Limbo: Review

(Naturally, spoilers exist. In a game like this, the novelty of what you run into is much of the fun, and I ruin some novelty in an attempt to be thorough. I spoil mechanics. I do not spoil the plot, though I allude to it.)

Many games have tried to mine Braid’s legacy. Braid, for better or worse, opened the door for independent developers to search for deep, universal truths in their games, especially when those games are 2-D platformers. Something about this most retro of genres inspires independent developers to try to take massive intellectual steps forward.

Limbo, developed by Playdead Games and the premiere title for this year’s Xbox Summer of Arcade lineup, takes active inspiration from Braid, but also tries to do its own thing–which separates it from mere pretenders like The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom. Limbo tries to differentiate itself from the genre, and it should be rewarded for making that leap.

It’s a real shame, in a way, that Coma was released in the months before Limbo, because these two titles invite necessary comparison. They’re both the new breed of independent platformer: instead of jumping and mechanics used to impart emotional wisdom, usually pertaining to relationships, these new titles focus on atmosphere and existential horror to convey what meanings they carry.

Evaluating Limbo is difficult. It is not a game one can grade with a number, or even with words. It is a title where a lot of the discussion has been based around its price*, which doesn’t relate to the game itself. What it needs to be evaluated on is its content, and its message, and its mechanics, and that is a truly difficult task. However, I would say that Limbo is a good game that loses the plot after a while.

Limbo is a game that must be split into pieces. Rather, into quarters. An inspiration it does take from Braid is the idea that different parts of the game should explore different mechanics. So, the first quarter of the game is the spider part. The second is the brain slug part. The third is the rotation part, and the fourth is the directional gravity part. There is some overlap, certainly, between these, and this is obviously a gross oversimplication. But when I think of the first quarter of the game (longer, really) I think of the spider. Then the brain slugs, and so forth.

You will notice most reviews of Limbo talk about the spider part, and not the latter elements. This is because the first quarter of the game is far and away the best portion. The thrill of Limbo is in the chase: the thrill of Limbo is when something terrible, something monstrous, is actively trying to kill you, be it the spider, or other, hazardous obstacles. The fun of the game is in being told, This spider is following you, and you have to escape it, desperately.

This is how survival horror should be done. You are powerless to kill the enemies you face. You need to think cleverly, use the level to your advantage, and use hazards to defeat or stymie your enemies. The whole forest section of the game is an absolute joy, and the best piece of a game I’ve played in years. There’s no wonder Limbo has accrued such positive reactions: it opens with such magnificence, such grace, that no one could doubt its merit.

The problem is, Limbo doesn’t hold up. To make the obvious pun, it gets halfway under the stick and it tumbles over backwards.

The crux of Limbo is repetition. Trial and error. You die, and you die in gruesome ways, but it’s never a major demerit. You come back, you survive, and you do it right the next time. This might not sound fun, but there is a major feeling of accomplishment here. It’s a good mechanic.

Where you can see the game going wrong is in the middle parts. The brain slugs, which make you run in one direction either until enough time has passed or until they meet a shining shaft of light (it is never made explicit *which* type of brain slug you get) are fun, frantic sections, juxtaposed with sectioned composed of rising water. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as the spider, but it is solid, functional fun.

It feels like a middle, but the kind of middle that is followed by something better.

When you get passed the last brain slug is when you know something is going subtly wrong. You enter sections where the whole world rotates. These are fun, sure, but not wonderful. The sense of joy is gone. The world goes from realistic puzzles placed into a lived in-game world, with a sense of desolation and emptiness to being a world composed of puzzle rooms and challenges put there solely for you to overcome. The world goes from a desolate, frightening world to an amateurish selection of puzzles which aren’t even that clever. And it only gets worse when you get to the penultimate quarter, when any threat of death is removed and replaced with straight up puzzles and mechanics that are not clearly explained. Puzzles can be exciting, but only if we can see all the pieces, and they’re only tense if there is some danger. I spent far too much of the last half of the game standing around jumping as I thought about what to do, instead of flinging myself headlong into danger, surviving or dying based off my wits. There is no thrill in the end, only a padding of a run time.

The major lesson of Braid was in its refinement. What made Braid a game worth 15$ was that it took one mechanic, time travel, and honed it down to a fine point. All new mechanics related to time travel, and existed in the same internally consistent world. Limbo, on the other hand, for the first half creates a brilliant, logical world, with tense, exciting puzzles, and then tacks on a second half that goes in an entirely different direction, leaving its good ideas and its themes unexplored. It’s like drinking half a beautiful bottle of wine and then dropping it and wondering how you’ll siphon the liquid off the floor and make it potable again.

I’ve not talked a lot about the themes and ideas in Limbo, but rather its mechanics. That’s because its themes are its mechanics. It must suffice to say that the thematic elements are fantastic, though I fear a little too subtle. I appreciate the developers attempts at being enigmatic, and it works. It’s a game where, when you think about it, it works. The problem is, there is much why left to be answered in the story. Not left, per se, but present in the beginning, and the ending. The ending happens, and unless you’d read the promotional materials, that the game was about a boy trying to find his sister, you’d have no idea what was happening. I appreciate deep themes, but there are merits to the concrete. If I knew I was looking for my sister, the puzzle rooms in the second half would make more sense. Instead, I believe I am on a fight for survival, having woken up in this strange, dead place, and if that is the case then the puzzle rooms are a transparent frustration.

Limbo is worth playing. I have no doubt about that. It is a game that will almost assuredly improve with replaying: the frustrating puzzle rooms would be minimized, and you will understand what you are doing the second time, increasing the significance of each act. However, I do not believe this, in alone, makes it a worthwhile experience. It is a good one, but it is frustrating enough in its lack of perfection to not be a great one.