When regarding its presentation, Limbo soars, its creativity marking its greatest source of originality, imparting a distinct identity which persists all throughout the narrative. The palette is totally deprived of any vibrancy, blacks, whites, and greys overtaking all, resulting not in blandness but a certain stylish, cinematic effect – here is darkness and bleakness, the environments beautiful but uninviting. The sunlight which is present is dazzlingly white, imparting a sense of hope, piercing through the darkness. Regarding further environmental construction, calculated simplicity is present, busyness and intrusiveness completely eschewed, placing greater emphasis upon the gameplay proper. These environments, also, evoke a sense of smallness within the player character, the unnamed, unvoiced Boy, literally dwarfed by their largeness. A mere silhouette, he is somehow endearing, with bright, gleaming eyes, blazing always, in stark contrast to the darkness of his surroundings, a contrast which is almost symbolic – he plays the destined role of restorer, the sole being capable of besting the darkness, a darkness which is left vague, its precise nature never advanced or elaborated upon; only he, even with his great fragility, can succeed, a highly compelling realization. Some secondary hopefulness arises when regarding a white butterfly, making infrequent appearances, though always imparting reassurances when it does emerge, flying gaily in the air, a promising reminder that the land is not deprived of all its hope. Hopefulness like this is clung to, necessarily so; all throughout is violence and darkness, almost to a distressing extent. With this hopefulness, an impetus for further progression is achieved.
The game is characterized by a striking minimalism, almost every matter and occurrence in the title open to interpretation. Even at the conclusion, few explicit answers are provided; the opening is built upon here, the nature and motivations of the Boy’s odyssey made apparent, but again this dogged refusal to lay bare the entirety of the narrative is a bold, admirable stroke, this subtlety and vagueness marking one of the game’s greatest strengths. Manifold questions arise, the player making sense of the narrative on their own terms. A massive, hulking spider makes periodic occurrences early in the narrative, becoming hostile, antagonistic, terrorizing the boy for a roughly twenty to thirty minute expanse. What is the nature of this hostility? Had the Boy previously agitated the creature, earning his ire? How did he obtain such stature, such weight? None of these questions have answers, again forcing the player to look inward, the game inspiring contemplation, which elevates the narrative, transcending its simplicity of structure.
The game is abounding in this compelling vagueness further still, engaging the player on a more cerebral level. Towards the beginning of the narrative, a troop of boys is encountered, similar to the spider in their hostilities, heaving spears at the Boy, desperate and eager to snuff out the flame of life. Further questions emerge; answers are again elusive. Clever environmental story telling here emerges, as one boy’s corpse is stumbled upon, his body hanging limply, noose wrapped around his little neck, seemingly pointing towards suicide, though as contemplation again takes over, his death could quite possibly be attributed to murder; much is made of relatively little. Also central to the narrative – its vagueness – is a certain bizarre, mind-controlling creature, which latches onto the scalps of its victims, promptly seizing control of their movements, perhaps also altering cerebral functions. From a gameplay perspective, this creature exists as an obstacle, forcing the Boy to advance further, restricted in movement towards one direction, until a beacon of light falls upon it, weakening it, breaking its spell. The creature, though, has more narrative value, even with its ambiguity. The game, then, says very much without ever saying anything – dialogue and voice acting are totally lacking, the narrative advancing through gameplay and the environment. More conventional, less exciting world building takes hold for a while, but the mentioned ending is superb, succinctly wrapping up matters, only evoking further questions – vagueness overtakes all in Limbo.
In its gameplay systems, the title falters somewhat, its core pillars being of a highly traditional sort – puzzle-solving and platforming; no new ground is paved here. Regarding that former pillar, the game design is impeccable, certain puzzles being devious, though still logically designed; besting them becomes a sort of triumphant affair. Inevitably, the solutions to some puzzles evaded me, which greatly contributed to the rare destruction of pacing, briskness departed from, though this destruction is not an insurmountable failing – many puzzles should be difficult by nature, to consistently engage the player, an engagement Limbo successfully achieves; frustration is frequently avoided, largely because the game spurns obtuse level and puzzle design, instead embracing more accessible design choices, though still choices which evoke ample challenge, excellent balance achieved. Scrutinizing a puzzle for any extended duration, its solutions are quickly gathered, whether the puzzle involves the manipulation of a crane, the movement of boxes, or even those of a more involved sort, like those which include gravity manipulation. Many are ingenious, like those involving the skirmish waged between the Boy and the hulking spider, who is gradually weakened, his overwhelming size and strength destroyed by clever tactical manipulation, evoking a sense of strength within the player, whereas in so many other engagements their weakness is advanced. Reflecting upon this puzzle solving – of an immensely diverse sort – on and on are remarkable achievements, these strengths almost equaling those reached by the narrative.
Still, deaths are a frequent occurrence, though a highly forgiving checkpoint system is in place, which contributes to a destruction of frustration, especially when regarding the near instantaneous nature of the respawn, no loading screens or anything of the sort arising to destroy the game’s pacing, maintaining mostly its briskness, only periodically disrupted by those mentioned, highly difficult puzzles. This generous system, though, does not mitigate the emotional impact felt upon death, an impact which stems largely from the game’s highly violent, visceral nature – the game is unnerving in construction. In failing a skirmish with the spider, the Boy can be violently impaled by one of its limbs, falling limply to the ground; no groans are made, but the amount of pain endured is perceptible. Hulking platforms can crush the Boy, reducing him to nothing, or large bear traps can literally cleave the Boy in two. The nature of this violence can occasionally make the game difficult to play, so engaging are these systems. The pain here seems especially immense when regarding the relationship between player and playable character which emerges as the narrative progresses, a sort of emotional linking emerging, organically. The Boy’s inherent likability rubs further salt into the wound. No substantial blood is visible, though the animations for these deaths are very visceral, the nature of the destruction almost exaggerated. Advancing upon a spinning saw blade, knowing all the while that if it is so much as grazed, violent death is sure to follow – advancing on towards that obstacle, I was forced to literally gaze away from the screen, afraid of seeing the Boy and his violent end. This resonance and sense of engagement also exists as a remarkable achievement, while violence is employed in a clever, calculated manner.
The game’s greatest failing emerges when considering its platforming. Everything is executed competently, though the mechanics seem uninspired. Relative tightness and precision of control are present, while the animation quality is very high, if occasionally janky, clever flourishes manifest in certain of the Boy’s actions, like when falling from great heights or scrambling up some slanted hill. The presentation, then, is excellent. The failings arise when more demanding platforming is mandated, frustration arising alongside them – the controls simply aren’t snappy enough for these scenarios. Deftly dodging countless sawblades while speeding onwards in a derelict mine-cart is exhilarating from the first, though in trying – and failing – this section repeatedly, that exhilaration gradually erodes, the magical sensations disappearing. Here are huge detachments from the cerebral puzzle-solving, these sections requiring agility rather than introspection, contemplation. True, the vacillation from platforming to puzzle-solving is clever and well-implemented, ensuring solid pacing and consistent variety, though quite often I was more eager for the puzzles, giddy whenever a particularly elaborate one was presented. In both sections, environmental manipulation becomes important, movable crates serving as platforms, or as weights, used to solve manifold puzzles; felled trees can be used as bridges, while literal corpses can serve a similar role to those played by the mentioned crates, ferrying the player across deep waters, permitting passage over some seeming cavernous, insurmountable gap. In the platforming, though, restrictiveness occasionally shows itself, and the cracks truly emerge when viewing this game in the context of other 2-D platformers; the movement systems here have been done better in countless other games; the game is far from revolutionary in its gameplay systems, clinging to a well-established foundation. But the game’s ambitions lie not in the realms of gameplay, but in story-telling, in engaging the player in a unique manner, through effective presentation and the frequent evoking of pathos.
Lasting roughly a scant four hours, Limbo is remarkable as an experience, something deserving of being completed within one sitting, all minutia laid bare, one complete picture painted, as the struggling, directionless Boy finally finds direction. Certain facets of that journey are certainly dated and mundane, that mundanity manifesting most strongly in the game’s platforming sections, which do make up a considerable portion of the play time, featuring no novelty or innovation. Environmental manipulation here can be compelling, facilitating certain freedoms, but the looseness of controls are a marked flaw. Excellent puzzle-solving compensates for this failing, being consistently engaging throughout – on the gameplay front, Limbo mostly succeeds. Whether the gameplay soars or plummets, it is the art direction and creativity which foster a sense of greatness, uniqueness, muted color palettes evoking the eerie and the atmospheric, eeriness penetrating all aspects of the game design, seen even in the unflinching violence to which the Boy is often made subject – bleakness overtakes all, even as notions of hopefulness arise in the conclusion to counter this bleakness, matters ending almost triumphantly. A sort of clashing is implicitly present, as such optimism goes against the pessimism fostered throughout, but it is in this ending where the game morphs into an experience, the Boy’s odyssey having a distinct end. In its environments, presentation, and narrative minimalism, Limbo is a remarkable achievement.