A dreamlike experience so good you’ll be asking to be pinched.
A boy opens his eyes and sits up in the tall grass, surrounded by a dreamlike grayscale forest, which seems to engulf him with its eerie silence and massive scope. The boy runs behind the blurred images of trees and boulders in the foreground, while streaks of ghostly white light sneak into view between trees far away in the distance. Moving onto a rotting log, outcropping a cliff edge, the player is given an uneasy sense of scale as the small stature and vulnerability of the boy is revealed. Exploring further into the woods, just as the sights and sounds (or lack thereof) begin to lose their newness, the player is startled by a cold mechanical noise, that of the young boy grotesquely cut in two by a bear-trap. These are the opening moments in Limbo, an introduction just as ambiguous, mysterious, and moody as the game it presents.
The surroundings in which the events of Limbo take place are crucial to the appeal of this deeply atmospheric experience. The player controls an adolescent boy who traverses forests, caverns, city and factory-like settings, all of which seamlessly blend together. These areas are laid out in a very linear fashion, save a small handful of secret areas that upon being discovered reward the player with an achievement and the satisfaction of having explored off the beaten path. The game’s early segments, the vast woods and claustrophobic caves, are by far the creepiest and moodiest areas in the game. My favorite locale is a tree-fort village that bears a very creepy Lord of the Flies vibe. Much of this spooky intrigue, however, is lost once the player reaches Limbo’s later areas, which are much more sterile and industrial, albeit still fun to traverse. It’s wonderful that the setting changes so often in a rather short game, but it’s a shame that the sense of fear of the unknown, which is so well established early in the game, is scarcely replicated thereafter.
The ambiance created by the unmistakably unique visual and audio style in Limbo is second to none. The sound design is remarkably minimalistic; in fact, there are times when the only sound is that of the boy’s feet scampering across the ground. When the audio kicks in, whether it is a sound effect from another character, or a dramatic highlight of a newly discovered area, it has an impact, because there is so little otherwise. Visually, everything is black and white, and the boy in addition to every person or creature that he encounters, is seen only as a silhouette. The developers make great use of depth, bringing bits of scenery way up close to the viewer, as well as creating what can look like an infinite distance in the background. Minor visual touches such as the hairs on the legs of a particularly headstrong spider, sickeningly amusing death animations, and some serious vignetting, show the developer’s attention to detail.
To be purely categorical about it, Limbo is a puzzle-platformer. While controlling the fate of our young protagonist players move, jump, and occasionally grab levers, crates, or other objects. Successfully running and jumping in Limbo is generally about being slow and steady, but occasionally a giant rolling boulder (or similarly unpleasant projectile) requires some quick thumb action, creating a nice change of momentum. The puzzles in this game can be serious head-scratchers, even early on in the span of our hero’s journey. Everything is very simple in design, the game never overloads you with too many items to interact with at one single time, and so it’s quite astonishing that this is such a challenging title. One thing that makes getting past obstacles very tricky is that upon getting stuck, the player will likely question whether he/she is simply missing part of the puzzle, or if he/she just needs to perform a more precisely executed run or jump. This blend of the occasionally Mega Man-tough platforming, and clever puzzles, works wonders for Limbo.
Limbo is a game that everyone must play. The gameplay is very simple, challenging, and never ever frustrating. This is in part due to solid controls and gameplay mechanics, as well as the fact that the main character typically respawns just prior to where he was decapitated, crushed, drowned, electrified, or otherwise callously killed. You’ll get the heebie-jeebies less and less as the game progresses, but this is a fair trade for continually changing backdrops and unexpected obstacles and puzzle types at every turn. There is zero exposition, and in essence zero story as well, but the atmosphere and instant likeability of a fragile lost boy in the woods is all the motivation one needs to get playing. The game’s black and white visuals, super minimalist audio, and the ambiguity of the protagonist’s goal, create a dreamlike experience so good you’ll be asking someone to pinch you.