Limbo Xbox 360 Review

There are two kinds of Limbo. One is an afterlife just outside of Hell where you might go if you’re not really a bad sort, but haven’t turned to God either. The other one is a funny dance, done under a stick. Looking at the screenshots, you can tell right away which kind of Limbo we’re dealing with here – PlayDead’s debut title is a rhythm-action game inspired by the famous Trinidadian dance form, featuring Xbox 360 Avatar integration, Kinect support, blue skies, and a whole host of infectious Caribbean beats!

Hahahahahah not really.

Limbo is a 2D platformer. It’s got puzzles in it. It is unremittingly grim from beginning to end. It is also probably one of the most beautiful games you will play this year.

You play as a young boy, waking up in the middle of a forest and trying to get… well, anywhere, because there isn’t a single place in the entire game that you’d like to hang around in. Make no mistake, this is a world that will snap at your heels constantly until you’ve made your way out of it. There is a very loose story of sorts, but it’s not really important. Limbo‘s main focus, and its main triumph, is the creation of some of the most stunning yet unnerving environments ever seen in a video game. The grainy, high-contrast monotone look that must surely get dull after 15 minutes, doesn’t. While it does occasionally cause problems – discerning which tiny black spikes are going to go straight through your face, and which are merely part of the background, is sometimes difficult – for the most part it’s handled really well, and takes you through a series of markedly varied environments. Even if you’ve seen some of the game’s later stages in trailers or sceenshots, the shift in style still manages to take you by surprise, helped in no small part by how utterly absorbing and downright grim Limbo is.

You’ll notice I’ve used the word ‘grim’ twice, now. It’s a difficult thing to explain without wandering into spoiler territory, but let’s have a crack at it anyway. You might remember a puzzle in Braid (unless you’ve not played it, in which case I’d have to ask why you’re interested in Limbo in the first place?) where you force your ‘shadow’ to jump to his death, in order to pass you a key across a pit of spikes. You feel like a genius for figuring it out, but once you’ve actually carried it out, you kind of feel a bit guilty. I mean, that shadow kind of was you, wasn’t it? Now, Limbo doesn’t feature any alternate-self puzzles, but it does do the whole ‘grim puzzle solution/pride/guilt’ thing. Times a thousand. What should be simple physics puzzles take on a much more macabre tone because of the, uh, objects that you’re working with. This aspect kind of ebbs away later in the game, mind you, but it’ll stick with you long after the game’s finished.

Oh, yeah. Finishing the game. That’ll only take you four hours or so, and there’s little replay value to speak of. Some people think that’s not enough for 1,200MSP. I must admit, had I not played the game myself, I would totally see where they’re coming from. As it is, all I’ll say is something I’ve probably already said in about three reviews prior to this one: you need to ask yourself whether you think the value of a game lies in the ways it makes you think and the memories you take away from it, or simply the amount of time it distracts you from your otherwise dreary existence. If you’re into the latter, go and buy Final Fantasy XIII and let me know how great it is when you’ve had to play for 35 hours before the game allowed you to see the full battle system. Everyone else: Limbo.

The sound design is incredible, too. The game’s minimalistic approach to music in particular works absolutely perfectly, largely because there is so little of it. The fact that you spend so much of the game listening to just the usual sound-effects means that, once one of the game’s dreary soundscapes begins to fade in, you know it means something. Usually something that’s about to kill you in an entirely horrific manner, in fact. And thus, you quickly learn to react to any sound you can’t readily identify with absolute terror. On the other hand, there are a couple of warmer moments to the soundtrack, usually used to signify the end of a significantly deadly or drawn-out puzzle, and nurture your already considerable onset of sheer relief.

Still, aesthetic wankery aside, is it a good video game? Mostly yes, with a dash of oh my god if I die one more time on this puzzle I am going to stab an actual man. The game has a heavy emphasis on trial-and-error – it’s mitigated somewhat by the incredibly generous checkpointing, but it does cheapen the experience at times. Many of the game’s deadly traps are clearly signposted, sure. But some are less obvious, and others are completely unavoidable until you stumble head-first into them. Most of Limbo‘s puzzles are brilliantly designed, but the game lets itself down when it decides to kill you with stuff you couldn’t possibly have avoided the first time through. On top of that, the game’s initial stages are as chilling as they are because you’re so utterly terrified of dying – but, several hundred deaths later, you can’t help but be a bit less horrified by it all.

On the up, the feel of the controls is absolutely perfect. Looking at footage of the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking it looks a bit ‘floaty’ or unresponsive, but that’s only a testament to how smooth the character animations are – Limbo is as tight as just about any other 2D platformer you’d care to mention. Assuming you’d only care to mention the good ones, I mean.

I’ve mentioned Braid quite a few times here, for reasons I hopefully shouldn’t need to explain. Sadly, Limbo doesn’t quite topple Braid from its poncy indie artgame 2D puzzle-platformer throne. As clever and devious as Limbo‘s puzzles are, Braid genuinely felt like it was rewiring your head as it went, making it work in ways you didn’t think possible, and Limbo doesn’t quite manage that. But that doesn’t stop Limbo being an entirely worthwhile experience, drenched in misery, pathos and loneliness. It’s also really bloody scary.

That said, the only other scary games I’ve been able to finish were Resident Evil 4 and Left 4 Dead. Make of that what you will, eh?

8 out of 10