Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: 7/21/2010
Since Braid, people who like “indie” games, or more specifically, games made by smaller developers have been looking for the “next” Braid. It’s like the search for the next Michael Jordan, or the next Wayne Gretzky in a lot of ways, most especially because it’s been fruitless. Pretenders have come and gone, and the metrics we use to determine worthiness in each respective category are fluid at best. We have a habit in these cases of measuring up someone or something with promise, and then summarily dressing them down, dismissing them, bemoaning what could have been, and screaming “NEXT!”
With Microsoft’s Summer of Arcade coming up, the New Next Braid is upon us. I didn’t hear much about Limbo until I read an article on Ars Technica that all but put it on a pedestal. I expect this kind of back-slapping from print media, or bigger sites who sell advertising, but when Ars makes an article about something like this, it perks my ears up. More and more reports started to pour in, saying the same thing: Limbo is for real. Being a true cynic – some would say I’m just a dick, but at this point we’re arguing over semantics – I expected to go into this, play it, and come out saying “this is not the next Braid. NEXT!”
True to form, this is not The Next Braid.
It’s better. Not only is it better, it’s a potential Game of the Year candidate.
At first glance, that’s a curious statement because just looking at screenshots, one can be forgiven for asking what the big deal is. Limbo defines minimalistic. There is no colour; the foreground objects are black, on a grey background. The only bright thing you can see, except when you’re in a lightly shaded area, is the eyes of your character, a little boy who, according to a story that is in no way communicated in the game itself, is looking for his little sister in a sort of purgatory. Even the game’s “help” screen is minimalistic; all you get is a drawing of a controller telling you that A jumps and B is for actions. The implication is clear: you’re on your own, figure it out. There’s something delightfully old-school about that. In an era where people – especially older gamers – whine about unskippable, hour long tutorials, Limbo doesn’t have anything. After awhile, people will wish the game had something to help them along.
Limbo is defined as a puzzle platformer, but the lack of any colour in the world makes the puzzles harder in that clues often blend into the environment. Even simple things aren’t noticeable until you first run into them, like something sticking out of the ground that might look like a clump of grass, but you step on it and find out it’s a bear trap. Then you go to walk past a gigantic spider only to see that the other leg is behind something, it knocks you over, and you’re dead. The traps – and the ways you can die – leave nothing to the imagination; though there’s a gore filter, you will know when you’ve screwed up as your character is impaled on a sea of pits, decapitated by a bear trap, crushed, bounced off of the ceiling, skewered, sawed into pieces… and that’s just a few of the bits I found within the first few chapters. We get used to seeing gore in games to the point where seeing someone getting their heads blown off becomes passé, but watching a little boy get things like that done to him – especially in black and white, which is actually worse since it leaves more up to the imagination – is a lot more jarring. It doesn’t help that your character can be killed by almost anything. Anyone who’s tired of Generic Space Marine Shooter #174 will find a lot to like.
The gore comes about when you mess up during the course of the game, the majority of which is spent on puzzles that are ingeniously designed. The early part of the game has simple puzzles that will probably take a try or two to navigate for first time players as they learn the mechanics of their new world, and by the end of the game, you’re dealing with areas that shift gravity on you. As the game moves along, the puzzles become less about cerebral navigation and more about timing and twitch skills, all of which comes together in the last few chapters. There are various set pieces that have been seen in other games, such as elevator puzzles, crate pushing puzzles, and some timed jumping puzzles, but everything is presented in such a way that nothing ever feels routine. Even the one puzzle type that annoyed me – when parasites burrow into your head and force you to go one direction at a time – left me feeling challenged. The action sequences are also well done, leaving just enough room to get where you have to go, but making it difficult enough where it takes real skill to beat an area. All of this is complimented by an outstanding physics engine that simulates weight, momentum, everything you would expect to see in a world like this. Due to this, everything you try to do with both your character and the world around you feels natural, which helps the gameplay tremendously. Best of all, not only are the puzzles and challenges well designed, but the balance of the game is perfect; the difficulty curve is right where you would expect it if you were designing the ultimate video game.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is an easy game, with that said. Limbo is extremely challenging, to the point where a couple puzzles had me stuck for days. However, one thing about proper game design is that the best elements of a game never feel cheap; when you die, you should always feel like it’s something you did wrong instead of the game. That is definitely the case here, as everything has a solution that is findable if you look hard, or even if you don’t look so hard. I know one area where I was stuck – literally for days – had a solution that was right under my nose. The sad thing is that I didn’t find the solution… my mother did, looking at it for all of two minutes. My mother, by the way, is the same woman who thinks Dynomite is hardcore. I felt dumb after she essentially told someone who has been playing games his entire life how to do his job, but on the other side of the coin, every single area that you pass, you feel great afterwards, like “I got it!”. Too many games nowadays make you think either “whew, that’s finally over” or “that’s total bullshit”. I know that once this game comes out, the guides on GameFAQs are going to be available as well, so let me ask… no, plead with my readers: PLEASE don’t use an FAQ unless you are either totally stuck or achievement whoring. Trust me on this. The game is much more enjoyable for me without help than it would have been had I been following someone’s instructions. Just trust me on this, please.
Not only does the atmosphere play into the puzzles themselves, but how you feel while playing. I have not been this immersed in a game in a long time. The way the game looks – with the dark feel, the inability to see everything around you, and gruesome death around almost every corner – draws you in, and depending on your natural phobias, can leave you feeling an honest to goodness sense of dread or even legitimate fear. Everything that I hate, am grossed out by or fear in life seems to be represented here. I have a massive fear of spiders, so of course a heavy part of the beginning of the game has you getting around a massive, screen-height spider, leading to a fast paced chase that had me about ready to piss myself. It culminated with the spider almost catching me, but being taken out by a rock that I had set rolling and was trying to get away from. This scene was so amazing – and so scary – that I had to pause the game for about five minutes and slump down into my chair. I was sweating, and was coming down from an honest-to-goodness adrenaline rush. When was the last time a single player, non-sports game gave me an adrenaline rush? Anyone that reads my columns would agree that I’m jaded as far as gamers go; even bullet hell shooters don’t get me “going”, so to speak. I cannot overstate the volume and scope of feelings I felt inside while playing Limbo.
If there’s one weakness here, it’s that there’s not a lot to go back to when it’s over. The entirety of the game can take anywhere from six to ten hours depending on competency, and once you’ve done everything, the only reason to go back is to find achievements, or to experience the game again. Even with that said, this is the kind of game you want your friends to experience, preferably with the lights dimmed and the sound turned up. Turn off the gore filter for your younger siblings or older parents, but other than that, this is a brilliant way for Microsoft to show just how good their Arcade service can be.
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Pretty Poor
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Limbo is the best original game I’ve played in 2010 on any platform. It combines near flawless gameplay and outstanding game design with the most immersive atmosphere I’ve seen in years. Every single area I’ve had to tick the game off in is irrelevant to the overall experience; this is $15 that should be spent almost immediately upon the game’s release.
Though they’ve put out a potential Game of the Year, I’m angry at the eight person staff at PlayDead for one thing: for the next few years, we’re going to be stuck wasting words, talking about who will be “The Next Limbo“. I have a feeling that this will be a long discussion.
Tags: PlayDead, xbox live arcade