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Limbo

This review is the definitive one man's opinion. Edge magazine gave Limbo a mighty 9/10; very impressive by their lofty standards. Eurogamer awarded the same, while G4 and GameSpy felt it deserved a perfect 5/5. I say they were all on something when they decided on those scores. Either that or there's a gaming conspiracy afoot. In any case, I was myself surprised by my opinions on the game, given my enthusiasm going in. I'm a supporter of indie games developers, and Limbo looked like it might raise the bar in this area. It's a simple idea; you control a young boy trying to find his way through a shadowy side-scrolling world, overcoming a host of sinister traps and puzzles. How can you go wrong with that kind of simplicity? I'll tell you how. Let this review act as a subtle (sort of) word of warning for those who haven't yet played Limbo, and a point of discussion for those who have.

Conceptually, Limbo pushes a lot of the right buttons; simplistic, yet atmospheric silhouetted graphics, a straightforward, yet well-executed platforming control scheme, and a series of inventive physics- and logic-based puzzles. You control an unnamed young boy, who, like his surroundings, is merely a silhouette, save for his glowing eyes, against the swirling ambience of the backdrop. How he ended up asleep in a bleak, desolate forest is your first question after loading up your new adventure.

A 2-dimensional platformer, Limbo presents you with the choice of heading out left or right from your hero's starting position. Choose left, and you'll soon stumble upon the first hint of a subtle, dry humour that will accompany you through the rest of your journey; a small, glowing object sits innocently in what is clearly a dead-end. Having collected the trinket, you are alerted by your Xbox that you have unlocked an achievement entitled "Wrong Way". 

Limbo is so atmospheric that the simple act of tracking back and exploring the forest to the right is a joy. Despite the simplistic visuals, there are enough details around you to fully capture your attention. It may seem trivial, but I'd wager game developer Playdead experimented extensively with the exact pace of the hero's movement- had he walked too slowly, traversing the environments would have been a chore; moving just a tad too fast would result in the player missing essential details as they marched on. Fortunately, they struck gold. The player is allowed just enough time to comfortably take in the world around them without longing for a run button or having to stop every few yards to analyze the TV screen. 

A few minutes into the game, walking ever deeper into the monochrome forest, I noticed my little protagonist staring into the sky. Following his gaze, I realised he was watching a pair of butterflies pirouetting this way and that, high up in the trees. With my attention well and truly in the clouds, I failed to spot the giant bear trap lying in wait just up ahead. I was shocked and amused when my character's head was sheared clean off by the jaws of the trap. So those butterflies were a trick! Now that I had been introduced to both Limbo's dry humour and its deeply sinister side, I was aware that this game was one of huge character. 

At no point is the game truly scary, but it is haunting all the way. This is manifested not least in the wide variety of ways in which the little hero meets his doom. There are a number of occasions on which you hear his neck snap, and you never quite get used to seeing him skewered from head to toe.This gritty portrayal of a child's fragility is reminiscent of (and possibly inspired in some part by) Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, where 26 children are killed in various unglamorous, almost banal ways. Also adding to the games unnerving edge are the creatures you encounter. Suffice it to say, they're all pretty disturbing in their own unique way.

Now, let's go back to the 'butterfly distraction' incident I mentioned earlier. This little trick was fair game. It was a forgivably cruel, quite hilarious lesson to be alert at all times, and, after all, I could have avoided it had I been on my toes. But as you progress from this point on, you begin to realise that there are many more such tricks, and they become less inventive and less avoidable as the game goes on. Dying in Limbo doesn't cost you more than a few seconds of your time since you spawn quickly at a recent checkpoint, so in theory, stumbling upon inevitable death so frequently shouldn't be much of a problem. But however minor the physical consequence, death in any game feels like some kind of failure. That's fine by me, so long as I can see that it was my fault, but my greatest beef with Limbo is that most the time, I have absolutely no control over it. 

For example, I came across an area that was clearly hazardous, so I stopped, and scoped it out. There was what appeared to be a piston on the ceiling, presumably ready to launch itself downwards upon me if I didn't tread carefully. I noticed the ground beneath the piston was split into two slightly different levels- you don't need to be Einstein to guess that one level is safe, while the other activates the piston. I chose incorrectly. Lo and behold, the piston made short work of my poor, battered little friend. But that's OK, a 50/50 guess isn't so bad. Better luck next time.

I restarted at the checkpoint, came across the puzzle again, and waltzed through with the benefit of hindsight. Just up ahead, I spotted an identical setup; Piston above, uneven ground below. You can probably guess what happened next. I attempted to prance through, armed with my newfound knowledge of the puzzle, but of course, the safe zone was now the dead zone. I'd say I gave Playdead too much credit here; I truly didn't expect them to be so cheap as to change the rules. 

Playdead themselves described Limbo as a "trial and death" game. I've never heard of such a preposterous premise for a game. No wonder I found it so difficult to spot the patterns early and survive the puzzles first time 'round; there are no patterns to spot, I was supposed to die everytime. To me, Limbo is less a game than a herding exercise. I felt like a sheep with no control whatsoever over my actions. The developers went out of their way to create illogical, counter-intuitive challenges, and my bumbling mess of a first (and only) attempt at the game probably resembled very strongly that of anyone else's. 

I think the best way to describe playing Limbo, from my perspective, is to compare it to taking a bath in water that is eternally a little too hot. You lie there knowing this could be a really pleasant experience, but that constant irritation ruins it all. In the end, you just can't wait to get out.

Graphics: 
8
Gameplay: 
7
Reviewer's Overall Rating: 
5
7.5
Average: 7.5 (2 votes)

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