Shadows and tall trees
Available on: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade), PlayStation 3 (via the PlayStation Network), PC and Mac (via Steam)
If you remember Braid, one of the first indie games to gain widespread recognition and rave reviews, Limbo, first release of the Danish developer Playdead, is more in the same vein: artistic, stylish, deceptively simple and intriguing. And also the precursor of many copycat games. It shares gameplay similarities with Braid, namely the lone protagonist in a sidescrolling environment and the cryptic storyline. Where it differs sharply, however, is the atmosphere. Yes, Braid had a disquieting undercurrent to it that gradually came to the fore as you neared the end, but the soothing music and beautifully lush environments compensated for it. By contrast, Limbo is unrelentingly bleak, gloomy, lonely and frequently unsettling, especially when you stop to think about some of the situations it puts both you, the player, and its protagonist in. Think of a cross between Tarkovsky’s Stalker and something like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and you’ll be quite close to the mark.
The entire game is in black and white, reducing everything to silhouettes and making the already far from reassuring environments that give the game its title–a dark forest, some sort of industrial complex, a rainy cityscape, and finally, a nightmarish mix of all of them–even more menacing. There is very little music beyond ambient sounds and discreet aural backdrops, with the occasional swell for dramatic effect. And to top it off, the plot could not be more minimalistic: a nameless, featureless–except for his pin-like white eyes–boy awakens in a forest and tries to find a way out, while avoiding various natural and not-so-natural hazards, and using the environment to his advantage to make progress. Along the way, you also realize that he’s looking for his sister, although how they became separated and why (and also where exactly they are) remains a mystery. And chances are that the ending will produce more questions than answers.
Apart from the boy and his sister, there are very few other living creatures in the game, and most of them are malevolent. The ones likely to cause most trouble are the very persistent giant spider, which features prominently at the beginning of the game (arachnophobes, beware…seriously) and the brain worms. These are phosphorescent…blobs, for lack of better word, that will suddenly drop on the unsuspecting boy’s head, burrow in with a sickeningly squelchy sound and force him to walk in one direction, disregarding any obstacles along the way. Until he encounters a beam of light, that is, which the worms seem to abhor. This will cause the boy to go the other way. And the only means of removing said worms is to bring them within reach of strange carnivorous plants that sometimes grow on ceilings.
If all this talk of giant spiders, worms and squelchy noises sounds rather morbid…well, it’s because it is. Unlike most videogame heroes, the boy is very vulnerable: he can’t swim, he has no weapons, he’s neither agile nor strong. Just drop from a little too high, and he’s toast. All he can do is run, jump and grab/push/pull things. Not only does it make you feel very small and helpless, but just about any element of the environment becomes potentially lethal. Combine vicious wildlife, bear traps, wood saws, electrified surfaces and precariously balanced rusty machinery, and you end up with some rather graphic deaths. There’s no visible blood, but land the boy on a wood saw, and you will see limbs and assorted chunks flying (limb-o, eh? *dodges bricks and tomatoes*). This was meant to encourage players to pay more attention to what they were doing in order to avoid these gruesome fates. In fact, one of the game’s achievements/trophies is finishing it in one sitting with five or fewer deaths, aptly named “No Point in Dying”. Not an easy task, by any means. Other than that, however, there are no penalties for repeated deaths, besides having to redo the puzzle at hand, as the game helpfully replaces the boy at the start of it should he meet an untimely end during its execution.
Puzzles come in all flavours, frequently challenging your instincts and intuition. They’re usually not too complicated to figure out, but the execution is a different matter, as some are thoroughly on the acrobatic side, namely the entire final sequence of the game. Many are also timed, involving a room filling up with water, for example, or running away from the aforementioned spider. In short, be ready to experience a wide range of lethal outcomes on your first time through.
Although there are no save points, the game is subdivided into 24 ‘hidden’ chapters. While you play, there are no interruptions, and the game flows seamlessly from one chapter to the other. But if you want to stop playing midway or to practice a particular puzzle, you can access these chapters through the menu.
I did mention that “No Point in Dying” must be achieved in one sitting, and this is realistically doable: the game is very short. In fact, once you get to the stage where you are trying to minimize deaths, you start learning how each puzzle functions, as well as their order, further shortening the experience. This is probably one of the game’s main flaws, and it has received criticism for not justifying its cost. On the other hand, had it been any longer, it may have run the risk of becoming tedious.
Its other flaw is that, apart from soldiering on towards the boy’s goal, there’s not much else to do. Admittedly, you probably wouldn’t want to stay in some of the environments he traverses more than absolutely necessary, but it does impair the game’s replay value. The only extracurricular activity available is collecting a bunch of eggs from improbable locations, some of which you get achievements/trophies for.
Still, despite these drawbacks, the game is a success, if only for the novelty of the experience. If you enjoyed the likes of Braid, then you’re likely to enjoy this one as well. But don’t be surprised if you feel like you need a hug or some chocolate afterwards. Cheerful, this certainly ain’t.