Limbo Review: Stuck Between Heaven And Hell

The word limbo conjures up very specific things in my mind. I was, at one point, Catholic and as a Catholic youngster, I ended up going to catechism. Catechism is a kind of class where they teach you about the Church, Jesus and the Saints. One of the topics we learned about [though it’s not totally official Church canon] is the theory of limbo.

To briefly summarize: limbo is a place between Heaven and Hell and you go there when, for example, you can’t get baptised at birth.

Limbo is understood to be featureless – an endless black plain that stretches on forever in all directions – a place where you would neither feel the warmth of Hell or the peace of Heaven. You would effectively remain in this state until Jesus freed you.

And this, more-or-less is exactly what you get when you boot up Limbo. Everything is black and white with no colour to speak of. The music is foreboding – a generalized hum of minor keys with occasional bursts of machinery throughout.

To be sure, Limbo is very effective at conveying it’s tone, which is writ large across the three or so hours you might be playing it. It starts off fairly unassuming – essentially seeming like a very dark Mario game, but by the end of the first half, your protagonist has suffered many brutal deaths at the hands of either other people trapped in Limbo, like he is, or various machines and other naturally occurring obstacles that litter the landscape.

In Limbo, travel toward your destination can take many forms.  Most often, you'll be using your own legs, but occasionally you ride boats and the like.
I’m on a boat!

I mentioned Mario, and, really, Limbo’s ancestry can be traced right back to that game. Yes, you have to jump, no, it’s not – generally – the sort of frantic jumping a Mario game might force upon you. See, in the world of Limbo, there are obstacles – perhaps you need to get past a lake that’s too wide for you to jump, but there’s a boat that you can ride – in order for you to get into that boat, you might have to drag it a little – to the water’s edge – and then hop in and go for a ride.

Limbo’s puzzles start off fairly simple – do x to get to spot y, but by the end of the game, they’re quite intricate and involve a great amount of observation. Ordinarily, that’s all you need: careful study of the situation that you’re in to figure out what you need to do, but on occasion, you are somewhat reliant on dumb luck to get you through the section you’re currently in. [One particular puzzle involving gravity is /very/ much a case of this: it’s not totally obvious what you need to do until you’ve given it a bit of thought.]

Traps in the world of Limbo come in many shapes and many sizes.  You might get away from a rat-like trap that slams shut only to stumble into a hole filled with spikes.
That doesn’t look safe at all.

This mirrors the feel of the game – as you travel along the developers have laid out for you, you will find that the tension ratchets up by a notch with each new area you explore. Music – largely absent from the beginning of the game – begins working it’s way into the background noises, the tone – if at all possible – becomes darker, more mechanical, less natural. And the traps that are strewn about the landscape start becoming ever more fiendish.

To this end, Limbo is a fantastic game – In 2012, when I first encountered it, it was game of the year for me, mostly because it’s atmosphere, but also just because of the very minimalist story it is trying to tell. Though, with this game, much like with the doctrine of Limbo, there are no “true answers.” Everything is speculation. Why is there a Hotel sign in the middle of nowhere just littering the landscape? Who are the other children that are so hell-bent on killing you? Why is there a giant spider running after you? [And just so you’re aware: I’m not spoiling anything; these are questions you might be asking yourself after looking at the back of the box.]

Limbo is short, but very visceral. While you’re playing it, you’re right there, in that moment, trying to solve that puzzle along with the protagonist. When you’re not playing it, you’re probably thinking about it, trying to consider the way through the current puzzle you’re having trouble with – and even after the game’s done, it’ll stay with you for a long time – even if you don’t remember the exact puzzle sequences, you will always remember quite specific moments in the game, because they are presented in a way that makes them memorable. This, in 2012, was what made me make the claim to friends that it was game of the year. You had to play it, man! It was awesome!

If Limbo has one problem, it is the controls. Naturally, because this is a puzzle-platformer, this is a bit of a bugbear, but hear me out: For a lot of the game, you can get by with the protagonist having a slightly floaty jump – he doesn’t always respond in exactly the way you’re going to want him to when you’re doing precision jumping – but in the early sections of the game, this is OK. Many of the puzzles have just the right amount of slack built into them that it’s not a big deal, but the further along you go, the more this becomes problematic.

Not everything in Limbo is outright hostile.  This bug just wants to eat in peace and won't hurt you at all.
Maybe we can be friends. If I approach /very/ slowly?

There are sequences where you have to string a very specific number of jumps together at a very specific moment, and when the protagonist’s response time is a little left-of-centre, it means sometimes having to retrace your footsteps over and over and over again until you get the timing right. Fortunately, Limbo is fairly generous with save points. While there is only one save file, often, if you die, the game doesn’t expect you to do too much work to get back to where you were. [Occasionally, of course, these spots are a little weird and you’ll have to do a bit more work, but it’s never particularly onerous.]

So, can I recommend it? Oh yes, indeed, even with the slightly floaty controls, Limbo is the kind of game that will give you a whole lot of food for thought as you’re playing it, and years after, I’m still not sure entirely what it was that I saw at the end. Limbo is gift that way: while it is quite grisly, it is also very thought provoking – and this is something I wish more games did.