Review / Limbo (XBLA)

Just a few days after its release, Limbo has already become the center of the “are games art?” debate. I find this “debate” to be more annoying than it is constructive, but just for kicks, here’s my two cents: Art is, by definition, a man-made interpretation of thought, and by that definition, anything man-made is art. The empty Coke bottle on my desk can be considered art. Ergo, videogames have artistic merit.

And that’s all I have to say about that, but if you would like to find out why Limbo is a truly exceptional videogame, please read on.

Limbo is a journey into the unknown. That’s the best way I could describe the game’s premise, as there is a complete lack of exposition during play. If you read the game’s description before buying the game on Xbox Live Marketplace, you will learn that you’re searching for your sister, but if you didn’t read that, you would have no idea why this brave little boy would embark on his suicide mission.

The boy whom you take control over in Limbo is also the game’s emotional core. You don’t see a lot of children as main characters in videogames, and the game is able to portray the innocence of youth surprisingly well. You are not very powerful when compared to most videogame protagonists. In fact, you might be the weakest living creature in the entire game, and Limbo‘s cold, unforgiving, and beautiful world will constantly remind you of this.

‘Stark’ is another appropriate word one could use while describing the world created by Denmark-based Playdead. The screenshots will give you a idea of the distinct look of the game, but they only tell half the story. You can’t see the absolutely fantastic animations on the main character or the detailed blades of grass flowing in the wind. You also can’t hear the ferocious but fantastic sound design. Everything from the loud clanks of old machinery to the menacing hiss of spiders is appropriately terrifying, and the audio is just as important as the visuals to creating the chilling atmosphere of Limbo.

Thankfully, like Braid before it, Limbo also happens to be a great game to go along with the artsy fartsy bits. A great man once said, “the beauty is in its simplicity”, and Limbo is most definitely simple.

There’s two buttons: A makes you jump while B is used to move boxes, flip switches, and occasionally rip off a giant spider’s leg. The puzzles themselves start out easy, but by the end of the game they can be downright dastardly, as gravity is eventually thrown into the mix. The game has a sound learning curve, so there’s never a stark jump in difficulty, and the game is very generous with its checkpoints. You’ll never be too far off from where you were when you died.

And you will die. A lot. Not only will you die (a lot), but you will die in some of the most gruesome and horrific ways you have ever witnessed in a videogame. They’re not overtly gratuitous with showers of blood and guts, but there is a unmistakable emotional punch every time you see this mere child’s body mangled and ripped apart like paper.

It reminded me of something that I don’t think any videogame I’ve ever played reminded me of: The fragility of human life. Someone who plays as many games as I have has “died” thousands upon thousands of times in their lives, but when you’re a anthropomorphic hedgehog or a roided up space marine, there is a severe disconnect between dying and what dying actually means. The pitfalls, creatures, and the many ways they can kill you in Limbo serve as a unnerving reality check.

Limbo‘s greatest strength is its unwillingness to tell the player anything about itself. What you think of Limbo and the emotions you walk away with after the 3 ½ or so hours it takes to complete depend entirely on who you are as a person. I can’t tell you if you’re going to like Limbo or not. I can tell you that, as a puzzle-platformer, it’s is supremely well designed, but that’s not the reason you should play it. What I can say for certain is that Limbo is unlike anything you have ever played before, and in a medium where that trait is becoming more and more difficult to find, that’s more than enough for me to warrant the $15 admission.

+ As beautiful as it is unsettling
+ Astonishing sound design
+ Expertly designed puzzles

– Some people could be turned off by the short length and $15 price point
– Low replay value
– Cheap deaths are inevitable and abundant