Platforms: X360 (XBLA)
I hate spiders. I hate the way they look, the way they move, the sinister array of eyes (I mean what kind of creature really needs all of those eyes?!) and I'm being chased by one. I, the 6ft 3 guy who visibly winced and hid behind popcorn when Sean Astin took on Shelob a few years back, am being followed by a giant shadowy arachnid that has thrice already impaled me with its leg and shaken me around until my limbs start falling off. All the while, in the background, the dull chill of strings and synth acknowledges my imminent doom. But no! I have learned from my past mistakes and this time I don't fall, or drown or give myself over to gnashing teeth and eight-legged hunger, and I allow myself a sigh of relief.
Welcome to Limbo, probably one of the finest games to have graced the Xbox LIVE Marketplace since its inception and no, I'm not exaggerating. Too many games try to cram everything in, too many try to do too much; not this one, and it's all the better because of it. There's a purity to the experience of playing Limbo that comes across because there's absolutely no fluff or fat.
Let's start at the beginning, for example. There's no HUD, no menu, no indication of anything statistical at all when you start, the shining, bright eyes of the young protagonist blinking as he rises and dusts himself off. A fall is inferred and you wake to find yourself in a monochrome landscape, sparsely populated but replete with danger. The first thing you'll notice, apart from the sparsity of information, is that this game looks gorgeous. The art style is immediately striking in its detailed beauty, but also foreboding; there's a cold feeling that the rich and layered greyscaling provokes. This mood is perfectly accompanied by a soft soundtrack, all low key strings and reverberating synths, that fades often to near-silence before rising dramatically at times as if the orchestra players have seen something lurking in the shadows and are suddenly scared.
That tension and fear, the feeling of some slight unreality, that things are not the way they're supposed to be, is a theme that saturates every moment of this game. When you awaken there's no explanation, there are no cutscenes, no tutorials and nothing to prod you onto the right path. This is a game all about one young boy's journey, but there are no signposts along the way and plenty of perils to try and avoid.
Those perils come in numerous forms. You'll have your traditional pits full of spikes, boulders from which Indiana Jones would have been proud to flee, bodies of water that will seem perfectly safe until you take one step too far and the controls seize up as your shadowy avatar briefly convulses, and the controller shudders softly, before going limp and the screen fades to black painfully, mockingly, slowly. The puzzles come thick and fast, and the game teaches you the solve them the hard way. None of them will force you to break things in frustration, but there are certainly a few that might see you scratching your head for a few moments.
You learn through trial and error in a similar fashion to another artsy puzzling platformer: LucasArts' slightly more colourful effort, Lucidity. The difference, though, between the two is simple but striking - LucasArts never let you play as the protagonist, you were simply The Cursor, Sofi's guardian angel. You never felt any real sense of responsibility for her, not really. With Limbo, however, if your young charge dies, it's your fault. The first time those bright eyes flicker out it stirs something, even if it's just a sense of urgency to escape to break free and leave this eerie place.
But Matt, I hear you cry, that's true of so many games! Yes, you're right. But Playdead have done such an excellent job of crafting a perpetually paranoid, atmospherically solitary experience that you'll be startled at how much you feel the first time you die. It's aided by swift and unexpected instances of vicious brutality that make you gasp the first time you witness them. I was skipping down a hill, for example, delighting as the long rushes bent slightly as I whisked past them when all of a sudden I triggered a super-sized bear trap I hadn't seen for the long grass and was promptly decapitated as the jaws snapped up, severing my head from my body in a dull grey mist of blood. It actually made me jump and from then on you're constantly looking over your shoulder, the quietly expectant moments actually proving to be the most tense, as you make your way onwards on your own.
The solitary experience, that quest and longing for companionship, becomes especially poignant when you run into others. You might spot a figure on the other side of small lake only for them to slump forward as you approach, revealing the rope about their neck, to float dead in the water. You'll encounter a handful of live figures every once in a while, but you'll be met with hostility, watching your back (and front) whilst trying to navigate the fiendish traps they've set for you, at once spurring you onwards with the promise of living humanity, but too distant and antagonistic to ever properly reach.
Limbo takes its cue from browser titles such as ImmorTall, I Can Hold My Breath Forever and, to a certain extent with its minimalist feel, Every Day The Same Dream, but the level of artistic creativity on show here is secondary to the experience that we, as gamers, get from playing the thing. Ignore tags like 'art game', they're completely misleading and hopefully there'll come a time when such things cease to have any meaning. This is an excellent game, that's all you need to know. It'll suck you in, it'll make you think and feel and gasp and maybe even laugh at times, and it'll stick around long after you're done playing it. It's a short game, and a pricey one too, at 4-5 hours long and 1200 Microsoft Points respectively, but it's a sublime title and one that I cannot recommend enough.
- Phenomenally atmospheric with fantastic presentation
- Thought provoking and challenging
- Genuinely moving and surprising
- I wish it was longer
- Not particularly sensitive to arachnophobes
- Not immediately available to all gamers everywhere
The Short Version: A masterclass in minimalism, Playdead have crafted a game that's stands out as one of the finest games on the Xbox 360. Gorgeous to look at and challenging without ever over-staying it's welcome, Limbo arrives as a creative masterpiece at a time when safe, sequel-centric, production line development is at a high. Thrilling, smart, affecting and, most importantly, fun, quite frankly if there's one game you play this summer, it should be this one.