Awakening in a dark and dreary forest can be an extremely frightening and disorienting thing. The deafening silence and the overwhelming feeling of being alone in these circumstances can be enough to drive most people mad. Particularly for a child it can be downright traumatic. This is all you’re left with in the opening of Limbo – a small boy, alone in a dangerous place with a bleak optic-only narrative to guide the way.
The game stands apart visually with its unique black & white two-dimensional art style and is reminiscent of a classic silent-film with a modern avant-garde twist. The backgrounds and foregrounds are like charcoal drawings come to life and bring a wonderful feeling of depth to the calm and speechless world. The silence of the game plays well with your reflexes and allows you to be truly captured in a moment. Surprises come around almost every corner and with only the sound of your footsteps as a beacon, it’s hard not to get caught off-guard. There are occasional moments of ambient sound as well as a bit of a musical score hidden within, but they blend so well that you tend to feel it, rather than actually hear it.
Another thing you tend to feel quite exuberantly is your inevitable demise. Giant bear traps and large tumbling boulders are only a couple of ways to tear your body into pieces. For the most part, death happens in an instant. Before you realize how twisted the occurrence actually was, you’ll probably have made some sort of bewildered gasp before letting out a burst of absurdity. Death in Limbo certainly is laughable because it feels like it was meant more for entertainment than for consequence. Checkpoints are plentiful, and thus you only start a few moments from where you met your grisly end.
The melancholy nature of this game is hauntingly dark, yet surprisingly not as gruesome as one might think. There are moments that will tear down hopefulness and gleam on despair as you catch background glimpses of murder and apparent suicide, yet a distinct lack of blood is present and left only to the imagination. It’s a game that tugs well on the strings of psychology and gives you plenty to think about when you dissect its title and the practices of Roman Catholic Theology.
The gameplay itself is very standard for a puzzle-platformer and does nothing significantly different in that realm. The rag doll physics make a mockery of death and yet they are fine-tuned enough to keep the platforming pretty solid. However, it is fairly odd to see a child with the upper body-strength to hoist himself from ledges with ease. The puzzle elements are fairly mediocre early on, but become progressively harder as you persist through the game. They have a very ingenious way about putting you in situations where you’ll need to think quickly. Some of these enigmas may leave you scratching your head at first, but a little determination, a few experiments and maybe even a bit of luck will help you solve the riddle in a pinch.
Roughly five hours of gameplay does feel a bit short for an experience with this much mystery and I do wish that death had more relevance, seeing as how the game is based upon an aspect of the afterlife, but Limbo does manage to maintain the perfect marriage between simplicity and complexity within its short span. I certainly wouldn’t be caught dead saying that this is the greatest game of all time, but it is of a certain caliber that I tend to expect from my Xbox Live Arcade titles. There are very few games on XBLA that come to mind when I think about a great downloadable experience. Limbo is most definitely one of them.