Review: Limbo

How low can you go?
By MITCH KRPATA  |  August 4, 2010
1.5 1.5 Stars


Limbo | for Xbox Live Arcade | Rated T for Teen | Developed by PlayDead | Published by Microsoft Game Studios
"A masterpiece." "Close to perfect." "Genius." "Essential, must-play experience." All these quotes appear on the Metacritic page for a game called Limbo. ("Close to perfect" is on there twice!) I'd sure like to play that game. There must have been some kind of mix-up with what I downloaded. The Limbo that I played was the worst sort of art-for-art's-sake garbage. It valued form over substance, mistook vagueness for meaning, and confused capriciousness with cleverness. This game is a charade.

At least it gets the mood right. Limbo presents a monochromatic, mostly silent world. Our hero, a small boy, is seen only in silhouette. Starkly outlined against white backgrounds, he vanishes in shadow — except for his eyes, which sparkle in the darkness like a pair of diamonds. The effect is eerie and beautiful. The same can be said of the game world, at least when considered at a remove. Aesthetics do matter, and Limbo's gloomy tableaux are without precedent.

What the graphics don't do is serve the gameplay. It turns out that when everything is black, it becomes rather difficult to see what anything is. Here's an experiment: blindfold yourself in a dark room and try to walk around without bumping your knee. Congratulations, you just found out what it's like to play Limbo. For all the times that shadow is used to great effect, such as when a massive spider unfurls its legs from behind a tree, there are a dozen others when some unseen trap kills you. Not because you did anything wrong, or failed to account for a sign of impending doom, but simply because the hazard was invisible.

The bedrock of good game design is feedback. A game will provide you a skill, challenge you to use it, and then find different ways to test your mastery. Think of how Super Mario Bros. layers challenges one on top of another: first you jump over a block, then over a pit, and then over a pit onto a narrow landing. Limbo follows no such logic or progression. Its puzzles exist in a vacuum. Never do they build on what came before, and sometimes they contradict one another.

In one breathtaking example of, let's say, non-traditional design, stepping on one switch prevents your character from being squashed flat whereas steeping on an identical one gets him killed instantly. So, great, once you've learned this exception to the rule, what do you do with it? Nothing. Nothing like it ever comes up again. The only lessons you need to learn are those that solve the puzzle at hand, and then you have to unlearn them. Some individual parts are clever, granted, but I'd have been happier playing a game that took the time to develop its mechanics, such as the shifting gravitational fields in the final puzzle. Every good idea Limbo has it flicks away like a cigarette butt.

It's clear that most of the effort involved in designing Limbo went into its graphic death animations, which you are sure to see over and over. Your shadowy little guy will be crushed, impaled, and dismembered dozens of times. There are no real consequences to dying in Limbo — you simply restart at the beginning of the puzzle that killed you. So why does the game revel in your character's brutal deaths? Either this is a deep comment on the nature of life and death that eludes my feeble brain, or it's nonsense masquerading as art. One or the other.

Related: Review: DeathSpank, Review: Left 4 Dead 2, Review: New Super Mario Bros. Wii, More more >
  Topics: Videogames , Technology, Video Games, Xbox Live Arcade,  More more >
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