This review contains mild spoilers for puzzles in Limbo.
Limbo was the first game released by the developer Playdead, making its initial appearance on Xbox Live Arcade in 2010. Almost six years later, and it is lauded as an indie classic, still popular among gamers today – proven by the fact that I was able to play it on PS4.
The plot of the game is minimal, to say the least. The only summary Playdead will provide for the game is: “Unsure of his sister’s fate, a boy enters the unknown”.
The player controls the unnamed boy, guiding him through a dangerous monochrome world. The total ambiguity of your goal and surroundings makes the journey creepy and confusing, constantly chasing after some kind of answer which ultimately evades you.
Instantly, the first thing you notice about the game is that it’s not a typical 2D platformer. The game throws you into an unavoidable death right from the start, setting the tone for the rest of the playthrough. Playdead themselves called it a “trial and death” playstyle, meaning sometimes you genuinely cannot avoid dying. Whether it’s a hidden bear trap or an unexpected fall, each time it happens you’re treated to a death scene which drags on for far too long, teaching you not to make the same mistake again.
I’d wager that I died somewhere around 100 times, probably more. Each time made me uncomfortable, but the drowning scenes were probably the worst. You’re forced to watch the boy slowly drift downwards, as the light in his eyes dims to nothing.
However, the amount of times I died is a testament to the puzzle side of this platformer, which is its strongest suit. There are some time-based puzzles, and quite a few towards the end which involve numerous anti-gravity switches and crates, making for some difficult manoeuvring.
The black and white surroundings create puzzles themselves. Moveable objects often blend in with the background, and at one point the game leaves you almost completely in the dark, struggling to find your way out. I spent entirely too long trying to figure out how to cross an expanse of water, dying endlessly, only to eventually realise that there was a raft literally right in front of me; I just couldn’t see it.
The puzzles are sometimes as gruesome as the deaths. You’re forced to rip limbs off of several bugs – at one point later rolling a huge disembodied spider torso – and use floating bodies as rafts. Worm-like, mind-controlling parasites will also take to burrowing into your skull and forcing you to walk in a certain direction, and the only way to get rid of one is to have it eaten out of your head.
The noises that accompany these gory acts are often worse than the imagery. The squelch of a parasite being pulled out of the boy’s head was enough to make me cringe, and the sound of flies swarming around a dead body was sickening.
There are three distinguishable acts to this story: a forest act which largely utilises vines and bear traps; something I would call a transitionary act, which includes both wildlife and man-made structures; and a machinery act which seems to take place in a factory setting.
The so-called transitionary act contains other humans, who seem to live in settlements around the area and have set up various deadly traps. Their main goal is to stop you from progressing, though it is never shown why that’s the case.
There is a questionable moment wherein a scene from earlier in which you had to face a giant spider is recreated, except this time the spider is mechanical and operated by a human. I have a strong feeling that this scene was supposed to have deeper meaning, along with certain other scenes, but of course nothing is ever elaborated upon.
Another notable aspect of this game is that every time you get close to a human, they run away from you – with the exception of a Lord of the Flies-type group of boys, whom you are forced to kill. This may suggest that the humans are actually afraid of you, and has fuelled many fan theories.
The ending is as ambiguous as the rest of the game; something that’s very much open to theories and discussion. Sometimes this kind of treatment in games has left me feeling unfulfilled, but from the start Limbo made no indication that it would ever explain anything to the player, so in this case I simply accepted it and enjoyed reading fan theories and coming up with my own conclusions.
However, if you are looking for a game with a clear story, Limbo is definitely something to steer clear of, as the majority of its worth comes from the gameplay.
Limbo is sadistic and unapologetically gory, its black and white scenery and dark themes often comparable to film noir. Its puzzles are fun and engaging, though often horribly frustrating, and its sound effects and lingering death scenes are just the right amount of unsettling.
Altogether, Limbo is an amazing and challenging indie game, well-deserving of its status as a modern classic. However, it is part of a genre which is not for everybody, and you have to decide if you’re okay with gratuitous gore and minimal, open-ended plot before purchasing it.
I definitely enjoyed it. I finished the game in two sittings, and I’ll be going back to it in the future in a probably futile attempt to earn the tauntingly titled “No Point in Dying” trophy (complete the game in one sitting with five or less deaths).