Review | Limbo
Format: Xbox 360 | Genre: Adventure | Publisher: PlayDead | Developer: PlayDead | Release Date: 21/07/2010 | Price: 1200 points (£10.28)
Fraser McMillan is caught in LIMBO.
A GRANULAR assessment of Limbo’s constituent parts wouldn’t get one too far to understanding the key or even peripheral elements of its eminent brilliance, and nor would it be entirely appropriate or easy. What separates Playdead’s Live Arcade title from most of its peers is an almost hard-headed mechanical essentialism, stripping the interactive faculties to a set of ostensibly limited absolutes. A total of two buttons are used – movement aside, naturally – and this most old-school of approaches is employed to an effect that is thoroughly modern and refreshing.
This simplicity is analogous to the game at large. Its film-like duration is indicative and perhaps even symptomatic of an approach to design that rejects anything other than utterly vital to the core of the experience as filler. Nothing in Limbo is there for the sake of it. Everything has been scrutinised, the seeds of this evident labour flowering from the outset. Atmosphere is Limbo’s primary currency, and it’s something the art direction very obviously and the excellent sound design rather more subtly impart. It’s not in the slightest – despite the obviously “artsy” visual style – overbearing. Rather, the atmosphere is circumstantial; it creeps into the psyche in the most sensational way, exploring every avenue and combining the visual, aural and ludic to dizzying effect.
A rotting carcass hangs from a hook, surrounded by excitable flies. A body lies slumped at the bottom of an incline, a proliferation of arrows protruding from the cold flesh. Limbo is a grim game, one of the most depressingly framed in recent memory. Interestingly, these visual pieces of the narrative jigsaw are more than just window dressing, offering clues to upcoming hazards or being part of the puzzle in a very literal sense. It’s the latter that form the basis of Limbo’s appeal. In strictly ludic terms it’s effectively a two dimensional assault course, but here the two poles of modern day game design that we’re forever trying to reconcile interplay and harmonise in astonishing fashion, with not a cut scene in sight.
It also owes a surprising debt to traditional instinctive platforming. Boy slips and falls head first into a circular saw. It shreds his feeble frame instantly. Deaths are frequent and oftentimes suspiciously unavoidable. Guess and check has never been a great gameplay conceit, but checkpoints are well placed and restarts instantaneous. They’re also, once more, tied irrevocably to non-ludic ends, justified by the powerful but beautifully understated ending and form a valid part of the overall player experience. And it’s able to do this as a result of a reliance of tropes. If Braid reinvented the wheel, Limbo supersedes it, allowing anyone acquainted with Mario to pick it up but melting with ease the layers of arcade hangovers and placeholders that have held the genre back for years. Embracing simplicity is its best idea, and by refusing to concern itself with collectibles, points, self-indulgent and awkward non-integrated storytelling, it repurposes the two-dimensional platformer for a new decade.
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