On paper, Limbo (XBLA) sounds like a fairly ordinary puzzle platformer. You move from left to right, overcoming environmental obstacles in order to progress through the level. You've got just three simple three controls at your disposal: you can move, you can jump, and you can interact with the environment to do things like climb ropes, drag boxes, or flip switches. You've probably played a couple of dozen games that could be described the exact same way, but none of them are quite like Limbo, which manages to take dark imagery and present it in such a way to be endearingly horrifying. It is cuddly without being cute, lethal and yet still loveable.
Your motivation for traveling through Limbo's dark and foreboding landscape is to discover the fate of your sister, a question you hope will be answered at the end of your journey. Many enemies and traps lie between you and your goal, so you'll need to jump and think your way to success. It's a very familiar premise, a fact the game uses against you to defy your expectations and surprise you. You think you know what's coming, because you've played 2d platformers before, but you'll quickly find that Limbo's particularly good at using your very expectations against you. By twisting familiar platform conventions - just because you're presented with a switch that doesn't mean you should necessarily throw it right away - it forces you to carefully consider your next move before charging ahead. Nothing is safe, nothing is as it appears, and everything is trying to kill you. Water, spikes, bear traps, rolling tires, pits, electricity - it seems like every few steps lead to a new way to die. And yet, at the same time, Limbo is extremely fair. Yes, it's doing its very best to trick you, but each puzzle is also a discreet chapter of the game, so that you never have to backtrack or reconquer levels just to get back to where you died. You will die regularly and frequently in Limbo, and yet never feel too frustrated.
Once you accept the fact that you're going to be croaking every few seconds, you being to appreciate how clever Limbo's puzzles are. Everything you'll need to solve them is right in front of you, and while sometimes getting through them relies on precision timing, for the most part it's all about putting your brain to work, figuring out how to use your few abilities with the objects at hand to get past the obstacle and move on. They start off relatively simple, then build on the skills you acquire to become more complex and devious, so that by the time you're well into the game, they're multilayered, intricate conundrums that require far more than just a nimble thumb to navigate. You can actually feel yourself getting smarter as you play, and finally making it past a puzzle that's been stumping you for a while - or, better yet, finding one of the many hidden easter eggs - makes you feel like an absolute genius.
Limbo's graphics are as simplistic as its control scheme, yet create a stunningly deep and atmospheric world for you to explore. Delicate and subtle, the game's visuals are more about suggestion than definition, letting you fill in the blanks with your own imagination. Stark and lovely, it's also very unsettling at time, like the most beautiful nightmare you've ever experienced. You are, after all, playing as a child, and seeing your body torn to shreds or floating listlessly as you drown can be extremely uncomfortable and you will squirm more than once as you make your way past the many other tiny corpses Limbo uses to dot its unfriendly landscape. Eventually, it all becomes oddly charming and even quite funny, but it always feels just that little bit off.
Limbo pulls off the nearly unthinkable by taking a well-worn genre as the 2d puzzle platformer and turning it into something surprising and fresh. Equal parts brains and beauty, it boasts both cleverly constructed challenges and a gorgeously distinctive look. Despite the fact that it commits two sins that many players find hard to forgive - it's not terribly long and is lacking in replay once you know exactly what to do - it's still an incredibly satisfying experience.
Bottom Line: Limbo is genius. Freaky, weird genius. Disturbing, uncomfortable genius.
Recommendation: Everyone who owns an Xbox 360 should play this game. $15 may seem like a bit much for a downloadable game, but Limbo is worth every last penny.
Developer: PlayDead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studio
Release Date: July 21, 2010
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Available from: Xbox Live
Susan Arendt is ok with Limbo's spiders, but those brain slugs freak her right out.