A review of the arty indie puzzle game.
I was explaining to a friend of mine the other day that I never got into Super Mario because it didn’t have the atmosphere and storytelling I like in a game. His response was he didn’t know of a side-scrolling platformer that had an interesting story or atmosphere. Well, now I if I have that discussion again, I can point him to one that certainly has an interesting atmosphere: Limbo.
Limbo is an arty 2D platformer available on the XBLA, Steam and on the PS3, and made by Danish indie developer, Playdead (a pretty fitting name for a company that has made such a dark title). It’s a simple setup: you are a small boy, or more accurately the silhouette of a small boy, who wakes up in the silhouette of a forest and has to keep travelling towards the lefthand side of the screen to escape. And just as I was admiring the charming animation of the protagonist himself and the beautifully stylised world, the small boy stumbled into a mantrap and was swiftly turned into the silhouette of a gory mess and died. Traps, malicious creatures and horrible deaths are everywhere in this game: you will stumble into mantraps, you’ll be cut in half by circular saws, you’ll be impaled on spikes, shot with poison darts, crushed, eaten, and drowned, each with a suitably horrific animation and vicious sound-effects to go with it. Thankfully the game autosaves regularly enough for these deaths not to be too frustrating, but it certainly adds to a sense of continual dread and tension.
The puzzles themselves are nicely varied and using a very limited set of controls (run left or right, jump, and interact) it’s impressive to see how much is done. The first few levels are the most exciting, look out for the terrifying and thoroughly inventive sequences with the giant spiders as they have some of the most satisfying solutions. As the game wears on, the atmospherics waver a little in favour of timed puzzles and messing around with physics (to be fair, the game has an excellent physics engine), becoming a little less unusual and a little more frustrating. It’s a bit short, especially considering the number of Microsoft points you’re going to have to splash on it, but it means it stays relatively fresh and you’ll rarely find yourself doing the same thing more than once.
The art style is a mixed blessing. It’s very beautiful and lends itself to the game’s bleak tone but it makes it difficult to work out which black shape is a trap and which black shape is part of the puzzle. Usually the only way to tell is to run straight into it and watch the unfortunate protagonist be eviscerated for the umpteenth time. The plot’s a bit thin and the ending was a little disappointing, but there’s enough subtext and metaphor hidden there to excuse that.
If you have the points to spare and you’re looking for something dark, disturbing and crushingly bleak to satisfy your inner horror fan, this is a thought-provoking and inventive puzzler that will keep your brow furrowed and your teeth gritted for a good few hours. A fine example of the potential of even the simplest of game genres.