Limbo is a haunting and masterful journey
Limbo is a dark game. Many developers claim that their games will illicit a strong response from the player, but very few do. It is all the more amazing, then, that what may be the most powerful experience released this year has but one line of setup, no dialogue, and not a single cutscene. Instead, Limbo creates reactions from the players through its oppressive, crushing, and suffocating atmosphere. Limbo is a game of no color and little light. Inky blacks permeate the screen, while desperate rays of brightness cascade from some distant unreachable haven. In Limbo there is no safety. Always you cautiously inch towards an inevitable death. There is no escape, no reprieve. You push forward knowing you will fail, but death is no solace. In seconds you will return to the very point you died, and will continue pushing into nothing.
At the start, the nameless lead awakens in a forest. There is no refreshing breeze in this land, though. Everything around you lies dead, a black and charred reminder that you are not welcome here. You have only a few abilities. You can jump, climb, swing, and push objects. With no weapon and no health bar, you will die, and you will die often. From the first couple of minutes to the closing credits everything before you is potentially deadly. Most of these traps cannot be avoided the first time. Only with the knowledge of how they work will you be able to overcome them. This would normally be frustrating but the generous checkpoints and gory finishers make death not only tolerable, but at times enjoyable. Several times throughout the game I purposefully killed myself just to see what extreme hyper-violence would be committed on my poor character. Since you almost always return five feet from where you left off, and since the game reloads instantly, you come to laugh at the wicked traps the game places in front of you.
While platforming does factor heavily into Limbo's core gameplay, the game is at its heart a puzzle game. The most difficult of these might take you up to half an hour to solve. Like the best puzzle games, though, solving these beasts is amazingly rewarding, and the puzzles are always logical. In addition, Limbo's puzzles are always compelling and unique. While you will be pushing boxes and pulling levers, these actions are twisted in devious ways that stay fresh from start to finish. Limbo introduces several twists to the basic setup throughout the game, with the greatest involving turning rooms and shifts in gravity that will make your head spin. It should be mentioned that even if you have no interest in the artistic aspects of the game, the puzzles are still so enjoyable that anyone who enjoys difficult brain teasers will still likely find Limbo fun.
Also shifting throughout the game are the extraordinary backdrops. At first players travel through a forest, but this soon gives way to dilapidated village remains, and later, industrial complexes that offer the game's most devious challenges. Regardless of area, though, Limbo retains some of the greatest overarching art direction in any game. The black and white aesthetic, with its large swatches of pure darkness interrupted only by a single ray of light, sell a mood of devastation, loss, and loneliness. Many times the screen will be almost entirely black, the only exception being the white eyes of our main character. In addition to the startling, and startlingly haunting, backdrops, Limbo features some of the best animation ever put in a game. The lead walks will such fluidity it is unnerving, but not nearly as much as a giant spider who is disturbingly lifelike and utterly horrifying. Maybe the most disturbing aspect of the game, though, are the few other human characters. These militaristic children will hinder your progress at every opportunity, then scurry away when you try to confront them. Their heartless evil is made all the worse by their youthful figures. It makes one wonder what type of land you are in where even the children have turned to murder.
As great as the art direction and animation is the audio design. Play Dead makes the perfect choice to forgo a standard soundtrack and instead layer unsettling noises together to make a off-key, off-sanity, terror that is at times so utterly wrong that it disturbs even more than the visuals. The buzz of saw blades, the sickening crunch when you fall to your death, the ever present droning of flies or rain, it gets under your skin.
In fact that may well describe Limbo in its entirety. It gets under your skin. What is this shockingly cruel world? Why is our sister lost in it? Why must we see this terrible violence, why must we hear these unnatural sounds? The questions have no answers, and with every passing minute Limbo draws you more fully into its haunting and tortured world. And you will willingly enter, even as you fight the palpable sense of dread and disgust that festers more and more each second. Limbo may take only a few short hours to complete, but unlike most games that take dozens of hours, Limbo will stay with you long after you finish it. It will linger at the back of your mind, making you wonder what the purpose of this journey was, and if you truly made it out unscathed. Limbo is one of the best releases of the year in any format, and it deserves to be experienced by anyone with a stomach for extreme violence and a mind not suffering from extreme depression.