Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC (PlayStation 3 Version Reviewed)
Never has the literal meaning of a game title been more apt. Catholic theologians speculate that Limbo represents an afterlife state, that exists for those who die having committed sins, yet are still somehow in favour with God, and can enter the kingdom of Heaven once redemption by Jesus Christ has made it possible.
After spending a little time in the unsettlingly nightmarish world of Limbo it is not clear exactly what kind of journey the protagonist has experienced, or indeed whether he has found himself in such a terrible predicament as a result of some form of sin or wrongdoing. The fact is, however, that in order to find his own redemption of sorts, this seemingly damned young soul has to undertake a journey through a dangerous landscape that for my money perfectly captures the “edge of hell”, a place that is described so vividly in Biblical lore, or in works like Dante’s Inferno.
Developer Playdead originally released this magnificent platformer in 2010, exclusively for Xbox LIVE Arcade, where it garnered universally excellent reviews and was praised for its originality, striking art style and perfectly-pitched length. Whilst effectively a twitch platformer with puzzle elements thrown in, the Danish studio described Limbo perfectly when they described it as “trial and death” – a suitably macabre tag that captures the feel of the title in spot-on fashion.
A year on, Playdead have ported their creation to PlayStation Network, meaning owners of the platform who have cast green eyed glances toward 360 owners can now experience this bewitching treat for themselves.
Limbo opens with a title screen reminiscent of something from a Fritz Lang movie, bold white lettering on a black background, giving away absolutely nothing, and the game itself is completely bereft of any cutscenes, backstory, or hand-holding. The much lauded graphical style is entirely monochromatic, a minimalistic triumph that apes film noir and expressionist art – all grainy, flickering beauty and quite unlike anything else you will have played before. The beautifully animated child you take control of, and indeed all of the other characters and objects you encounter, are silhouettes against these stark backdrops, and only the piercingly bright, glowing white eyes of your avatar set him apart from the other denizens of this hellish environment, lending him a sort of creepy humanity.
Sound is used sparingly too; the sound effects are startlingly good, and whilst there is no conventional music, there are ambient tunes dropped in at key moments, usually to enhance the terrifying sense of foreboding. Being pursued through Limbo by a giant spider straight out of the mists of HP Lovecraft’s imagination is already the stuff of night terrors; add in a grating, building scree of white noise and the sense of dread reaches underpants-changing levels.
The gameplay is essentially a left to right platformer, executed with minimal fuss. You are able to jump, cling onto ledges, ropes and other scenery, and pull or push certain objects. There are no energy bars, no second chances. This is old school. You fall into the water – you sink like a stone and die. Fall into a chasm and there is no way of climbing back up – it will more than likely be full of spikes that will impale you anyway.
Failing to pay attention to your surroundings will also result in death, like the first time you encounter a bear trap which, when interfered with, snaps shut in an instant, slicing your bright eyed boy clean in half with shuddering, shocking finality.
Along your travels you encounter fiendish puzzles which you will need to solve in order to progress. These start out very simply – such as pulling a crate to a certain spot to enable you to reach a higher platform, or dragging a boat into a body of water to cross it – yet the further you go, the more tricky they become, incorporating such elements as parasitic creatures that alter the way you control your boy, encountering other seemingly human NPCs, and more in-depth sections with levers, pulleys, switches and suchlike. To give away too many of these puzzles would be doing you a disservice, as discovering each new mind-bender is part of the game’s compulsive appeal.
What sets Limbo apart from other similar platformers, such as, say, LittleBigPlanet or Braid – is the unparallelled sense of dread and unease. The game world is, in a nutshell, a thing of horrible, repellent beauty. Tiny, lifeless corpses hang from gallows as you pass. Were these cadavers once in the same predicament as our unfortunate young boy? Swarms of flies buzz around not just the many dead bodies you encounter but also around the sour, stagnant pools of water you have to avoid. Malevolent bands of children pursue you and set cruel traps. Perhaps the most dreadful of all Limbo’s surprises comes quite early in the game, where you have to use the body of another infant as a deadweight in order to solve and thus negotiate another puzzle.
Seeing your shadowy self killed in umpteen different ways never fails to shock. Even during a difficult period where you repeatedly employ trial and error to pass an obstacle and avoid meeting your maker, the actual moment of death always makes you jump, sometimes even wince and recoil in pain yourself.
Limbo will not last long – Playdead have kept it taut and most gamers will be able to play through it in around four or five hours. PlayStation 3 owners have the added bonus of an exclusive extra level, which is unlockable after you discover all of the game’s secrets and collect all of the Trophies on offer.
The actual longevity of the game is irrelevant though. Where Limbo triumphs is the way it burrows into your psyche. It is not an experience you will forget in a hurry, and the horror of it all is offset by the manner in which you are compelled to continue and never look away. The perfectly judged gameplay, and the fact you are playing something undeniably original and simply cannot wait to see what happens next (even if you do so peering through your fingers) all adds up to a simply incredible experience. I cannot wait to see what Playdead have in store for us next.