Limbo is a bleak and lonely place; a grainy grey film reel of mistakes and terrible consequences. If this is only limbo, I am officially afraid of hell.
The game is unobtrusive to the point of slyness. I watched the opening forest scene for quite a while before realizing that nothing was going to happen until I made the boy stand up. There would be no narrated introduction, no context whatsoever. The boy was sleeping, I woke him up, and together we now faced a long, hard road through some horrible traps and unfortunate accidents. I felt somewhat responsible for his plight from the very start.
There are few things the player needs to know about silhouette boy. He is simple. He runs and jumps and pushes boxes so he can jump to new places. He is frustratingly complacent about drowning if he falls into a lake.
Actually, silhouette boy takes all of his deaths well. When he gets impaled by spikes, or bonked on the head by a falling log, or ground into hamburger by gigantic gears, he doesn’t make a sound. No screaming or crying or swearing, just steadfast resolve as he follows the player’s stupid plan to his inevitable fate. He fails in some amusing and grotesque fashion, and then he lives once again. No ‘You Suck’ fanfare graphic. No loading screen. No real penalty for death.
You die and it looks cool, or you succeed and feel like a badass, which is an excellent dichotomy of possible outcomes.
The game mechanics are simple and predictable enough that they fade into the background, allowing the strange environments to take center stage. The settings seem to follow some wonky evolutionary path, subtly shifting from primordial forest to Charles Dickens Presents a Steampunk Nightmare to sci-fi lasers and gravity wells.
Along the way, the sensation of loneliness is pervasive to the point where you are happy to run into other silhouette people just so you know that others exist in this place. And then they kill themselves or try to murder the boy with grim determination. Nobody talks to you, ever, and it’s eerie. All of the narrative is wrapped up in the sheer thrill of survival: the close calls, the narrow shaves, scuffling with the predatory spider who refuses to give up.
Limbo consists of puzzle after puzzle and the puzzles are largely minimalist. Here’s a box, there’s a lever, over there is a platform, and somehow these things must fit together so the boy can move on. Because every interactive object is so stark and visible, it’s difficult to miss a solution because of simple oversight. Hidden orbs of light represent the game’s only aside and they are never far away.
Limbo will probably be compared often to Braid, another puzzle-platformer with distinctive art direction and a modern twist on familiar run-and-jump mechanics. But where Braid is verbose in its storytelling, Limbo stays silent. Braid examines time, while Limbo is a study of light and shadow and the shades between.
And, most prominently, Braid is about fleeing from death through convoluted means while Limbo embraces a thousand gory endings. This is what makes Limbo the more re-playable game. It is a stylishly visceral death simulator, a fun and painless exploration of the many hilarious and disturbing ways in which a silhouette boy can fail.
Time to completion: 4-6 hours
Good value? Worthwhile for 1200 Microsoft points, and a steal for anything less.
Approximate # of brutal deaths for silhouette boy: 100