all of us could end up if we sin too much, a place in between heaven and hell where sinful souls get trapped awaiting their fate — will they get to bathe in God’s heavenly presence, or will they be sent to dwell in hell for eternity? Limbo the videogame touches briefly on this religious theme as you scour the “edges of hell” in search of your missing sister, but aside from its monochromatic art-style, this 2D puzzler is actually quite heavenly.
At its core, Limbo is a good old-fashioned 2D side-scrolling platformer where avoiding traps and enemies, while timing jumps to perfection and solving environmental and physics-based puzzles, is the order of the day across its 24 testing chapters. Limbo’s uniqueness then largely stems from its dark, black and white art-style, which also features film grain effects and subtle and haunting ambient sounds that serve well to keep your palms sweating. It’s a testament to the quality of the animation and level design that at times it feels like your running and leaping through a Tim Burton production (Vincent immediately springs to mind). Indeed, Limbo is yet another game, alongside the likes of Flower, Braid and flOw, that is likely to ignite the "videogames as art" debate once more.
The main reason why Limbo deserves to be talked about in the same breath as those popular games is because the developer, Playdead, has incorporated light and dark extremely well, with the jet black silhouette of the main character contrasting powerfully against the various lighting effects. Similarly, shadowing techniques are used well to hide and disguise traps, while level design is kept varied and interesting throughout. Indeed, the art style is the perfect companion to the gloomy tone of the game, which sees a nameless boy searching Limbo for his missing sister – bumping into all sorts of creatures and monsters along the way.
As it turns out, the narrative ends up being quite a disappointment. The lack of character building means you fail to connect with the game’s main character or care for his well-being despite being dumped in the most horrid of places in search of someone who is obviously close to his heart. Nonetheless, the lack of a progressing narrative, and the fairly disappointing conclusion to his sister’s search, doesn’t distract too much from what is supposed to be a puzzle game that deliberately leaves a lot to your imagination.
The creepy, foggy forest environment that makes up the first part of the game does well to keep you on edge as you shuffle past shadowy bodies hanging from tree branches and leap over giant spiders who try and trap you in their deadly webs. Bears with traps and worms that bury themselves into your brain also try to kill you as you run, jump, push and pull your way passed some head-scratching puzzles.
The forest location eventually gives way to an urban setting where machinery-based and gravity puzzles give you a lot think about. As the challenge intensifies, however, so occasionally does the frustration as you regularly use a trial and error approach to beat many of the riddles. Playdead says that this particular play style was deliberate – it wants you to die and feel like you may die at any given second. In that respect, the developer does achieve its aim of keeping you on edge and totally engrossed.
Judging Limbo solely on its gameplay, it isn’t going to win any awards for innovation. Controls are extremely basic, with the boy able to simply push and pull objects or jump, while the cog-turning, crate-pushing and rope-swinging gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played any generic platformer. However, the puzzles are cleverly conceived, challenging and make the most out of the simple moves. Furthermore, Limbo’s art-style and solid level design make some familiar mechanics still feel very fresh. Limbo seems a little pricey at £9.99, for what amounts to a 5 hour campaign, but it’s an immersive game that challenges you with some addictive puzzles and enriches you with its unique visual style. There aren’t many games like Limbo around, and among the deluge of first-person shooters and big budget action adventures it’s a breath of fresh air.