Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Limbo (PC) - a review

Most modern games are insubstantial shit. Take sand-box adventures for instance. Fun for all of a few seconds until you recognise playing pool is way more fun with real people, in a real bar, with real beer. Meaningless side-games only exist to detract from the fact that mindlessly running over people in stolen vehicles is dull and tedious in the long-term. The Sims; fun for about a nano-second until you realise that earning real money, buying your own house and kitting it out with your own stuff is way more fun. Modern Warfare; amazing graphics that simply mask the bland, tedious level design suggesting most gamers are idiots that would somehow prefer style over substance. Oh!

I could go on.

Of course, I say most modern games. There is the odd occasion where a title sneaks out thinking it is still sometime between 1984 and 1998 and that words like 'challenging', 'unique' and 'tough as mittens' remain in common gaming parlance. So, if Portal 2 is the Head Over Heels of the modern age that would make Danish developers Playdead's latest title 'Limbo' the natural successor to Delphine Software's rather spectacular (at the time) Another World. Well, kind of the same, just more macabre, less colourful and with a silhouetted protagonist that you kind of end up caring for rather than a goofy, ginger-haired scientist tossbag.

Another Modern Warfare campaigner throws in the towel...

Limbo's plot is quite simple: small boy wakes up in a somewhat haunting and bleak forest with his sister missing. He has to find her whilst navigating a surreal monochrome landscape and the deadly, brutal traps lurking within its dark underbelly. That's pretty much it. Playing very much like a horizontal scrolling platform adventure, Limbo's roots are aligned with old school retro-gaming conventions. Instant deaths and immaculate timing are routine and hark back to bastard hard single-life Spectrum games like Treasure Island Dizzy. Yet the touch of the modern ensures it's not insanely frustrating as was the case with games of yonder. The puzzles have been logically and lovingly crafted with the difficulty level spot on, meaning that even the short attention spans of most modern gamers will revel in the challenge (instead of immediately searching for an online walkthrough).

The mechanics behind the instant deaths, for example, are actually a quirky design necessity, rather than an infuriating bollock ache, to aid the player in game progression. So, stepping on an unseen pressure pad usually ends with the protagonist getting squashed into mangled little pieces. You've now learned not to tread on said pressure pad again. When confronted with blow-dart wielding humanoid figures further on, back-tracking and leaping across the pressure pads leads to their mucky end instead. Simples! Likewise, the punishment for making a simple error in judgement when leaping over a circular saw is much more restrained than in the pixel perfect days of Dizzy. After the protagonist's body is mangled and shredded in an impeccable display of quality gore, you are simply returned to the beginning of that puzzle to try again. Dizzy would have required you to begin all over...

Jump you fool, jump!

Added to these design mechanics is the games unique style. This, if anything, is what makes Limbo a highly memorable gaming experience. It's not just a game; Limbo is art! The visuals are utterly compelling in both conveying the surreal dream-like quality of the nightmarish environment and, in the absence of a more elongated plot, generating the emotional high-points that make you care for the little boys plight. The lack of colour, the foregrounds in shadow tempered by the greys and whites of the parallax scrolling backgrounds, ensures the hazy macabre reality is an unsettling, yet awe-inspiring experience for the eyes. As soon as the protagonist wakes and begins his journey, you're thrown into a feverish night-terror straight out of a graphic novel. The accompanying silence and minimal sound throughout simply enhances this atmosphere. As do the few segments of lively action that take on a film like quality, especially the sequences involving a giant fecking spider. Running away from that behemoth, whilst applying pin-point timing to every leap, certainly makes for a welcome change of pace to the more plodding puzzling aspects of Limbo.

Fucking spiders!

 Then there's the little boy; a shadowy, silent silhouette with two piercing bright eyes who is animated superbly to convince this is just a little boy. It's simply remarkable that such a diminutive avatar can create the much needed pathos the longevity of the game relies upon. Of course the range of deaths in store and the discombobulation of his body parts at these junctures kind of helps. Every time he is impaled on sharp spikes, falls long distances before breaking his neck (or legs, depending on which way up he lands), carved into little pieces by circular saws or mashed against the ceiling by hydraulics is one more time you regret your latest action. After all, this is a lost little boy, in a nightmare world, looking to find a way out, whom you've just killed because of your complete ineptitude. The lack of a driving plot may irk some, but the conditioning Limbo works on the player to see the little boy through to sanctuary at the end of the game (his forlorn, piercing eyes are incredibly affecting) is a compelling driving force throughout. Indeed, Limbo works, in many ways, due to the care and attention afforded to its style, which ultimately complements the substance. Just looking at the game has much reward!

Sure, there are complaints. Gradually, the oppressive forest environment is replaced by a detritus strewn, lifeless industrialised shitscape - Limbo starts to lose its way around this point. The puzzles seem less enjoyable and limp without gigantic spiders, brain slugs and shadowy humanoid figures perpetuating the lurking danger. The static puzzles that seemingly frequent the last third just seem like more of a chore. And once you do reach the end the ambivalent finale is likely to leave some gamers with an unsatisfied taste in the mouth (although for my money the symmetry and minimalist explanation of the conclusion makes Limbo wonderfully thought-provoking, not underwhelming).

The calm before the storm.

It's also a relatively short game and should only take four to five hours for most competent gamers to complete, which brings into question longevity. Although for seven quid you can't really complain. Like Portal beforehand, the length of the game is moot when taking into consideration the unique appeal that Limbo provides. In a medium of never-ending first person shooters, Limbo is a refreshing change to the norm. In addition, there is one Steam achievement (complete the game losing only five lives throughout) which is an old school hardcore gaming convention. This certainly adds further scope for play, it's just a shame that Playdead did not think to include this in Limbo from the outset - that would really have sorted the men from the muppets.

But these are fairly inconsequential points. Limbo remains a highly impressive title and certainly much more than you would expect from an independent developer. Its artistry is beautiful despite the depressing bleakness. The puzzles are challenging and superbly crafted without the unnecessary frustration. The simple 2-D platforms are retro enough to give older gamers a refreshing tingle, yet it's world away from Mario. Witness the traps that are of the skull-fucking until you're mashed to a pulp variety. Vastly different to dodging Goombas and getting smashed on mushrooms. Limbo is, therefore, the perfect blend of old and new; perhaps that's why it plays so damn well!

Overall - Probably one of the best games of 2011. A beautiful nightmare and a real treat for retro and modern gamers alike.

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