Microsoft’s first offering in the now annual summer of arcade is different than expected. It is not the type of game I would think Microsoft would want to put out as the head of a large scale promotion, but here it is. What does Limbo bring to the table? A striking art style, solid platforming, some tricky puzzles, and a remarkable amount of violence.
I find it difficult to properly explain Limbo. It’s absurdly simple on one hand. This game is a platformer. You control a small boy who can only run, jump, and grab objects. Those three abilities are used to navigate through different chapters (although you’d never know it, I’ll get to that) which gradually introduce new kinds of mechanics and trickier jumps. After about five hours of playtime the end is reached, the credits roll, and the title screen comes back up.
So, whats up? What makes Limbo stand as something worth playing when the innovation level in the gameplay department is practically nonexistent? First and foremost is the atmosphere. The screens show the strange black and white style and the kind of fog enveloping the world, but they don’t do Limbo justice as to what it actually feels like. The animations are as smooth as silk, be it the main character, the objects he manipulates, the various life forms he encounters, or even objects in the background. Save for the game start up, there are no loading screens anywhere in Limbo. The entire game, from start to finish, feels like one giant “level” that you just keep going through. It was in fact only after I finished the game and checked out the options menu that I realized the game is divided into about 25 chapters. Limbo never informs you that a chapter is complete, or even where the checkpoints within chapters are. Luckily, the checkpoints are practically everywhere. I say luckily because you will be using most of them because you are going to die HUNDREDS OF TIMES.
Limbo is designed to make the player do trial and error to proceed through the game. Those “errors” are almost always gruesome death. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, as there is really no penalty for dying. The first time I approached a bear trap, I didn’t even realize it was there until I found myself cut in half. The game lingered on my bleeding corpse for a a second, then cut directly to the section right before the bear trap. Amazingly, because the main character is clearly a young boy, the deaths get pretty gruesome. Armed with the knowledge of the traps location, I got around it to continue. This scenario plays out over and over again. Something drowns, decapitates, eviscerates, electrocutes, impales, crushes, shoots you full of holes, or a box falls on your head, and you die. Every time, you learn a little more and reach a point where you learn enough to best whatever obstacle is currently murdering you. It’s like a side scrolling 2D Demon’s Souls! (I need to review THAT game…holy shit, maybe I’ll get to that sometime. Seriously, go check out some Demon’s Souls reviews if your curious and don’t know what I’m talking about, it too is a unique experience…but I digress!)
The puzzles of the game get progressively trickier as you go in a very satisfying way. A couple of the later parts of the game had me stuck at how to proceed for about 15 minutes as I experimented with gravity switches and magnets. The level design gets a kudos because as soon as I figured out what I was supposed to do I always felt like an idiot for not seeing it right away. Every object in Limbo serves some sort of purpose and sometimes serves more than one. Deviating from the clear path will let you find small glowing egg type objects that will net you achievements. Some are pretty easy to find, some require some absurdly tricky but very rewarding platforming, and others just require some trial and error on their own, IE jumping down pits that look like they would kill you. They give a good reason to explore the game world a bit more deeply than normal.
The sound in the game deserves to be mentioned because there isn’t much of it. The early game, as you traverse through a forest area, is especially sparse, as the only sounds heard are the main characters foot falls or the wind blowing through the trees. Creatures you encounter, both large and small, do make noises of their own but not in a video game “RRRAAAWWWRR HUGE MONSTER!” kind of way. The late game, most of which takes place in an industrial park type area, is filled with louder and bolder sounds of screeching metal and humming machinery, but it also is kind of subdued tone. There is no music to speak of, although I really liked how in the late game some of the industrial stuff almost sounded like scary dissonant tunes, usually right as you approached something that would probably kill you. It’s a nice touch to have the actual environment provide your scary music for you in a organic way.
So, that brings me to the story of Limbo. I guess I’ll say spoilers ahead, although to be honest, there really isn’t much I can spoil. I will not give away the ending. Just know that I’ll talk about some of the creatures you encounter throughout the game and talk about a couple things that I think relate to the plot, although nothing really relates to the plot because the game never presents one. Got it? Good.
When downloading Limbo from the Xbox Live menu, the description says it is a journey of a boy trying to find his sister. Interestingly to me, the game never says this. The game does give you pretty strong hints that you are searching for a little girl who I guess could be your sister, although this is never made clear. Limbo takes a very minimalist approach to storytelling. The game is called Limbo, so I took that to mean that the world the game takes place in is a sort of Limbo, and it is an interesting world that is never explained. As the boy you encounter a few different creatures throughout the game, such as a giant spider or some sort of slug that attaches to your head and forces you to walk in a specific direction. Most interesting to me is you encounter other human figures a couple times throughout the game, who in almost all cases are trying to kill you. This is never explained.
I’m totally cool with not explaining everything, probably more so than most. I think part of the reason the new Stars Wars movies weren’t as good as the first set is because they tried to make us understand the whole god damn universe and explain EVERYTHING. This is impossible and it would never be as cool as we think it in our heads anyway. It is also the reason the plot of the second two matrix movies devolved so badly as compared to the first film. My point is, when creating a universe, you want to give the audience enough for them to be able to wrap their head around how it works and who inhabits it, but leave enough of a mystery (and more important imo, a mystique) that lets them theorize and wonder at what your holding back (nerdy example: Han Solo boasting of the Millenium Falcon doing the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs. What’s the Kessel Run? It’s clear Han thinks that Luke and Obi-Wan will know what it is and will be impressed at the claim, and both of them seem to know what he’s talking about. The audience doesn’t but what that does is create a universe in our minds that has way more going on it than just what is happening on the screen).
Limbo takes this concept to a fault. There is NOTHING to explain any of this universe. Who are the other people you see and why are they trying to kill you? Did they build the industrial sections of the game? Who IS the little girl glimpsed a few times throughout the game? Why are you trying to reach her? Who are YOU?
Having two or maybe even three of these questions left unknown would create the mystique I referred to earlier. Having ALL of them be total unknowns is just confusing. The world of Limbo IS interesting. I can’t say I want to learn more, because I haven’t learned anything! For the “story” of the game to really take hold I need to be given something as a starting point to work from as to the nature of the game universe. Sadly, I get nothing.
To wrap up, I would say Limbo is worth playing, but not for everybody. The game is short for the $15 price tag it comes with. The world of the game leaves so much unexplained that it becomes frustrating. However, on a purely visceral level, the game is beautiful. The multitude of ways the main character can get killed is very impressive. The level and sound design, which sometimes even work together as sound becomes a hint on how to proceed, are top notch. At its heart, Limbo is a platformer. If your the type that enjoys the genre and want to see something other than the very kid centric platformers out there, Limbo is a unique experience. It’s far from perfect, but Kudos to Microsoft for having such a bizarre game lead the way for the Summer of Arcade.
Filed under: Games | Tagged: arcade, art style, atmosphere, demon soul, demons souls, dissonant, Elrood, han solo, industrial area, lack of plot, Limbo, microsoft, no plot, on a boat, platformer, puzzles, Star Wars, summer of arcade, super mario style, the matrix, unexplained, XBLA, Xbox 360, xbox live |