RETRO REVIEW: LIMBO

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

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LIMBO | oprainfall
Title LIMBO
Developer Playdead
Publisher Microsoft Studios (XBLA), Playdead (PSN, Windows, OS X, iOS)
Release Date July 21, 2010
Genre Puzzle Platformer
Platform XBLA, PSN, Windows, OS X, iOS
Age Rating ESRB – Teen

Very few games have had the effect on me that LIMBO had when I first played it. There was a bleakness to it that, up until that point, I’d never really experienced outside of film or written works. Sure, Darksiders (also released in 2010) was a dark-ish game, and Red Dead Redemption ate up most of my summer with its story about (you’ll never believe this) redemption, but both of those games were ultimately designed to be fun. LIMBO was not designed to be a fun game. Nothing about LIMBO could be, in any sense, described as anything approaching fun, and that is exactly what made it so great. LIMBO was, and still is, one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had with a video game. Playdead Studios created a hauntingly bleak, beautifully monochromatic world filled with death and pain, and I love them for it.

LIMBO | oprainfall

Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.

If you strip the game back to just the very core and look at the mechanics themselves, it’s an incredibly simple game. There are platforms, and you jump onto them. Sometimes you have to swing from a rope thing, and, occasionally, you have to dodge rolling things. Later in the game, there are a few switch boxes that mess with gravity in fun and interesting (though simple) ways. A box has an arrow pointing sideways? That means gravity is going to be sideways when you hit it. The game length is a strength here. It can be completed easily in one sitting — anywhere from one to four hours depending on how often you die or get stuck. What that means is that, just as the current mechanics are getting stale, the game throws something new at you.

LIMBO | Jump

The mechanics would be nothing, though, if there weren’t well-designed levels to use them in. Again, taking the game out of its aesthetic, the levels by themselves are very well put together. They start off fairly basically; just some simple jumping puzzles and climbing sections — nothing too insane. There are traps on the ground that you can use to help you get through otherwise impassable sections. When you get further in, though, things get a bit more hectic. Some levels have you racing against a slowly rising pool of water, trying to navigate trap doors and ladders to get to the high point. Some levels have menacingly slow moving saw blades that you need to dodge. At a couple points, some burning tires are thrown at you. Remember earlier I mentioned that you can use certain switches to change how gravity works? That means that you’ll have to solve puzzles upside down on the ceiling. Later in the game, you’re navigating rooms full of massive rotating gears and saw blades as the room itself spins, turning your safe floor into a wall, leaving you to either find a way off or to fall to your death. There’s a satisfying blend of mechanics and level design at work in this game that other, much bigger-budget games struggle to pull off.

There’s an almost overwhelming feeling of isolation that I can remember from my first playthrough of LIMBO. From the time The Boy opens his eyes until the end of the game, you are completely alone. I’ve written about LIMBO before, and I stand by what I wrote just as much now after replaying the game as I did then.

“…you are in a world made of pure malice, where the smallest puddle will drown you, every hill you slide down ends in a pit of spikes and the only other living beings you ever encounter all want you dead.”

Every tree is dead or dying with rotting logs strewn about the ground. As you walk onto a platform with what looks like a person asleep on it, the floor collapses, sending you tumbling down to the ground below as the body you were moving toward swings from the noose tied around its neck. You stand on the edge of a pond wondering how you’re going to cross the water that, you know from experience, will kill you. On a whim, you jump out onto the corpse floating just below the surface and, surprise, it supports your weight. The gap to the shore is too long to jump but…what’s that? A person walking to the pond? What’s that glowing thing attached to their head? Why are they walking into the water. Are they going to swim to you? No, they’ve stopped…they’re twitching now — just another corpse in the water. Before they’ve even stopped spasming, you’ve jumped on to their body and made your way to the now reachable shore.

LIMBO | Hotel

Keeping with the mechanical changes and additions to the game, the aesthetic changes over time, as well. Where the first part was a rotting, dead forest filled with the sounds of creaking branches, rustling grass, oddly unsettling animal calls and the sound of bear traps clanking shut, the area it moves into is more industrial. There are massive moving gears, electrified floors, pipes carrying water, steam rising from cracked piping, the sounds of clanging and machinery running in the background. The crackle of live electricity and breaking glass as you jump over a broken down HOTEL sign are absolutely perfect. While I don’t feel it deserves its own paragraph, I do want to say that the sound design is absolutely spot-on. I especially like the sounds of the industrial levels — perfect mixes of moving gears, steam and water leaking from pipes, crackling electricity, footsteps clanking on metal plates. There’s a lack of music in this game, but that’s not a bad thing. The atmosphere is perfectly created by the art style and the sound effects. It doesn’t need music to make it sound amazing.

The only complaints I have with LIMBO are with the PC port. There are no options to scale the resolution, there’s no option to turn the volume down in game and no key rebinding (keys are set to the D-pad for movement and CTRL to interact). The game didn’t need much for options, but the three of these would have made it just a little bit better. It also doesn’t have a windowed option that I can find. Those options weren’t needed when it was just an Xbox 360 game, but, as a full PC release, I expect a bit more. Not much, just the basics, and this port is completely lacking them.

Originally released on the XBLA, LIMBO is now available on almost every major platform. It costs $9.99 regularly on Steam, and is entirely worth the purchase if you haven’t played it. The PC port has a few small technical hiccups, but they’re not anything that would make the game unplayable. LIMBO was the game that made me realize that video games don’t always have to be fun to be amazing; it made me realize that sometimes I don’t want to feel invincible. I don’t want to be the ass-kicking Space Marine or the nigh invulnerable Demigod. Sometimes, I want to feel small. I want to feel like everything is hopeless. Sometimes I just want to be a boy crossing a cruel and unforgiving landscape, trying to find my sister.

LIMBO | Enter

Sometimes, I want to enter LIMBO.

Review Score
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com

Copy purchased by reviewer. Reviewed on PC.

About Matt Welwood

Matt does a lot of stuff, and now also does stuff on oprainfall. Frequent player of Hearthstone, and many other games besides. Follow him on Twitter (@ghostlyweevil) for infrequent updates about things that he thinks about.