Take one brief glance at Limbo and chances are you’re going to define it by the way it looks. That gorgeously morose world scarred with malicious shadowy figures has been the talking point during the lead up to its release.
But play it for just a few minutes and it’s clear that there is far more to this 2D platformer than simply being awkwardly attractive. Early on it is just as much the sound that makes Limbo such a dreadfully brilliant place: so much silence, punctured only by the uneasy breathing of the nameless boy (that’s you), his labored footsteps and occasionally the sickening sound of flies gathering around a small corpse or something sinister scuffling through the darkness.
It’s an atmosphere designed to numb and to pool all awareness toward death.
Because death is routine, as important to Limbo as reloading is to Halo. And yet when it comes, there’s no ceremony. No certifying sound, no restart menu, no zoom out to corpse. You’re left watching the little boy as he breaks apart or crumples in nauseating fashion. Worse still, the slight excretion of bubbles as he drowns or the sluggish flailing of limbs as he’s impaled. Gloriously appalling perhaps but such is the nature of the game that with each new possibility of death, you can’t help but flirt. The grotesque way in which the boy snaps is perversely amusing.
Perhaps surprisingly Limbo can be very funny. Playdead take grisly delight in sharing jokes but are always quick to remind how cruel they can be. You play as a child after all; his sluggish ragdoll movements are symbolic of the frailty of youth. Much is made early on of just how defenseless you are. Yet there’s no delicacy or remorse when he takes advantage of another child’s death as a means of progression. It’s a twisted survival of the fittest.
The story begins with an hour spent roaming the forests and caves of Limbo where puzzles are geared toward simplicity: avoiding pits or drowning by pulling or pushing crates most commonly. But occasionally these puzzles that make up the crux of Limbo are sidelined in favour of dramatic set pieces; moments that showcase the game at its absolute finest where the synthesis between the world of Limbo and its violent inhabitants instills some truly extraordinary moments.
The world itself may look unwelcoming but it’s the creatures inside it that embody that feeling most. Echoes of Lord of the Flies-esque evilness accompany the infrequent encounters with other children: the ills of Limbo as much human as they are the result of fantastical horrors and combined it makes for a fascinating world.
Through the second half of the game, the intrusive sight of industrial machinery and a lack of other characters deflates some of the eerie atmosphere forged earlier in the game. Both settings bleed a harrowing sense of solitude and absolute vulnerability but it’s the first half that shines.
With the puzzles spread thinly, you’re free to indulge in the world and the boy himself. Every aspect of the game is delightfully minimalist, there’s no dialogue or text, no cut-scenes or any indication as to where the narrative is leading. Playdead use the environment to tell stories in sublime fashion but never give much away regarding your purpose in Limbo other than you’re searching for your sister.
As you progress into the final levels the puzzles begin to dominate and the twisted characters and looming forests are left behind entirely. The factory is less intoxicating than the environments that came before; the candid atmosphere perfected early on cashed in for one prolonged spell that rarely feels as delicate, intimidating or captivating.
And here the incessant string of deaths verges on becoming an irritant. The challenges become those of pedantic precision, inevitably leading to moments where you’ll want to skip the opera of death that was so glorious earlier on in the game. The final levels conspire to rob Limbo of its spark but just as it’s all becoming overly frustrating the story concludes, little more than a few hours after it began, with a fittingly unceremonious climax.
But that’s Limbo: macabre as it is subtle, enthralling and delightfully twisted. Its minimalist exterior masks something grossly tangible that no amount of words or screenshots can paint quite as effectively as a few moments spent in its murky purgatory.