Limbo’s beautiful. That much should be apparent from the screenshots. It’s also horrible. Not in the sense that it’s poorly designed or a chore to play, but because of the wicked delight it takes in undercutting its beauty with moments of grisly violence. It’s a puzzle game with a sense of humour, a sense of wonder, and an unhealthy fascination with the dismemberment of a prepubescent boy. It’s one of the most tonally distinct titles available on Xbox Live, and one of the finest.
In a game of stark aesthetics, the forest which provides the backdrop for the game’s opening third showcases Limbo’s visuals at their richest. The black silhouettes of the foreground give way to a backdrop of glowing, shifting mists dotted with burning white butterflies and the half-glimpsed outlines of ramshackle structures and trees. The drive to solve Limbo’s puzzles, press forward and explore this ethereal space is one which the game constantly rewards, simply because it’s impossible to predict what could be waiting a screen’s length away. A giant spider? A tribe of feral children? A magical rain machine? In isolation these things are fascinating curios; together they form a patchwork world stitched together from the pages of Gothic fairytales.
The game’s story might be minimalist, but the world in which it takes place runs deep with mystery. It’s almost a disappointment when, as the game continues, the oppressive forests and noir-themed rooftop paths give way to clanking industrial settings which, while well realised and home to some of the more challenging puzzles, simply cannot compete with the atmosphere of the opening half.
Whereas fellow quirky puzzlers Portal and Braid build themselves around a central mechanic and then wring it dry, Limbo’s puzzles are unified not by a single device, but by the physical principles underpinning them. Weight, acceleration, inertia and friction – these things give authenticity to Limbo’s unreal world, and an intuitive logic base for players to work from when trying to solve it. While occasionally relying on the physics puzzle staples of crates, weights and switches, Limbo is packed with novel ideas of its own – and understands the effectiveness of a lighter touch. While other games will gently introduce a mechanic, test players’ understanding and then – eventually – unleash the killer puzzle which demanded all that preparation.
Limbo’s a more restless beast. It introduces mechanics as diverse as herding strange animals into equally strange machines, or manually adjusting the water level in a series of tanks, and then moves on to its next surprise. For many, this lack of repetition will be welcome, though some will no doubt find the relatively short playtime (around four hours) something of a disappointment. And while the game does build its final act around a pair of particularly high-concept ideas (one of which owes a debt of gratitude to Super Mario Galaxy), there are few puzzles here as challenging as the best that Braid has to offer.
The boy himself is impeccably animated, reacting to the knocks, bumps and drops of the world around him with a natural fluidity. Jump towards a ledge at the very extreme of his grasp and his arms reach out convincingly. Land the jump and he’ll pull himself up with the clumsy enthusiasm of an Ico; miss it and he’ll hit the floor with the crumpling thud of a discarded doll. This is one of the gentler death scenes the game has to offer, and there are many (Limbo’s favourite way of introducing a puzzle is to have some part of it kill you), yet these demises, for all their sickening variety, are never quite as hard to watch as they should be. In fact, they’re rather funny.
If the secret to good humour is timing, then Limbo’s a stand-up comic. Have you heard the one about the falling mantrap which, deftly avoided, sends you running straight into the metal jaws of another? Or the one about the giant piston which doesn’t behave entirely how you expect? Some delightful sound effects help (see ‘The sound of silence’), with a range of squishing noises helping to blur the line between slapstick and macabre, and like the best performers, Limbo’s also a master of the art of misdirection, its most shocking traps and hazards almost always lurking in plain sight. What first appears (and much of the time is) a game of sombre, serious tones betrays itself as black-humoured jester, happily undercutting the eerie beauty of its monochrome netherworld with a spiked pit.
And when Limbo’s over, it’s that world – and not the isolated puzzles, creatures, or moments of morbid comedy that made it – which lingers in the memory. Playdead’s debut title is a rare thing – a wholly realised place as well as a successfully realised game, and both Limbo and the Limbo inside it are one-of-a-kind places to be stuck in.