Extraordinary. Thats definitely the word. I've been searching for that description throughout Limbo, through its blurred and grainy greyscales and its mind-smashing puzzles. Playdead have created something that very obviously borrows a little bit from this, and a little bit from that, but which nevertheless emerges unlike anything I've ever played before. For that reason alone it's significant.
There'll be comparisons to other games. Its quick-fire deaths and fiendish environmental obstacles bring to mind VVVVVV, but Limbo's aesthetic is diametrically opposed to that of Terry Cavanagh's quirky platformer. And at times it really can feel a lot like Braid - yet that's only because it's an artistic puzzle game dressed up as a precision platformer, but where the lack of punishment means the need for such precision is rarely more than an illusion.
You're going to play it. I'm going to trust you on that one - trust that you'll do the right thing and set it to download right now, while you're reading.
Yes, it's 1200 MS Points, and yes, you heard right, it's unlikely to last you more than four hours. But when those four hours wrapped up for me, the first thing I did was immediately start the game again. There's things in Limbo that will very likely compel you to do the same. Things we shouldn't talk about.
And seriously, heed this advice: do not let anyone tell you anything about what happens in Limbo. That's going to make this review fairly tricky, as it's standard practice to drop in a few anecdotes to illustrate your opinions and breathe life into your analysis. But no: this is a spoiler free zone. It's not that there's a giant twist to the storytelling, nor that any one scene transforms the game into something so unique. Instead, it's the steady pitter-patter of new ideas, subtle changes to the existing formula, and regular moments that will see your hand grasp your mouth - either in awe of Limbo's beauty, or in disgust at its penchant for grizzly death.
It's safe to talk about the setup, probably. Limbo opens on a dark screen, charcoal shades edging into focus. There's a crumpled heap lying on the floor, hidden deep between blankets of trees. His eyes open. He stands up. He walks to the right.
The blurb mentions the boy's sister. The game doesn't, so much. But what it absolutely excels at is presenting a visual narrative that - while abstract and interpretive - never feels forced, never feels overblown, and never fails to ignite the imagination.
So you walk from left to right, and you solve puzzles. The X button is a generic action key whose purpose changes contextually. A is jump. The analogue stick moves you around the world, and that's the only input the game requires. This is minimalist in its approach in almost every way, yet its content and concepts are more deeply rooted than those of practically every one of its peers.
It starts lightly, with a few basic environmental puzzles to ease you into the rules of the game. They ramp up - to absolutely astonishing complexity later on - but Limbo is always meticulous in its design. It constantly ensures you understand the laws of this strange land, and that its challenge arises in exploiting what you've already learned in new and creative ways.
It's also enormously stressful, but never frustrating. Many of the puzzles are essentially timed, and some are only solved by trial and error. But the furthest you'll ever be reset upon failure is about ten metres. Checkpoints are regular enough that, even if you're defeated by the same challenge ten, fifteen, even twenty times, you're always happy to get back up and push onwards.
How much it gets away with might also be down to the ethereal beauty of the world you're exploring. A game with lesser style might struggle to justify Limbo's eventual level of difficulty, but when each success is rewarded with such magnificent and varied visual splendour, you've as high a compulsion to continue as you're likely to find. The uncanny animations and convincing physics are a joy to observe. And the whole game sounds marvellous, too: clunking, chugging industrial scrapes give way to infrequent musical bursts that set the soul churning every single time.
It is, significantly, a game that begins interestingly, enjoyably, and then keeps on improving until its final seconds. It's constantly surprising, continually evolving, consistently redefining itself within the established rules of its black and white world.
It might be short, but not once was I bored. It might be difficult, but never did I turn it off in frustration. There's not a drop of colour in the whole game, yet it has more character, more style and more beauty than any of its peers. It's artful, but not in any way pretentious. It manages every aspect of its design with such minute precision, and delivers on its ideas with the utmost confidence and charisma.
Extraordinary. It's as if the word were invented for it.
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