Review: Limbo (Xbox Live Arcade)

I've tried to keep some distance from the debate over whether games can be -- or currently are -- art. It's my belief that art is in the eye of the beholder, so who cares if a few critics (including some critics of another medium entirely) disagree? I've had experiences with games that have been as thought-provoking and moving as some of the best movies, books, paintings, songs, and so on.

But if you're not content to sit by the sidelines and just let Roger Ebert trash-talk games, you'll find some strong ammunition for your viewpoint in Limbo, Playdead's debut Xbox Live Arcade title and the first game out the door in this year's Summer of Arcade series. With its bold, almost suffocating art style, excellent use of sound and subtle yet significant method of storytelling, Limbo is a thoroughly inspired concept that couldn't be realized in any other medium.

From the moment I began playing Limbo, all my notions that I'd cobbled together from a few screenshots and brief descriptions about what the game might be were dismissed outright. There isn't any text telling a story here; this is visually driven narration, and it's striking just how powerful it is.

Utilizing a monochromatic color palette and a fuzzy, limited depth of field, Limbo's world manages to come alive in some unexpected ways. Animations are fluid and expressive, particularly in the case of the silhouetted boy, your protagonist, which is surprising when you consider that his expression is limited to the fluid swinging of his limbs as he runs and the constant stare of his two glowing, blank eyes.

The environment is brought to life through a strong combination of small but significant ambient animations, such as kicking up dust in your wake or small clumps of dirt falling as you scale a cliff, and the minimalist sound work. The result is a world that gives the illusion of just barely concealing untold horrors at the corners of your eyes. It's a harrowing, unsettling feeling, and it's executed flawlessly.

While Limbo does have a premise, it's intentionally succinct: your sister has gone missing and you have entered Limbo to save her. I wouldn't have expected a straightforward platformer without a single written or spoken word of exposition to have a plot, but I was impressed to see that there absolutely is one. Things will happen to the player, and things will happen around the player, and the way that Limbo uses these events to both add variety and depth to the play experience and to shape the narrative in some bold and poignant ways in the player's mind is admirable.

I think it's only fair to say that Limbo is a beautiful, artistic experience. But Limbo is a game, too, and while its design and execution are consistently good, the puzzle-based platforming gameplay doesn't remain as fresh or inspired from start to finish as the world the game is bringing to life. This becomes particularly noticeable at around the halfway point, where the concepts that made the first portion of the game fresh and exciting are reintroduced without perhaps as much variation or innovation as they might have demanded. As a result, by the time the credits roll, you'll probably find that your eagerness to see the conclusion is much stronger than your desire to complete yet another physics-based box puzzle.

If you're like me, a game with ambitious ideas and strong presentation means a lot more than a fully-developed, highly polished core game. In that case, you're going to really enjoy Limbo. But puzzle-platformer enthusiasts who were hoping for a game with the escalating difficulty and depth of Braid might find themselves disappointed with the relatively short adventure and flat challenge of Limbo. But if you're on the fence, you might as well take the leap; you never know what you'll find on the other side.

Limbo was developed by Playdead and is available on Xbox Live Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15). Game was played to completion over approximately four hours, and another two hours were spent going back to find the secret locations, resulting in a final completion rating of 99%.

Recommended for

  • Aesthetes with an eye for artistic games
  • Anyone who appreciates rich, moody, beautiful environments
  • Video game enthusiasts who value games that tap into a player's thoughts and emotions

Not Recommended for

  • Budget-conscious consumers concerned with getting the most playtime for their money; Limbo will probably only take the average player about four hours to finish
  • Anyone who thinks the sort of people in the "Recommended" section sound like a bunch of pretentious jerks

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