Attempting to wrangle the essence of Limbo’s narrative in a short, concise manner is far from an easy feat. What’s most obvious or at least, inferred, is that the player takes control of a young boy on a quest to find his sister. We know (or assume) this because of a sparse few moments in the game where the boy’s black silhouette and white eyes encounter a young girl who he never interacts with. These rare moments are the only time the game truly pauses, filling the blacks and grays with white light. It’s obvious this girl holds some sort of significance. Sister or not she stands as the end goal for character and player.
But Limbo and the minds at Playdead keep everything as open ended as possible. Assumption is the fuel behind how much a player can glean over the course of the game. Analysis after completion or on a second playthrough, however, might unravel new revelations. Since the game is called Limbo, it’s safe to assume that the deadly forest and eventual city the player is dropped into are both a literal and metaphorical hell. Maybe the boy’s “sister” is dead and – like Dante – is traversing the hellish depths of the underworld. Or maybe they are both dead and left to repeat the same cycle over and again until eternity.
Limbo is dark. The few humans the boy encounters either try to kill him, run away or are just dead. No one is safe and gruesome deaths are truly at every corner. Does it all mean anything? Possibly. And that’s really the only answer that can be given. An answer that can be a cause of frustration. As poetic as narrative vagueness can be, it might leave a lot of players with that “so what?” feeling. The game ends abruptly after only a few hours of play. Depending on the kind of person you are, any sort of catharsis might be completely lost because of the swift lack of resolution. After repeatedly punishing the player with death, a little give in exposition would have been nice. Thankfully Limbo never teases the player too much or provides too much hope that things will eventually make sense.
Trial by death is truly the only way to progress in the game. Even though the boy can jump, it’s never high or agile enough to classify Limbo as a platformer. The puzzles presented in the game are usually layered death traps. Each little section has an obstacle to overcome and screwing up will end in death. But it is through death that the player comprehends how to power through the levels.
Even the most cautious and clever of players will constantly die. A jump over a pit might look safe but there could always be a hidden button that unleashes an off screen killer. One word for it might be frustrating. Solace instead is found in a very generous checkpoint system. Only rarely will death set the boy back to the start of a grueling puzzle. Some of the fault with Limbo’s gameplay is that it never feels truly challenging in a good way. Timed puzzles aren’t easy to pull off because the boy’s movements just aren’t that swift while some solutions seem blatantly obvious but how to access them just feel obtuse.
The best moments of tension come when the player isn’t facing a static threat. The deadly spider in the first third of the game is thrilling to encounter and feels like a true menace or boss. Nothing like it comes along later in the game which is a shame. Overall, though, Playdead knew how to strike the right balance between simplicity and difficulty in the controls and gameplay itself. Yeah, there are sections lacking and sections that are great, but no elements ever feel thrown in just because. Still, it’s hard to forgive how terrible of a swimmer the boy is…let’s just leave it at that.
Graphics & Sound
Some might be surprised that a game running on such a minimalist color palette exudes so much style. Truth be told, Limbo is one of those marvels of the gaming industry. Only when playing through the entire game and seeing little touches of how light plays through the scenery will someone understand how much is going on. Everything in Limbo is a silhouette. Having a world where everything is cloaked in darkness definitely gives credence that this is some version of hell. Faceless enemies are even more threatening because not every detail about them is made aware to the player. Playing on the Vita’s screen might give a small viewing area but the whites and blacks feel even more prominent and stick out incredibly well. It might not seem like it based on screenshots, but Limbo is one of the most visually arresting games of this generation.
The darkness is populated by even more minimalistic soundscapes. Limbo has a soundtrack in the loosest sense that only crops up in certain moments. It punctuates a “story” moment or creeps in when the going gets extremely tough for the poor boy. A few hints about what’s to come are given through some slices of sound effects and creature noises. Unlike many experiences, the lack of sound is a strength. It shoves players into this box and has echoes of early survivor horror titles.
The biggest point of contention for Limbo has been its price when compared with length. Limbo can be completed in one sitting over the course of a few hours (there’s even a trophy for doing so with under five deaths but good luck…). But a $15 price tag might seem steep for this kind of game, especially if it didn’t resonate enough with the player to make for additional playthroughs. One benefit is that the Vita version supports Cross Buy so a PS3 code is also given – that might soften the price blow a bit. For a game that doesn’t give too much, bickering over price is valid. In the end, though, to miss out on Limbo after all this time would be a mistake. It’s a triumph both visually and in the indie game scene. Limbo could have had more but leaving that desire speaks volumes over other experiences that drag on way past their welcome.