If Limbo were a film, you'd imagine it'd be the sort that would have to be premièred at some sort of exclusive "Arts" festival. A man with an elaborately trimmed goatee, a curly moustache, unkempt hair, a slanted beret, and the dress sense of Laurence Llewelyn Bowen, would take to the stage, and simper on and on, whilst fighting back tears, about how moving he hopes you'll find the "experience" that he's lovingly created.
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What we're trying to get over here is that, unfortunately, Limbo often feels like it's a lot more style than substance. So much effort has been spent in creating a game that looks distinctive, that it's like the developers have forgotten the basic rules of games design. Either that, or they've decided they know better.
The story of Limbo is that... well, there isn't one, really. Upon starting the game, you're not told anything, at all - you're simply thrust into a monochrome forest, filled with disturbingly dim lighting, and the most terrifying silhouette arachnid you've ever seen. What follows is a platform game that flits between presenting you with incredibly intelligently designed puzzles - the sort that make you feel like applying for Mensa as soon as you've figured them out - to the most frustrating, awkward, and downright daft challenges you've ever faced.
In fact, we told a minor lie earlier in the review - there is a story to Limbo, it's just that it doesn't bother to tell you it. The strap on the marketplace - and, in fact, the only way you'll actually get to know what's going on simply states that "Uncertain of his sister's fate, a boy enters LIMBO". And that's all you have to go on. It's designed to suck you into the world, and let you answer the questions for yourself - but the problem is, it hasn't been thought through. With no explanation of the controls in the levels themselves (would it have been that hard to put a sign with the B button on it, next to something you have to pull?), one of the first things you'll find yourself doing upon starting the game is pausing it, to check the controls, instantly jerking you out of the nightmare the developers worked so hard to create.
The world of Limbo is designed to be unnerving, and it's not a game that's suitable for children - a fact reflected by the PEGI 18 rating. The darkness deliberately makes it difficult to pick out objects, and figure out what's what amongst the eternal gloom. Many traps await you in the forest, from bear traps, which hide amongst the blades of grass, to various other chainsaws, and lakes, in which your young child, stereotypically, can't swim.
You progress by making your way through the forest, solving the many puzzles you come across. And, for the most part, these puzzles work incredibly well. Often physics based, you're required to think about things logically, as you work out you need to start a rope swinging before you press a switch, or rely on another object's momentum to complete a puzzle. At times, you have plenty of time to think things through, but Limbo's at its best when it requires you to think on your feet, or plan ahead - triggering a trap starts a giant boulder running down the hill, and it's up to you to figure out how to dodge it. You've often got to think fast, and its when the game pits you, your mind, and your reactions against the unknown that it feels genuinely rewarding.
And this is all fine - at times, Limbo can feel incredibly inventive. Its just that then, a few seconds later, the game metaphorically slaps you in the face with ridiculous design decisions. Such as the bear traps, which blend in far too much with the grass, and require pixel perfect accuracy to leap over them without accidentally clipping them with your foot, and setting them off. The only point in making them so hard to leap is to make you die, and die often - and that frustration will be enough to put many people off. Not only that, but the deaths are over the top with gore, and manage to make your stomach churn, despite being entirely in black and white. Luckily, the game has a feature to disable the extreme content, but the gore really isn't even necessary to begin with.
But far worse are many of the later puzzles, which require you to die in order just to progress. There's no logic to these, and there's no sense - you just have to use your character as a human guinea pig, running through the puzzle, triggering all the traps before you can work out what you've not got to do, in order to survive it. Case in point is a puzzle which has two identical blocks, hanging above two identically troughs, with switches in the middle. On the first, you enter the trough, and leap over the switch, and the block doesn't flatten your player - but on the second, its touching the troughs that releases the weight, and you're turned into a small mushy pile of black goo. As far as we can see, there's no way to see it coming, so a game that at times has shown it can be intelligent instead gets turned into a complete idiot - with no way to see what may be about to happen, what was an intelligent game turns into a simple game of trial and error, that rarely taxes the brain, and instead just frustrates.
It's almost like the developers ran out of time designing the game, and rather than thinking the last few puzzles through, decided to instead end the game with an hour of puzzles that are either intentionally unsolvable without dying several times, or that can only be solved through pure trial and error. It's a shame, because the first hour or two of the game is an enticing prospect, that very nearly lives up to the lofty ideals the developer obviously set.
In the end, Limbo is let down by itself. The 1200 (£10.32~) price tag, for four hours of gameplay (more like five or six if you get stuck) is too expensive, especially with so many alternatives out there. If you want monochrome puzzles, try the Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom instead - yes, you won't get the same atmosphere, but it's every bit as intelligent, without the frustration.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360