Limbo Reader Review
Well this is embarrassing. Limbo is presumably a deeply moving tale about a boy trying to find his sister that develops into a profound lesson on the human condition, or something equally grand. Unfortunately, I don’t get it. Maybe I should stick to writing boilerplate reviews for boilerplate games (“If you liked Gruff Spaceman Shooter I, you’ll definitely like Gruff Spaceman Shooter II!”), because Limbo provoked far more frustration than awe in its three-hour runtime.
But let’s start with those feelings of awe, because Limbo creates a wonderful first impression. The bleak, otherworldly feel created by the game’s greyscale graphics is heightened by the undoubtedly talented developers at Playhead. Corpses of other children hang ominously in the background and foreground, lethal traps are scattered throughout and the other children you see attempt to kill you without exchanging a single word. The visuals and design successfully combine to pull off the trick atypical to all great horror - creating a warped lens through which a mundane setting becomes terrifying. This feeling is exacerbated by the fragility of your character. It doesn’t take long to realise the limited abilities of Limbo’s unnamed protagonist, and his aforementioned vulnerability makes him a uniquely human character to control. In most games, you succeed because the character you are controlling has the ability to shrug off wounds that would kill most mortals. In Resident Evil, a bear trap would hurt but never kill. In Limbo, it rips your limbs off like an unwanted rag doll. The trepidation this encourages when exploring Limbo’s forest landscape makes for an incredibly nervy first hour as you begin to realise how threatening the world you’ve stumbled in is, and how much it wants your violent removal from it. That Resident Evil comparison wasn’t random – Limbo plays very much like a survival horror game, with the constant threat of violent, immediate death forcing careful exploration of the unremittingly hostile environment. And for that first hour, it’s a brilliant survivor-horror game. Negotiating your way through the opening act is a thrill due to a multitude of well-designed set-pieces, particularly the ones involving the forest’s primary predator (to say anymore would be to ruin it). The murderous, fleeing children hint at a greater story behind the world you’re trapped in, and the game’s linearity works very much in its favour by pressing your eager (but oh so cautious) self deeper into the forest and beyond.
Unfortunately, it’s when leave the forest that Limbo’s problems begin to surface. as the game places you in increasingly industrialized areas that simply lack the character of the opening area. Part of this is down to purely aesthetic values, as the caverns and factories you explore are simply less visually enticing than the wooded area of the game’s first third. It doesn’t matter how much of an artistic spin you give it, pushing crates around a factory is never going to be a fondly remembered moment in gaming.
(An aside on those bloody crates. Too many of the games later puzzles rely on you moving them from one place to another as if you were the anthropomorphic personification of forklift trucks. It becomes tiresome and occasionally breaks the cardinal rule of puzzle game design – making the player go through tedious legwork to achieve an obvious solution).
Along with the degradation of the quality of the environments comes a downturn in the inventiveness of the puzzles. There is nothing in the second half that comes close to scaling the macabre heights of the game’s initial hour (one particular solution will almost definitely provoke a visceral reaction in whoever witnesses it). New ideas are introduced, but they fail to excite. Indeed, Limbo’s last twist is deflated by the developers using it as another way to make the player shove goddamn crates around the landscape. And if you’re sick of crates by this point, I have successfully evoked my feelings on Limbo’s final hour.
So, with lacklustre environments and increasingly uninteresting puzzles it’s up to the story to save Limbo from languishing in its namesake. It doesn’t. In an increasingly predictable trend, it too falls apart as Limbo progresses. This next point may be considered a spoiler, but it’s too frustrating not to bring up. The children from the opening act completely disappear around the halfway point, and with them goes the intrigue created by their appearance. Removing an apparently important plot element with no explanation is simply bad storytelling, and it’s a mistake Limbo makes with the children. Furthermore, the vaunted connection between player and character dissipates as the game progresses due to the frequency of his many demises. Watching the child fall victim to the world around him once is a tragedy. Seeing it occur repeatedly over three hours and the strains of Yakety Sax can be heard playing over each ridiculous death. As it is, the parallel decline in quality between the story and the levels its set in means that Limbo struggles to give the players reasons to carry on as it drags on to its anticlimactic finish.
So, Limbo. A game that promises so much in its early stages, but gradually develops into a massive disappointment before coming to an abrupt halt, leaving the player thinking, “was that it”?
Oh you clever son of a bitch, Limbo. Now I get the life lesson. Still, at its current price this is one class that’s worth skipping.