Shadow Play: Limbo Review

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Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: PlayDead
Systems it’s available on: Xbox 360
ESRB rating: T for Teen
System reviewed on: Xbox 360

The problem with games that try to wow you with gee-whiz mechanics or overblown presentation nowadays is that they can come across as nervous, insecure efforts even when they work. Where a bigger, burlier features of a game like Crackdown 2 might be the equivalent of a shout, Limbo is a whisper. The efforts of Swedish dev studio PlayDead deliver a assured exercise in minimalism.

As such, there’s practically nothing by way of prelude. The official Microsoft solicitation copy states only, “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO.” The How to Play section in the Options menu is similarly terse. Left stick is move, A button is for jump and B button is for action. When you start it up, the game drops you in cold, with no hint on narrative. Is this boy dead? Did you just rouse him from his grave? The game’s entirely mute and its hapless hero is nameless, to better make you focus on the gameworld.

You’ll be immediately entranced by Limbo’s eerie looks and feel as you move from left to right through the first chunk of the game. It’s a platformer, yes, but one where the danger’s heightened by a shadowy delineated aesthetic. Limbo feels like a creepy inkblot-and-silhouette visualization of a Hans Christian Anderson tale and PlayDead doesn’t shy away from showing beheadings and dismemberment if you mess up a jump or screw up a puzzle.

And only the barest of hints, the slimmest of clues are available to you while playing Limbo. Little contextual changes in stance are often the only hints about how to proceed. So, Dead Boy looks up at a trap, so you’ll know you need it. How to get at it, however, is another story. And if Dead Boy sticks out his hands, you’ll know you can interact with something. But those stance changes are so subtle that you can miss them.

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For all its atmosphere, the game’s essentially a sequence of platform-based environmental puzzles–with switches, triggers and ropes–that often force you think non-linearly. The clues are there but they’re so finely rendered into the aesthetic of the world that you really need to pay attention. And then, just when you figure out a puzzle, another one will come up that mangles that logic. And a few times, even after you do it once, your brain is scrambled enough by a new threat–a rolling boulder, for example–that you forget the logic you just learned. A slight complaint about the game is that the mechanisms that govern the puzzles can be pretty opaque. You won’t always be able to tell if something can be moved or switched on or off. But since so much of the game’s based on trial-and-error, there’s a generous autosave system that lets you bang your head on the wall until you reach an epiphany.

It’s not just clever design; Limbo‘s scary, too. The giant spider monsters and gruesome death animations only skim the surface. The first time I realized something else was alive with me in this… place, I hollered really loudly. The most compelling thing about Limbo though is the sense of dread that powers it. Part of it comes from wanting to know what’s next, what could possibly be the outcome of this grim journey. And the other part of it comes from wanting to pit your wits against the game’s puzzles and to see what fiendishly horrific deaths await you. Clocking in at about 8-10 hours, this playable nightmare makes for a short experience. But, even after you finish the final chapter, Limbo will linger in your subconscious for a long while.

Official Techland Score: 9.6 out of 10

(More on Techland: Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade Delivers New Castlevania and Lara Croft Games)