Sunday, August 7, 2011


Why does it sometimes seem that despite all of the AAA blockbuster games with mammoth marketing campaigns that come out every year, it's often the small download-only games that have the best sense of identity and atmosphere? We saw it with Braid, we saw it with Flower, and now we see it with Limbo. Well, PS3 and PC players do. 360 owners got to play it last year. I'm not one of the people who have decried this gaming generation's lack of originality and innovation, but even the people who do have to admit that if nothing else, online consoles and download services like Steam have created a new market for smaller games with specific aims and purposes, something that has resulted in great little games like this one.

Much like Braid, Limbo is a 2D puzzle-platformer that uses the level and art design to help tell its brief but intriguing story. There's not exactly a lot of plot to the game; you play as a young boy who wakes up in the woods and appears to be searching for something, as he wanders deeper and deeper into a place that is both unexplainable and frightening. Traps seem to be placed everywhere to stop him, he has to avoid collapsing logs and boulders, and watch out for monstrous creatures. He gets a few fleeting glimpses of other people, but they either avoid him or try to kill him. The boy can run and jump and push and pull objects and climb ropes and ladders, but that's all he has to protect himself besides his wits and the player's skill. The game only lasts a few hours but fully explores the scope of his abilities, including some more mind-bending puzzles once he stumbles on a few unexpected things.

The game would be a lot of fun with just these elements, but its strongest asset is probably its presentation. It has a very stark and minimalist aesthetic, with only black and white used to create the haunting environments you find yourself in. The boy is just a black shape with two pinprick white dots for his eyes, and like everything else in the world is easily identifiable but still mysterious. The sound design also contributes to the creepy feel of the game. There is no dialogue at all, sound effects are sparse and pack a punch, and the music is used very sparingly to great effect. If you turn the game on and play through it without pausing, you would never once see a hint of any sort of user interface. The options that are there are actually probably too minimal, as I couldn't get my gamepad to work and there was no way to try to fix that in the game, but I appreciate how everything about the product is designed to facilitate the single purpose of playing the game and experiencing the strange world it takes place in.

I liked the first half of the game more than the second, where the puzzles felt more video-gamey and occasionally got a little frustrating. The design is just a bit more intuitive and appropriately harsh in the beginning. I was hoping for a little more from the ending too, which I can't say didn't fit the rest of the game's tone, but still seemed to lack a bit of payoff. These are small complaints for a game that I mostly loved for the three or four hours I played it. I've been neglecting playing some of the downloadable games that have been coming out, but Limbo reminded me that a game doesn't need to have an advanced, cutting edge graphics engine to impress me.

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