Limbo (XBLA) Review

Limbo is a puzzle platformer we first got a look at back at PAX East. Even in the short time we spent with it, we knew that this was going to be one of the must have games of 2010 for us. The unique style and expertly polished animation and physics managed to show through even on the crowded convention floor. We couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into it in an environment more suited to its feeling of isolation. It didn't disappoint. Here is what we thought of it.

Release Date: 7/21/2010
Age Rating: T
Developer: Playdead
Publisher: Xbox Live Arcade

Getting Started

Limbo is a puzzle platformer we first got a look at back at PAX East. Even in the short time we spent with it, we knew that this was going to be one of the must have games of 2010 for us. The unique style and expertly polished animation and physics managed to show through even on the crowded convention floor. We couldn’t wait to sink our teeth into it in an environment more suited to its feeling of isolation. It didn’t disappoint. Here is what we thought of it.

Here is a video review by one of our other reviewers. His opinions and my own were separately developed, so feel free to check them both out.

Visuals

The visuals of this game are striking and unique, entirely black and white. Your character is a silhouette of a little boy with white eyes, often the only parts of him you can see when lighting is scarce, and everything from the environment to the enemies to the particle effects are rendered in the same grayscale. This may seem limiting, but the effect is anything but simple. The style is superb, and instantly produces an immersive and indescribably creepy environment. With everything in silhouette, you are forced to scrutinize every detail to decern a simple tuft of grass from a deadly bear trap, or the branch of a tree from the leg of a giant spider. Often it is not until a potential threat moves that you even realize that it was there, leading to more than one genuine scares. The surroundings evolve from forest to cave to rooftop to factory. Foreground objects blurred by depth of field and background features affected by environmental changes add detail and depth to an otherwise 2D environment.

The animation in this game is excellent. You really cannot appreciate the quality of this game’s visuals until you’ve seen the character interact with the environment. Every motion has physics applied, changing your gait as you walk on different terrains and slopes, causing you to stumble when you hit the ground too hard, fall when you hit your head, and reach madly for the ledge just out of reach. Grabbing ropes and platforms is done with realistic momentum – too much speed can impact the edge of a cliff and stall you while you recover. Your character’s motion as he hauls himself onto blocks or steps forward to compensate for tilting terrain is, in my experience, unprecedented in a 2D game.

Gameplay

In essence, Limbo is about getting from point A to point B. The only tools at your disposal are standard platforming skills: Running, jumping, climbing, pushing, and pulling. There is no tutorial, no dialogues, nothing to guide you. Everything about this game is learned through trial and error. Fortunately, the controls are nothing we haven’t seen before, and are for the most part well implemented. The realistic momentum takes a little getting used to (a running jump is necessary most of the time, but caution tends to lead you to do walking jumps and fall short at first) but fortunately it is very forgiving. Your character reaches automatically for anything he can interact with, and tends to stare at things that are out of reach. This means you have a better than average chance of knowing where to go next, and reaching it so long as you at least get close. He will hold out his hands to switches and levers, and often he will spot the next threat before you do, locking onto it with those creepy white eyes.

Physics play at least as big a role in gameplay as they do in animation. The standard block pushing puzzles figure prominently, but the challenges quickly become devious. What avoids one trap will trigger the next, and everything, EVERYTHING in the game wants you dead. Before long you are facing hostile villagers, shifting gravity, rotating factories, spiders, brain worms, saw blades, and electricity. Solutions range from the obvious to the diabolical, involving everything from precision jumping to expert timing to serious outside the box thinking. Frequently in order to rise up or move forward you need to make the environment FAR more hazardous, activating electrified floors or flooding the area and running from the rising water. In my case, every solution made me feel like I was a genius. It is that kind of game.

Even the achievements are puzzles, with vague names and descriptions serving as clues as to where you can find eggs to crush, thus unlocking them. And you’ll want to find every one, because while the gameplay is very well done, there isn’t an awful lot of it. I had the game beat in about three hours. Solving the achievements promises to buy me another few hours, I suspect, and the final achievement involving beating the game with minimum death should extend it a fair amount as well. Throw in the fact that there are a handful of hidden eggs not covered by the achievement list, and that’ll bring the game into the realm of six hours at least. For a completionist it is a reasonable value, but you’ll be left craving more.

Sound

Like everything else in Limbo, the sound is subtle but effective. Audio cues abound, with a distant rumble warning of approaching boulders, and the hum of electric and crackle of fire providing warning of coming hazards for the player who is alert enough to notice them. The music comes and goes as the intensity waxes and wanes, setting the mood of a pursuit or obstacle course and punctuating reveals very well. Sound shows the same polish as the visuals, muffling realistically when the player’s head goes below water, for instance. There is no voice acting to speak of, but in this case the silence speaks loud enough all by itself.

Story

As I have said, there is no text, and no dialogue. The only hint we have of what is going on comes from outside the game itself, indicating that you have entered this place looking for your sister. It is surprisingly effective, forcing you to process details as they arise and try to figure out what is going on. Where is this place? Why do those people want me dead? Oh my god, what is that thing in his head?! Is that going to happen to me?! Remnants of a civilization indicate a society, but the presence of massive insects and brain worms make it clear that this is no normal place. Story isn’t this game’s strong suit, but what little of it there is, coupled with what your mind supplies for you, fits the setting very well.

Summing Up

Limbo is a difficult game to rate. Most of it is absolutely perfect. The tone, artwork, animation, atmosphere, and audio are all top notch and perfectly executed. Minimalist, refined, and elegant. That said, a normal playthrough, depending on your platforming and puzzle skill, will only take you three hours. By its very nature as a puzzle game, once you’ve figured out the secret, the replay value is gone. How do you score something if its only crime is that it was perfect, but wasn’t perfect for long enough?

Verdict

9.3 / 10. A short play time is the only thing that keeps this flawlessly delivered and stunningly stylized game from perfection.


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About Decoychunk

Editor, Writer, and general Knower-Of-Words, if there is text to be read on BrainLazy, Joseph Lallo probably has his fingerprints on it. As the final third of the ownership and foundation of BrainLazy, Joseph “Jo” Lallo made a name for himself when he lost the “e” from his nickname in an arm wrestling match with a witch doctor. Residing in the arid lowlands of the American Southwest, Joseph Lallo is a small, herbivorous, rabbit-like creature with the horns of an antelope. He sleeps belly up, and his milk can be used for medicinal purposes. Joseph Lallo is also author of several books, including The Book of Deacon Series, book 1 of which is available for free here.