Limbo's fantastic atmosphere is marred by cheap puzzle design
Limbo is a love/hate experience. It casts a brilliant, haunting atmosphere thick with tension and horror against an empty though thought-provoking narrative of a boy in search of his sister. The trials he faces are threatening, but also cheap and frustrating for basing each one around its gimmicky death animations.
It begins with the boy awaking in a dark forest. How he ended up here is left to the imagination. Perhaps he's dead, now walking the dangerous road to the afterlife. Or maybe fell unconscious in his pursuit for the girl, either from exhaustion or a plain ol' knock on the head.
A long journey awaits, taking him through the wilderness to factories and back again, eventually touching suburbia briefly. What few residents remain, aside from the massive arachnids, in the old and abandoned locales are inhospitable, attempting to scare the child through meager means, even attack if pushed far enough. Who they are is, again, left to the imagination.
The world is a dark place. Bear traps and electrified beams bar the way forward, constant nuisances as they become increasingly clever in their placement. Grisly deaths accompany each near-scripted failure, the boy being impaled, sliced, and hacked to pieces in myriad ways, each kill worse than the last. Well-timed audio-cues elicit a few jump-scares and make the place feel unnerving. Obsession with the gruesome, however, loses value soon after the first few missteps, annoyance taking its place.
The first couple hours are the most guilty. You run forward, taking in the sights, vaunting over obstacles until you meet your end at the hands of some surprise trap. Climb atop a log and it'll cause a bolder to crush you, but not before you've moved too far to escape. Grab onto a rope and a bear trap will fall on you, a split-second evasion your only hope at survival. You’re practically forced to fail before you can even attempt to succeed because the hazards are so poorly telegraphed.
The slow movement of the child compounds the problem, making carefully timed leaps – a regular occurrence in the latter half – an impossibility. He's only capable of so much, being a kid and all. Yet developer Playdead expects him to act as a nimble athlete. Swift action lies outside the game's boundaries, but a good number of hurdles demand it, regardless. To dash across electrified beams as a cart steadily rolls toward the activation button mounted on a wall, for instance, the kid's jog never fast enough. Victory hinges on luck, in such cases -- trial and error at its worst. You can’t simply find a solution; you have to execute it flawlessly.
With each cheap theatric, frustration takes over. The allure of the game’s tone and style are forgotten, the sloppy design all that you think about, even when the game enhances its puzzles late in the game. The damage is already done. Too late for redemption, no matter how smart and clever traversal becomes.
Perhaps had the rest of the game followed the blueprint of its latter half, discarded the “look at this gnarly kill!” shtick early on, it would have been better. You can at least get a feel for what the puzzles ask of you before walking into them. Shame that such a small, seemingly insignificant decision would spell disaster.