20th July 2010 - lim·bo - noun, plural: place or state of oblivion to which persons or things are regarded as being relegated when cast aside, forgotten, past, or out of date.
Little known Danish developers Play Dead Studios have crafted Limbo seemingly out of their imaginations, exploring the ether between life and death; a physics based side-scrolling black and grey puzzler, Limbo is less of a game and more of an experience, as a little boy tries desperately to find his sister. Be warned; don't play this game if you are feeling either depressed or slightly suicidal.
lim·bo - noun, plural an intermediate, transitional or midway state of place
LIMBO is a curious head liner for Microsoft’s' Summer (winter) of Arcade Hits, but highlights one the best independently developed games on the box, having already won 2 different independent Game Festival awards. Hangers on will have to wait right till the end for AAA title Lara Croft but until then LIMBO should keep you guessing for a few hours. Further more, Play Dead Studios have created one of the most simple, stripped back yet involved games thus seen, with only two actions involved: jump and push/pull (while running forward). Everything else is reliant on physics and timing and everything else is 'scripted'. LIMBO does feature a set environment, and there is not a lot of toying or playing to be done- nor is that the point. In the end the only real goal is to get from the start to the end, without killing yourself, and kill yourself you will. Before we get there though let’s preface the rest of this review by saying that LIMBO is not a game at all, but a story, an interactive one. The only way to move in said LIMBO is forward (which is relative) and many times due to specific elements even movement will be taken away with the only option to jump.
Art for arts sake
Recently gaming news has been reporting on a number of high profile debates on weather “Games are art” and unfortunately LIMBO does nothing to dissuade this. More and more indie arcade titles are catching onto the idea which seemingly kicked off with Braid back in 2008. Outspoken critic Roger Ebert even went so far as to retract his statement stating 'he hadn't actually played that many games since MYST in 1996'. LIMBO has a clean menu and not much else. There is no HUD no indication of death short of a very soft heartbeat and the simplest of warnings that the “the following game may be unsettling for some viewers, please turn gore off in the menu”. Turn off any music or real noise, drain all the colours out, apply an old film grain which blurs the foreground and background and would you believe you have one of the most engaging little games. The hook is, with no sense of direction and with all the shadows playing tricks on you, there is no idea, just what is around the corner of where exactly you are heading or what that next lever does and so you keep playing ever onwards. LIMBO is the quintessential Art House game- and a real depressing one at that.
The chicken or the egg
When you die in the game, through so very many different physics based means, the game just simply re-appears you at the start of that area. The whole world is one long 'machine' that works together and the load times are nil. From the menu the game is broken into chapters but seamlessly join together within the game. Dying will occur at the hands of trying to solve puzzles that usually involve bear traps, buzz saws or simply falling into oblivion. The game difficulty is never too overwhelming and there is only ever a few moments where you give up and cry in the corner because the solution is too “hard”. Yet once discovered the solutions to solving LIMBO are so incredibly basic that on a second run you can complete the whole thing almost flawlessly. Timing is key, but the physics and weight of objects, moving them and making them swing never breaks or does not work.
Pro Tip: If you get stuck, try back tracking, or looking at things in a new way, upside down or from a new height. Pushing buttons multiple times or at the right time can make all the difference. Remember: Timing is key!
Play Dead Studios have taken a gamble with LIMBO. In one regard it is a soft quiet gentle physics based story, punctuated with sharp moments of very violent death. The game highlights the stark contrast of life and death and yet also revels in watching as you break or dismember of squash the poor boy in some very surprising ways. You could, for the sycophants whose immaturity revels in killing things, play this game over many times just to find new and creative ways of dying. Thankfully, it is all black and grey.
At the simplest level, there not much to say about the graphics. The game clocks in fewer than 200Mb and everything is black and/or grey with a noise and film grain filter and soft blurred draw distance. Yet again, because of the simple nature of things and because LIMBO is 'art'; things are not always what they seem. To solve the game the player is forced to literally interact with the graphics themselves. Things that seem to be in the background, because they are as black as objects in the foreground- blend together and allow solutions that wouldn't normally occur.
The game is rather heavily scripted, and the physics are too, so you can't ever really make something do what it doesn't want to, but at least all the boxes and traps and saws and pipes have appropriate weight and speed and volume, which become very important to balancing the weight of the boy as he moves around LIMBO. After completing the quest and leaving the light, it seems that Play Dead Studios could have done more with the game or at least ramped up the difficulty earlier. As it progresses though there is a natural flow into different environments, and despite the black and grey film look it is very obvious between the 'jungle area', the factory, the machine, the war and the 'anti gravity' bit.
Upside down and inside out
Yes, at its most complex LIMBO takes over and you will find yourself running or fighting against the very graphics themselves as the whole world starts moving, shifting or turning upside down. The anti gravity areas are brief but again, Play Dead Studios have kept it simple without going overboard but still stretching the though process on exactly how to solve things It's an ingenious ploy that adds to a sense of helplessness that you are in fact not in control and at the complete mercy of the environment.
Graphically LIMO also lends itself perfectly to other platforms like that DS or Apple Iphone/pad. The simple interface and movement would sit perfectly with touch screens and hand movement.
Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for the Chicken eggs. LIMBO has a few hidden away in hard to reach places, for doing things that you either shouldn’t or normally couldn't do. Who knows you may even be rewarded...
Spooky, eerie, quiet, depressing; all are valid descriptions of the 'noises' in LIMBO. To say there is no music is not an overstatement, but if you listen closely there are discernible chords, whines and tones through the story. There is a very faint heartbeat that ramps up as you near an area of danger or death. For the most part sound and noise consist of machines boxes, saws and traps. There is a distinct lack of sound effects from dying and tension in LIMBO is not driven so much through sound as it is by precision timing and jumping.
LIMBO is by no means a 'scary' game, nor is it horror or even thriller. It is simply a brooding sad dark wander through an eternity between life and death.
Less is more
By now, it is probably apparent, that the lack of any real overbearing sounds works in the favour of LIMBO and to its credit. In this instance, music would have simply gotten in the way, taken the senses away from the visuals presented and the panic of escaping changed the mood and otherwise changed the game. Although budget in many areas, Play Dead Studios have used their budget deliberately to make specific choices about their gameplay, their graphics and their sound.
LIMBO retails at 1200MSP on the arcade networks and if you buy this and 2 of the other Summer(winter) of Arcade titles, you will get 400MSP back, and if you buy all 5 you will get 1200MSP, which equals a free game. Also, a nice addition is the inclusion of 2 avatar achievements, one a t-shirt and one a 'pet'. Considering the “price” they usually attach to these things, it is a nice free addition.
LIMBO is not so long though. A complete game from start to end, it tells the story it wants to and that's just about it. First play though clocks in at around 4 odd hours while on a second run it could easily be ½ or less. What can't be devalued is the work Danish development team Play Dead Studios have put into the game. It may be dark, it may be a little depressing but as hard as they could try, LIMBO has turned out a piece of art.
Make of it what you will; LIMBO has layers of meaning that should get people talking about it for a long while. Also it won two different independent Games Festivals awards.
Looking at the other titles in the Summer(winter) of Arcade fun, there does appear to be something for everyone. That said perhaps none are as fresh and original as LIMBO. Although not the cheeriest of summer(winter) games, it sits well in our winter climate and at such a small size there is no reason not to experience it.
AAG SCORE: 9/10
+ Great style and artistic direction to the look
+ Good use of physics and 'tricks of the light'
+ Manages to crack many layers of meaning or interpretation
- A tad short
- A bit easy
- A little depressing
Reviewed and Written By Ian Crane