As I wandered forward in the ethereal, eerie quiet, I saw what looked to be the first other human being that my little resplendent-eyed shadow boy had encountered in his journey. I paused with trepidation. I imagined the man springing forward and murdering me – indiscriminately, brutally – should I choose to walk forward. I was scared. But by its side scrolling nature, Limbo urged me forward.
I inched my way towards the hunched figure, praying he would not kill me. He didn’t. But the floor crumbled beneath us and now the once slumped man was erect, pulled taut by the noose around his neck that left him dangling above me. I composed myself, and then languidly shuffled onward. Welcome to Limbo.
Limbo has seen a lot of praise since its release and it tends to be one of the go-to indie titles people mention or recommend. Maybe with a caveat or two, I largely align myself on the side of the game’s critical acclaim. As a frail little boy, you must travel left, narrowly avoiding, well, just about everything. Because just about everything in the game wants to kill you. And can. Easily.
The minimalistic game nails its atmosphere. You start the game in an eerie wooded area sparsely populated with trees. The black and white façade keeps things focused, allowing for a bleak darkness that doesn’t obscure. Even the shadow boy’s bright eyes occasionally help the cause, allowing you to keep track of him in pitch black portions of the game. The background music seems to consist of a needle gingerly circling worn vinyl, and a vacuous, directionless wind.
The giant spider popularized during Limbo’s heyday is no less frightening to come up against while playing the game a while after its release. Limbo does a great job of making you feel powerless. The scares aren’t typically overt, though I did scream several times when mistakenly walking over semi-hidden bear traps; rather, they are psychological.
The giant spider toys with you. You’re running as fast as the game allows, but it never feels like you’re running particularly quickly, which means the spider remains on your tail while taking graceful, creepy spider steps with its many legs. At one point, you actually have to wait for the spider to catch back up to you so you can use its weight for leverage to keep a platform elevated so you can make the next jump. Again, you’re always a just a second from a grim death.
On that note, the death scenes in Limbo are haunting. The black and white nature of the game precludes gore, which only makes the scenes more effective – particularly when combined with some gruesome sound effects. The death scenes lack style. They’re death. This is not a game where you seek out “cool” ways to die and grunt out noises of disgust through a half grin. You just die. There is no game over screen. The camera just pauses on the spot where your body is left, almost in bemusement, for a subtle, but long enough to be noticed, extended amount of time.
Though it almost feels weird to say of a game that is four hours long at a generous estimate, I feel like Limbo is a game of two halves. The first half, which I mark at the transition from the wooded environment to an urban/industrial one, is basically characterized by what I’ve written above. It’s all brilliantly done and twisted. Again, not twisted in the “wry grin” or perverse way, but legitimately terrifying to the point where I’m left with concern for the people that thought up certain parts of the game. I had pull my headphones off in fear a couple times throughout the first half of the game and found myself pleading “No, no, no, no, no” quite often. It’s an upsetting game filled with brain worms and rotting carcasses and, again, an awful, giant spider.
The second half of the game, however, is more desolate, precluding the tension afforded by things that go bump in the night. The already great puzzle elements get more and more complex, but the atmosphere takes a hit. Accordingly, I found myself dying a bit more frequently, but without that profound, upsetting reaction to it. Suddenly there are instances of laser-sighted, motion-activated machine guns to deal with.
At this point, the game’s style gets shown up by its mechanics. To its credit, the gameplay never gets repetitive or stale because of this. Mechanics are rarely repeated, while new ones are continuously introduced, and in general there are some genius puzzles peppered throughout the game (even in the earlier, moodier half). Still, the transition from harrowing, intriguing, and well-designed to simply well-designed is a bit of a letdown. Even the ambiguous narrative intrigue of the beginning portions of the game is sort of lost in the last half; prior to the end, anyways.
While Limbo may not have captured my fascination in its latter half in the same way it did during the first, the highs of the first half cannot be understated and are more than worth the price of entry and time spent. Thankfully, while less profound, the rest of the game is still populated by an interesting aesthetic, great sound work and smartly designed, impressively diverse puzzle mechanics.