Limbo released on Xbox Live Arcade in July 2010 to critical acclaim, later being ported to future systems. Its main draw is being a black and white 2D side-scroller, with a physics system for the player character and environmental objects.
Danger Of The Unknown
With that said, there are numerous problems I discovered that hold this artistic piece back from being truly great (in my opinion). The 1st problem can be summarized by this quote from the game’s Wikipedia article: “The developer built the game’s puzzles expecting the player to fail before finding the correct solution.” This means no matter how skilled you may be, you are practically guaranteed to die every time you encounter a new hazard. This is because the danger is hidden, and you only realise it when it’s too late. Afterwards this is fine, as you can strategize on how to get past it. However, I’d argue this slows the pace of the gameplay more than it should. Plenty of puzzle games give the player a slim chance of solving a puzzle for the first time. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been smart enough to do this. But the point still stands.
What’s This, More Complaining?
The 2nd issue is you control a frail young boy, who can only do a small hop or interact with an object. As a result, he’s the weakest character I know of in gaming history! As soon as his head’s underwater, he dies instantly. If a box slowly slides into him, he can also die. And if he falls from a height that shouldn’t kill him; you guessed it, he dies. Not to mention his casual jog, despite his situation, often results in his downfall. Again I see what they were going for. Children in real life have feeble bodies and have little to no control over their surroundings. That’s why they rely on adults to protect them. Maybe the sequel could have us playing as a more competent, grown-up version of the boy that isn’t completely helpless. Of course, this would mean creating puzzles that would still challenge the player, all while they are controlling a stronger character.
It’s Rather Puzzling
Despite my criticisms, Limbo was praised by critics and fans for its physics. Some of the puzzles expect you to be a Physics Major, while others don’t seem to make sense. For e.g. near the end of the game, there are 2 blocks that are controlled with a magnet switch. When the switch is pressed, the left block will either move up or down. Meanwhile, the right block stays in place. However, if you keep pressing the switch, eventually the right block will eventually move as well. If anyone can explain this phenomenon to me, I would greatly appreciate it. Another complex puzzle requires you to transport a box onto the top of a ledge. When you hit a switch, the background suddenly opens up. What I thought was part of the background, was actually a hidden door!
Again on Limbo‘s Wikipedia page, they describe developers Playdead‘s process: “From their initial pool of about 150 playtesters, several would have no idea of how to solve certain puzzles. To improve this, they created scenarios before troublesome spots that highlighted the appropriate actions”. I am someone who plays lots of puzzle games. However, I am ashamed to admit I had to Google some of these solutions. That’s because I wouldn’t have been able to solve them in a million years!
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
While I have been very negative about Limbo, I know it is a high-quality game. These are just the imperfections I found when playing, which does not detract from an otherwise stellar experience. The hand-drawn fluid animations are pretty to look at, like a black and white painting that has come to life. Most things in the foreground are completely inked in black (except the boy’s eerie glowing eyes). The background meanwhile is mostly grey, with faded black objects visible in the distance. Every puzzle packed into the adventure is radically different too, so the same tricks the player used before will not work. I’m always enticed when a game tests the player’s mind, not just their reaction time and skill.
Some Limbo walkthroughs on YouTube show it can be completed in less than an hour. But this isn’t always a bad thing. To the developer’s credit, every part of Limbo feels unique. They don’t retread familiar ground like most games do, to pad out the playtime. Playdead knows that having a short fun experience is much better than a long mundane one. And of course, it will take a 1st-time player at least a few hours to finish Limbo.