Limbo, the first major release from Danish company Playdead, came out a year ago to excellent critical reception on the Xbox 360. It combined a consistently dismal art style with fiendishly cruel traps to create a singular experience that was unlike any other. And now PlayStation owners can finally find out what the whole ruckus was all about. In brief, Limbo is a minimalist, eliminating things like a direct storyline and any sort of in-game text. What it leaves behind is a barely silent, dark world, atmospherically oppressive and laden with obstacles. It’s a spellbinding affair, even without context, and after a few short hours it is all over.
There’s little written about the story behind the nameless boy of Limbo, and what is isn’t in the game itself. It’s actually in PSN’s description of the game: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” Aside from that, there’s nothing but a boy waking up in a field of shadows. Which is okay. Somewhere out there, beyond the horrors that lay in his path, there is a little girl, but that’s not the most important thing to be thinking about. The most important thing to be thinking about is survival.
It’s very easy to die in Limbo. It’s so easy to die that death itself exists as a method of figuring out how to solve its puzzles. This is a game that makes trial and error an art form and embraces it without guilt. If you haven’t played the game before and cannot perceive the future, then you will die a lot. Dying is the game’s way of leading you towards the most proper method of solving a puzzle. A large part of the game is discovering the rules of its puzzles, and along the way the lost boy will be skewered, drowned, electrocuted, squished into paste and severed into a dozen pieces.
For instance, in one section of the game there are three traps set in a row. The first two traps exist to crush you if you happen to step on a certain part of the floor, and the third is a spiked pit. When dealing with the crushing ceiling, there is an object in the center, below each crusher, that looks like a button. That button is a safe zone on the first trap, but death on the second. The only way to properly solve the puzzle is to make a mistake and die. Because your surroundings are not going to tell you what is safe to walk on and what is not. You just have to die to find out.
This creates a little bit of an issue in regards to gauging the difficulty of the game. The typical logic claims that the hardest game will beat you down again and again, but in Limbo death is part of the gameplay. Rather, the challenge comes from figuring out its various puzzles ranging from the simplicity of box pushing to the morbid tossing of corpses, still leaving room for puzzles that will change the entire world around. Most of them are easy to figure out, at least when all the pieces are made apparent, while a few others are actually a little perplexing.
Another little oddity of Limbois its lack of rewards. Every solved puzzle is rewarded with a new puzzle. Every obstacle completed only makes way towards another bizarre contraption that seems to exist only to chop the boy into tinier pieces than the previous obstacle. Where other games (see Portal 2, any new Rockstar game) like to use this time to fill in with exposition and push the storyline along, Limboskips over that and continues on.
It’s an unusual design for a video game, and it’s not without its flaws. Large segments of the game involve an empty labyrinth of warehouses that spontaneously invigorate themselves. Limbo begins empty enough, but there’s always signs of life on the fringes of the screen, skittering away. In the beginning there’s a giant spider, possibly the most interesting spider within a video game, and it wants to kill you. Within the industrial sector there is an elevator, of which boxes must be transported. There are tall ledges, and boxes must be nudged against them. It’s a short, dull section of play that eventually receives a jolt of electricity to revive back to splendor, but it’s still notable due to how short the whole game is.
Limbo is an odd collection of ideas, drawn together seamlessly within the constraints of a platformer. There’s very little in terms of music and sound, but what is there can be very unsettling. In the end it’s difficult to say whether it was all a surreal dream or a trip into the first layer of hell, but that’s not the focus of the game. It’s the experience of playing the game that demands attention, because there is very little quite like it. It’s a strange and unusual game that plays in a familiar manner to explore an unfamiliar world, and it’s worth exploring. As long as you don’t mind dying a few times to get there.