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Limbo XBLA Review

25/12/2010 Thinking Story Gamer Review
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Limbo XBLA

Limbo

Format:
XBLA

Genre:
Platforming

Style:
Singleplayer

Buy/Support:
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Further reading, films and books that create similar stories:

Limbo 360 is a beautifully morbid monochrome platformer which works on the imagination, its sparse narrative leaves space for players to fill in the gaps themselves.

At first, you start up Limbo and it seems like nothing is happening. You're watching a black/grey image of woodland, the screen suffused with a gentle glow. After a few seconds you press a couple of buttons, but nothing seems to be happening.

Then, movement, a black clump moving in the grass. Two white dots, eyes looking up. The shape stands: it's the silhouette of a boy, pure shadow apart from those two bright eyes. You move the thumb stick, he starts to move. There's very little to the left, so you start walking right.

And that's how it begins. No explanation for Limbo's gorgeous monochrome world beyond the implications of the title, no back story as to who this boy is, how he got there and why. Just a character to control, a world to explore, and almost immediately traps, enemies, threats and hazards to overcome.

Because in Limbo, death is ever present, sudden, shocking, violent... but thankfully temporary. Walk into a mantrap and the boy will be cut in half, severed head and guts flying. Fall into water and he'll slowly sink, limbs flailing before falling still. Fall on to a solid surface and the boy will slump awkwardly in death.

And after every death, a slow shimmering fade to black, like the last shot of an early silent film, and then a return to the previous checkpoint. Thankfully, these auto-saves are frequent, with at most a short string of hazards to be worked through before the next save. There's no limit on lives or continues either, which is a good job.

It's quite a trip, and the overall aesthetic is stunningly atmospheric.

In Limbo, you will die a lot. That post-death fade-out is perfect, lingering torture, just enough time to dwell on your failings, not enough time to justify quitting the game in annoyance before you're back at the start of the puzzle, ready for another go. Five, ten, fifteen goes to master the trickier leaps and more brain-twisting puzzles.

These puzzles run the 2D platformer gamut from straightforward timed jumps to avoid traps, to more brain twisting tricks with switches that manipulate gravity. Some of the more complex challenges are fiendish, and it can be hard to tell whether failure is a matter of poor reflexes or just doing the wrong thing, and I found myself consulting a walk-through a good few times just to check I wasn't repeatedly attempting the impossible.

Like the best of these games, Limbo plays fair with the player: everything is achievable once you wrap your mind around what needs to be done, then hone your timing - although the 'complete the game in one sitting, dying less than five times' achievement will prove firmly locked to all but the most hardcore Limbo fanatics.

What is the boy's purpose?

This sense that any challenge can be overcome with practice kept me playing, as did the pleasures of exploring Limbo's world. There may be no colour in these environments, but that doesn't mean they're repetitive or boring: landscapes range from gloomy woodland, to dark caves, to industrial and urban areas sparking with lethal electricity. Primitive platforms and pulley systems give way to giant cogs and relentless conveyor belts.

It's quite a trip, and the overall aesthetic is stunningly atmospheric, the sharp-edged foreground characters and monsters featureless and fluidly animated, while the grey backdrops are full of depth and hazy detail: watery mists, buzzing flies, shimmering patterns of light. By removing colour altogether, Limbo really focuses on the subtleties of light and shade, of black and white and many textured greys in between.

In the shadowy vales of Limbo, all we know is that death and danger are a constant presence.

Limbo's combination of old school mind-stretching, reflex-testing gameplay values and enigmatic, distinct visuals and storytelling make for a compelling combination, one that teases at the imagination. The challenges are compulsive, enjoyable and often frustrating, but why do they need to be done at all? What is the boy's purpose, why do you need to evade mysterious shadow men and risk constant, repetitive death?

The ending answers at least one of these questions, sort of, but the pleasure of Limbo is that any wider context is left unexplained, which makes the journey its own reward. In the shadowy vales of Limbo, all we know is that death and danger are a constant presence, but that we must nonetheless press on in the vain hope of finding the light.

And on that note, Merry Christmas.

Written by Mark Clapham

You can support Mark by buying Limbo



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Mark Clapham writes the Story Gamer column.

"I love a good story. Games tell many different stories: the stories told through cut scenes and dialogue, but also the stories that emerge through gameplay, the stories players make for themselves."


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