Last year, Lucasarts released Lucidity, a DLC puzzler/platformer with an engaging visual style evocative of the works of Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman. Despite its ambitious artistic approach, though, frustrating and repetitive gameplay ultimately kept it from reaching the potential its presentation hinted at. Now we have LIMBO, another downloadable entry, mixing puzzling and platforming with similarly inspired visuals; it too toys with Burton and Gaiman aesthetics—at least their darker stuff—and even tosses in more macabre, Stephen King-like style. But that's where the similarities betweenLIMBO and Lucidity end, as the former delivers gameplay depth to match its haunting surface beauty.
No doubt its graphics will draw you in first; stark black and whites—and varying shades in between—paint a foreboding landscape of forests, cites and industrial interiors. You take the role of a young boy, presented as a dark silhouette, save for his glowing eye sockets, who side-scrolls through a series of increasingly dangerous puzzles. Bear traps, buzz saws, Gatling guns, bottomless pits, and deadly spiders stand in his way. He can also drown in pools of water, have heavy items fall on his head, and be bowled over by giant boulders.
All means of destruction are supported by the same simple, yet effective visuals—contrasts of black and white. A menacing black saw blade, for example, may speed out of the bleak shadows as white sparks dance on its serrated edge. Or, what initially seems to be a black twig will slowly move, revealing itself as the leg of a deadly creature silhouetted against a white background. It's a minimalist approach, but the effective simplicity grants it the ability to take up residence in your imagination long after you've completed the game. I finished LIMBO two nights ago, and am still pondering its nightmare-inducing visuals.
Of course, it's not just the use of a monochromatic color palette that makes LIMBO so delightfully disturbing. It's how the young protagonist reacts to this black-and-white world that will simultaneously rattle your brain, spine, and even funny bone (if you have a dark sense of humor.) You see, when the boy meets his maker by way of one of these twisted contraptions, LIMBO pushes the boundaries of its Teen rating. If you thought spurting red blood was required to make a game gory or violent, think again; LIMBO's decidedly unique deaths are some of the most graphic I've witnessed in a game, and they're only made worse by the innocence of the character being taken by the relentless reaper.
The first time the boy, who would look right at home skipping to grade school, was gutted by a bear trap, I jumped. The toothy device tore through his body and sent his head rolling away in a fashion usually reserved for an M-rated horror game. The gruesome kill genuinely caught me by surprise, and ratcheted my tension level to 11 for the remainder of the game. I won't spoil all the creative ways in which this young hero is killed, but all methods are brutal, often unexpected, leaving him crushed, dismembered, limp, or tossed like a rag doll.
Complementing LIMBO’s creepy style and surprising gore is a nonstop trial of inventive puzzles. They all involve figuring out how to pass an obstacle—or series of them—to further your progress. You'll push boxes, pull levers, and make many leaps of faith. You'll also play with physics a lot; many puzzles take the weight and speed of objects into account, and some even use magnets and gravity-defying tricks. Most of the puzzling is well-paced and challenging, requiring plenty of thought, but revealing their solutions before becoming too frustrating. They're not easy, especially later in the game. So, if you're not the type to devote up to 15 minutes of brain power to a single puzzle, LIMBO may not be your game.
I'm actually not that type, myself; a few tries and five minutes is usually enough to try my patience. However, the engrossing style and what's-gonna-happen-next pace drove me to keep at LIMBO longer than I would most games in the genre. It helps that you're treated to a tremendous sense of accomplishment whenever you finally solve a brain-bender, whetting your appetite for another challenge. That said, there were exactly two puzzles that really pissed me off, ultimately sending me to GameFAQs desperate for help. One in particular, late in the game and involving a crate and gravity switch, will no question melt many minds and give way to expletive-filled rants.
In addition to the few puzzles that sent the needle on my internal entertainment meter past “fun” and into “frustrated” territory, LIMBO's story also mildly disappointed me. Unless you read the description when you download the game, you won't know the boy is searching for his sister. The ending is also painfully abrupt. Many will argue this complements the rest of the experience with its intentionally moody presentation and minimalist style, but I disagree. Braid delivered similarly engaging gameplay and a narrative that tied it altogether without losing any of its artistic credibility, so why can't LIMBO?
This is admittedly a tiny flaw for a game like this, and mostly is a result of me feeling the need to call it out on something that so many other critics have either glossed over, forgiven, or made excuses for. Still, if you're into this genre then LIMBO is a must-play, whose brilliantly paced puzzling is only mirrored by one of the coolest visual presentations I've seen in quite some time. If you're looking for a game that will stick with you—and maybe even pop up in your nightmares— LIMBO is waiting to consume you.