LIMBO Review

What we liked:
+ Fascinating art style
+ Great management of sound
+ Challenging puzzles
What we didn't like:
- Can be unnecessarily difficult
- Narrative presentation is either “love it” or “hate it”
Good
DEVELOPER: PLAYDEAD   |   PUBLISHER: PLAYDEAD   |   RELEASE: 08/02/2011

Review
What does it all mean?

It’s been a little over a year since Limbo launched to enormous critical acclaim on the XBox Live Marketplace. Now, the game-meets-art title is coming to the PC and the PSN, with a small amount of additional hidden content, for those that haven’t yet had a chance to experience it. I immediately started writing this review upon finishing the game (which took approximately four hours in one sitting) and, while I know which components I liked and disliked, I’m not sure if I’ll ever settle on one opinion of Limbo as a whole.

The first thing that will strike you about Limbo is the art style. The entire game is masterfully presented in black and white with a film grain filter that enhances the game without ever obstructing. The main character, an unnamed boy, wakes up in the forest. He is presented entirely in silhouette, with only glowing eyes to symbolize his sentience.


Throughout the game, you will encounter devilishly difficult puzzles, which are extremely enjoyable to complete. You will also encounter platforming and timed sections, which are far less compelling due to the floaty and imprecise controls (regardless of whether you use the keyboard or a gamepad). Traps litter the environment and the landscape is filled with perilous surprises. Be warned that you will die an uncountable number of grisly deaths during the game. I was often unprepared for how graphic my untimely ends were.

As you proceed through the game, the musical landscape will grow from dead silence, but never reach beyond minimalist. Through careful use of effect timing and instrument choice, it is often pleasantly unclear whether you are listening to a soundtrack or the melodic thrumming of the world around you.

All of the pieces were there for me to unequivocally enjoy Limbo, but the narrative presentation was an enormous barrier. It was not until after the game that I read that the boy is on a search for his sister. This is never presented in the game, though you do encounter a female character (in fact, the only person not trying to kill you in the game). It would have been useful to somehow introduce this plot element to the player.

As I mentioned, I played the game in one sitting. I largely enjoyed it as I was playing. It pulled me forward but only lead me to a dead end. I cannot forgive Limbo for its failure to actually tell a story. I expected that after surviving the forest, urban landscape, and industrial environments that I would be rewarded with the answer to one simple question: “Why?”


Instead, I was left hanging. I felt completely unfulfilled when I completed the game. The designers have stated that they wanted to leave the end open to interpretation. I believe the fundamental flaw in this is simple. In order for a conclusion to be drawn about the outcome, there needs to be an understanding of the circumstances leading up to it. The player is told nothing. There is no explanation of why the boy wakes up in the forest, why traps litter the environment or even why other people wish to murder him. Put simply, it is not possible to draw a conclusion.

Limbo will stay with me for a long time. It’s art style and sound design are strong enough to have left a mark. I can guarantee, though, that I will not replay the game. There is nothing to draw me back. I had no connection to the character and, in this case, I do not believe the journey was more important than the destination. Where Limbo succeeds, it is a glowing example of all that is right with game design. The places that it fails, though, cast a gloom over the entire work.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Screenshots

Michael Futter

Mike is the Reviews Editor and former Community Manager for this fine, digital establishment. You can find him crawling through dungeons, cruising the galaxy in the Normandy, and geeking it out around a gaming table.

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  • Palebane

    The name of the game is Limbo, how much of a story do you need? You are between heaven and hell, trying to get to heaven.

    • http://www.ztgd.com Michael “Red Pen of Doom” Futter

      If I were to go by the strict religious definition of LIMBO, there would be no chance to get to heaven or hell. LIMBO is where unbaptized babies go. You might be thinking of purgatory, though.

  • Credance

    This is a pretty damn clumsy review imo; without realizing it, you’ve given too many things away, and like a bad review of a movie, various aspects of the ‘story’ (which should be discovered by the viewer (player) are handed on a plate by someone who could have quite possibly spoiled it for those who haven’t seen (in this case played) it. Regardless of if it was intentional, you cocked up. Next time, really think about the effect of what you say will have.

    • http://www.ztgd.com Michael “Red Pen of Doom” Futter

      I haven’t spoiled anything more than the developers have. If you go to the product page for Steam, the only thing it says is that a boy is looking for his sister.

      It is with this in mind that I felt comfortable sharing as much as I did.

      Also, as I mentioned, I don’t believe there is anything more to this game’s narrative than what is blatantly splayed out before one even loads the game up.

      Many people have expressed gratitude that they know what they are getting into. Had I known that there actually no story here, I might have approached the game very differently and derived far more enjoyment.

      My personal opinion of LIMBO is that it borders on pretentious. I recognize that this is not a belief shared by everyone that has played it. However, it is my own and I stand by it. I respect the opposite position and do not begrudge those that found deep meaning in their time with the game. In fact, I wish that I had come away as one of those individuals.

      Part of my reviewing philosophy, in fact, the thing that drives my critical writing, is that I help set the reader’s expectations. So many times, hype kills enjoyment of a game. Decent game experiences can be ruined by expecting too much (with the opposite being true, as well).

      I’m sorry that you disagree with my review, but please know that I am extremely deliberate in my writing.

  • Dan

    I think you missed the mark here on the narrative. As a film major, I have seen plenty of films which leave the viewer with absolutely no conclusion as to what they have just seen, and many of these films are extremely critically acclaimed just like Limbo. Take Eraserhead for example. This film is completely nonsensical, yet it is commonly quoted as one of the best films of all time. That’s not the only one. Some critics don’t understand it and they rate it lower than the majority (which gives away the fact that they are journalists and not film majors). The same goes for many games, which if you want to counter that “a movie is not the same as a game” than you really need to stop reviewing media. Otherwise try to play abstract games with a more open mind about an inconclusive narrative that may not explain the gameplay. Also, I don’t think you are one to judge whether or not the developer (which was only one guy really-with some help) or the game is pretentious.

    • http://www.ztgd.com Michael “Red Pen of Doom” Futter

      First, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I do appreciate hearing what others thought of the review and the game.

      I completely agree with you that entertainment media can be perfectly enjoyable and hit the mark without having a conclusion. The lack of conclusion isn’t my issue with LIMBO. My problem with the game is that it asks you to draw a conclusion without providing any basis of understanding with which to do so.

      Even in the type of films you mention, you’re usually given enough understanding of the world, the characters and the forces acting against the protagonist. In LIMBO you aren’t given any of those things. My issue with the narrative presentation is exacerbated by the one-line description of the game that players may or may not read on the Steam page. This is the only place that the relationship between the boy and girl are referenced and I didn’t read it until AFTER completing the game.

      I am concerned that you anticipated that I would leap to the “movies are not the same as games” defense, especially as I have stated time and again (even here on this very page) that I respect the views of those that disagree with my assessment of the game. As for my assertion that the game *borders* on being pretentious, I chose my words very carefully. I’m not sure the game is pretentious. As I stated in the opening review, if I ever come to one solid opinion about LIMBO, it isn’t going to be anytime soon. The game has left its mark on me. I do still think about it. In that, it has succeeded. However, just because something sticks with you doesn’t mean that you have to have entirely enjoyed it.

      However, the beauty of art is that it is in the eye of the beholder, that it is open to interpretation and that no two people will see the same thing in it. I do not begrudge LIMBO the acclaim it has received and certainly do not mean to diminish the impact it has had on some gamers, however, my job is to provide my opinion. The statements presented in this review are just that: my opinion.

      You may disagree with me about my impression of the narrative, but that does not equate to “missing the mark.” LIMBO did not have the impact on me that it had on others, including, apparently, yourself. As I’ve stated before, I don’t regret my opinion and, in some ways, I envy those that were more deeply moved by their time with LIMBO than I was.

      • Dan

        Fair enough.

  • Travis

    “I can guarantee, though, that I will not replay the game.”

    Same here, and for a $10 game that gave me 3 hours of enjoyment, I am totally OK with that. I spend that much to go to a movie and never complain that I will probably never watch that film again. For the price of this game I feel the developers achieved their goal – a unique take on the age old puzzle-solver.

  • kirbyy

    Good review. I agree with the weird minimalistic plot. I don’t mind it per se, but between this game, Q.U.B.E. and Braid I’m getting a bit tired of indy developers refraining from presenting an actual story. Otherwise an excellent game with good puzzles.