Every year there seems to be that one game that pushes the boundaries of art and video games. In 2008, it was Braid. Last year, it was Flower. And this year, it is Limbo. I won't indulge you on if I think Limbo is "art" but I will say that Limbo is one of the most tightly made and rewarding puzzle games I have ever played.
A big problem that many people had with Flower was that it seemed like art for art's sake. Limbo doesn't have that problem. While the game is certainly beautiful, the game doesn't have some underlining message that it is attempting to preach to the player and more importantly, Limbo puts gameplay first at all times. This is evident from the word go as there is no set up to speak of at the start of the game. A young nameless boy wakes up in a dark spooky forest with the sole purpose of running right and staying alive. Now, if you read the game description on the Xbox Live Marketplace, you'll find that this boy is actually looking for his lost sister. But it doesn't really matter. In some ways, Limbo resembles many games of the 1980s where the only way to know the backstory was to flip to the story section of the manual. However, in the end, the gameplay is what really matters.
So, it's a good thing that the gameplay is some of the most superb puzzle platforming you will ever play. Limbo will obviously draw a lot of comparisons to Braid, which is unfair considering that games really share nothing but a genre. However, with games that appear so similar to untrained eye, the comparisons are inevitable. So, to draw on those comparisons for a moment, the puzzles of Limbo don't share much conceptually with the puzzles in Braid but the sheer mind numbing, controller snapping difficulty of Braid is in full force. While it may never reach the truly mind blowing solutions of Braid, there will be puzzles that will leave even the best gamers utterly baffled. And while this can certainly cause massive frustration, the pay offs from solving these puzzles are extremely rewarding and leave you feeling like the smartest person in the world. However, wits aren't enough to get you through Limbo. Many of the puzzles require pinpoint timing that test both a player's logic and reflexes.
At times, it can feel as if Limbo was made with an underlining disdain toward the player. Constantly, the game will mess with your mind by making you feel safe but then throwing a 20 foot spider in your way to impale you without a moment's notice. In Limbo, death is a learning experience. You'll solve a puzzle and while relishing in your victory, you will be throw an obstacle that you have no hope of avoiding. Trial and error is huge part of the gameplay and you're going to have to die a few times to get it right. So, it's not surprising to see that some serious care went into these shockingly gruesome death animations. This poor boy will be impaled by the aforementioned spider, cut to pieces by spinning saw blades and decapitated by giant bear traps. The gore simply adds to the overall bleak nature of the game and increases the feelings of hopelessness for this young boy.
And this bleak atmosphere is ever present throughout every aspect of the presentation. The game is in entirely black and white and every object, including the boy, is presented as a silhouette. This gives everything a silent film like quality that stands out as the most striking aspect of the game, gameplay or otherwise. From an artistic standpoint, Limbo is simply one of the best looking games of this generation and what separates it is that nothing else looks quite like it. Adding to the amazing graphical features is the sound design, or lack thereof. Limbo is almost completely devoid of sound besides the ambient sounds of the dark, foreboding forest. All that can be heard is the rustling and calls of unknown and unseen creatures and the lack of music sets the tone better than any music could. Truth be told, there are a very select few instances where music can be heard but the few seconds of music blends so effortlessly into the mood and other sounds of the environment that it is barely noticed.
Perhaps the only fault that could be said about Limbo is that it ends extremely abruptly with little to no warning. As a result, the ending is fairly ambiguous and will leave some player's feeling cheated. Players who want to know everything will feel frustrated but even for them, Limbo is experience worthy of having. The game will probably only last 4 or 5 hours but Limbo is rewarding and clever enough to feel worth the price of admission. In the end, Limbo may have the appearance of art but at it's heart, it's a video game. And it's the "gameplay first" attitude of Limbo that allows it to really shine as one of the most genuinely entertaining games in years.