Limbo

Originally released alongside Hydro Thunder Hurricane in 2010’s “-Insert hemispheric appropriate season- of Arcade”, Limbo would escape the bounds of Xbox Live Arcade and go on to become a darling of the indie gaming world, collecting accolades and praise, from critics and gamers alike, on every platform it was released on. But in an unusual twist, Limbo is set to become unavailable on a platform for the first time, as macOS will cut support for 32-bit applications when new update drops next month. On the eve of this gaming purgatory, let us look back on Limbo.

I would’ve bought Limbo sometime during a Steam sale, maybe, it could’ve been a Humble Bundle. I found it in my GOG library but sometimes those validate over from Steam. I remember when it came out there was a lot of fuss and it was pushed by my indie post-rock listening, hipster friends. I told them I would play it, one day. But as we all know life rolls on, friends come and go, computer hardware dies, and the backlog grows ever larger. Limbo sat in my applications folder, downloaded but unopened, in a limbo of its own. But the looming Mac Appocalypse gave me some impetuous to play it before I lost the chance.

I sat down on a Friday evening and started a game. At 1am I found myself stuck, my brain too tired to continue. After sleeping, it only took another 20 minutes to finish the following morning. I sat back and reflected. I got up and made myself breakfast. I found Limbo satisfying, but would others?

You’re a boy and you wake up in a forest, the edge of hell. You’re trying to find your sister. Apparently. The game is intentionally minimal in all aspects, including the storytelling. The fact the girl is your sister is only revealed in ancillary promotional material for Limbo. If you play blind, she’s just a figure in the distance, that isn’t hostile, that you follow briefly.

Limbo is captivating.

As the boy goes deeper into Limbo the forest gives way to an urban setting. Bear traps and falling logs give way to saw blades and mechanical cogs. If the game was trying to say something about technological progress, human development, it’s subtle about it. Interpretations that increased industrialisation furthers our descent into hell, or efforts to tame the wilderness fail to reduce mortal danger are left up to the player. Ultimately it doesn’t matter.

The sound design is oppressive. Limbo’s sound effects tend to be sharp and metallic. They pierce a soundtrack that oscillates between white noise, silence, and an ambient hum. All this combines to add to an atmosphere of dread, where tension builds until any inevitable shattering of the soundscape brings the threat of death.

And you will die, a lot. Learning by death seems to be the gameplay ethos of Limbo. It never feels too cruel or cheap though because the consequences for dying are minimal, with you restarting almost immediately before encountering the event. On this second approach, you’ll likely notice the warning signs that you missed the first time, lessening any sense of unfairness you may have. As you delve deeper into the game a pattern emerges, your destination is made clear, but clearing the obstacle or setting up the path involves instigating a dangerous situation.

Limbo is an exceptional accomplishment. Arnt Jensen and the team at Playdead had a vision and executed it perfectly. The game is perfectly paced. It’s puzzles and platforming challenges increase at a gentle gradient and strike the right balance between ingenuity and skill to beat. The minimalist aesthetic, from the desaturated colour pallet, to the sound design, the narrative, and even the gameplay elements, ensures Limbo never overextends itself into something it is not, or cannot do.

Can I recommend Limbo though? It’s hard to say. Even this review has sat unedited and unfinished for months now. For all its perfect execution, the game remains an unsettling experience – it’s not unpleasant, but it isn’t pleasant either. There is a cold viciousness to Limbo’s presentation, you will not feel welcome or relaxed, and many players found the ending unsatisfying. If you’re some sort of snobby, art-house minimalist like me, you’ll appreciate the experience, but a perfectly reasonable person might find far more enjoyable ways to spend an evening.

Limbo is available on Xbox 360, PS3, Windows, MacOS (for now), iOS, Vita, Xbox One, Android, Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch. I played it on my ancient Macbook Air and did not track my play stats.

It is not a sequel to Limbo of the Lost.

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