How low does it go?
Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade platform has endured quite a rocky road since its inception at the launch of the Xbox 360. Originally, the 50 megabyte limit for games available on the service pushed it into a corner populated by bad ports of old arcade games and Geometry Wars. That horrid space limitation has since been lifted, and XBLA now serves as a veritable shopping mall of games encompassing all genres, from multiplayer shooters to games like Limbo, which would not have received any attention if not for the marketing blitz that is promised by being at the forefront of the annual Summer of Arcade. All eyes are on this former IGF contender, and the attention seems to have been worth it.
Limbo stars a small boy searching for his sister in the most depressing forest that mankind has ever seen. That premise only exists in the game's official description in the Marketplace, as the actual game seems much more content to just let players run to the right (and sometimes left!) and solve each and every puzzle that stands in their way. This nameless, faceless child's moveset is limited to run, jump, and use. This may sound overly simplistic, but the team at Playdead have milked all that they can out of it to create some of the most devious and mind-bending puzzles ever seen in a sidescroller.
Limbo's gameplay can be surmised in this pattern: run right, die, respawn, solve puzzle, repeat. As his frail physique would suggest, the protagonist can meet his end to just about everything in this forest that he can interact with. The vast majority of the puzzles are heavily physics-based. This includes, but is not limited to pushing boxes, hitting switches that change gravity, swinging from ropes, and relatively simple platforming that, by the end of the game, will all be combined into puzzles that will have players' brains and reflexes pushed to their limits. Coming back to the aforementioned easy death, all of these things can and likely will murder players several times over before the end of the game.
Despite the numerous game over screens, Limbo is not nearly as frustrating as it could be. The almost nonexistent load times mean that getting back into the game after dying is a breeze. The only frustration comes from the fact that Limbo features very little in the way of tutorials. This means that some of the more abstract puzzles in the game are made needlessly difficult because the game is introducing rules that were not present before. Still, it is hard to complain because of the quick loading and the lack of a life limit.
Undoubtedly the most striking and attention-grabbing aspect of Limbo is its spartan presentation. Art direction was very clearly a priority here, as the game is presented entirely in a black and white style where everything in the foreground appears to be a silhouette. This may sound like it would limit the amount of variety the environments can handle, but this is not a problem as players will travel through forests, caves, and even industrial areas. The sound design is perhaps even more sparse than the visuals, as Limbo features no real music to speak of. The only sounds are the ambient noises of the environment. One puzzle near the end is made much easier through the use of sound cues, so playing with the sound muted is a foolhardy decision.
At $15 or 1200 Microsoft Points, Limbo's playtime of five to six hours can make the game a hard sell to frugal customers. If artistic value is a high priority to someone, they would have no reason not to shell out the money for it, as it can and will be a good conversation piece for a long time to come among enthusiasts. Despite its moments of frustration, Limbo ends up feeling special after the credits roll, and should populate the hard drives of anyone who defends games as art.