Happily getting stuck in Limbo

Limbo is a unique take on the 2D scrolling platform game, where the player must solve puzzles and outsmart terrifying enemies to survive.

With the summer gaming drought in full swing, we turn to the digital download scene headlined by Limbo, the debut 2D platforming effort from PlayDead Studios. We can't deny the title looks fantastic, but does the gameplay live up to the hype?

Jeff:
Limbo represents something in games we haven't seen in far too long of a time period. It's challenging, atmospheric, gorgeous, and, most importantly, totally original.

Perhaps it's the game's overwhelmingly simplistic presentation we fell in love with. Limbo is straightforward enough, a 2D side-scrolling quest that leads our young hero through a decaying and dreary world. There are only two control buttons, so anyone can pick the game up and start playing. Its artistic styling screams noir, with its two-tone grayscale, film grain, and blurry fore and backgrounds.

The sentiment during gameplay is almost always unsettling, with the title's fantastic sound design giving us the ominous feeling that something terrible could happen at any moment. It's true, a lot of the puzzles must be solved by trial and error, and you'll positively witness a fair share of brutal deaths that had us occasionally jumping out of our seat.

Limbo hits the Xbox Live Arcade at a perfect time during the industry's typical summer drought and needs to be experienced by anyone longing for an ultimately satisfying title that can be played in drips and drabs, rather than for hours at a time. Though it's bit on the short side, the campaign is meticulously crafted to such a high standard that we're not sure we'll see a better digital-only game this entire year.

Limbo is available exclusively on the Xbox Live Arcade starting July 21 for $15 (1,200 Microsoft Points).

PlayDead Studios

Scott:
This summer is already deep into July, and I have been looking for a downloadable game to compete with the likes of Shadow Complex that came out last year on Xbox Live Arcade. Limbo is nothing like Shadow Complex, but it is an atmospheric, mood-driven, beautifully animated little gem that can show off a game console's graphics in shades of black and white better than most full-color titles can. It's another indie gem in the vein of Flower and Braid: minimalist, absorbing, and very haunting.

With no help screens, tutorials, or onscreen icons, players are left to dwell on a sad boy with glowing eyes moving through gloomy semi-apocalyptic landscapes, solving simple but devious visual puzzles in order to avoid death brought down in countless ways. The style feels reminiscent of Tim Burton/Edward Gorey, and every silhouetted object animates with far more attention than screenshots reveal. Alas, the experience is short; I've been stuck at one of the opening puzzles for ages, and that already puts me at the 15 percent mark. For a price of $15, this is a steep cost for the experience. On the other hand, few games can compare with the artistic design at hand in Limbo. Consider this a summer movie ticket plus a few bucks; it's a game I can't wait to get back and play more of.

If DLC games were more like Limbo, we'd be well on our way to a video game revolution. They're not, but hopefully indie titles such as these will keep flowing, and at a faster rate.

PlayDead Studios

Dan:
No matter how carefully we may try to balance these intrinsically opposite needs, one must inevitably choose to emphasize either form or function in any creative endeavor. The decision between captivating the eye or the brain is especially important in gaming, where deep narratives often meet lo-fi visuals, or stunning virtual worlds feel like undercooked vanity projects.

The starkly beautiful Limbo chooses wisely, emphasizing a world of bold minimalism, and relying on a narrative created through atmosphere, color, and sound (or the lack thereof), rather than filling the screen with needless exposition.

A frame from the 1922 Swedish/Danish silent film "Haxan."

Silent filmmakers learned the same lesson a century ago. Limited to plot points and dialogue delivered through occasional title cards, some chose to paint a picture in the mind's eye through the negative space of stark black and white silhouettes, which along with (sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental) use of focus, film grain, fog, and lighting, create starkly silent dreamlike tableaus that are still affectingly eerie today.

Limbo carries that same dreamlike feel (the polar opposite of the crisp Hollywood dreamland of "Inception," for example). The edges of the screen flicker and shift, looking very much like the iris masking techniques of the early days of cinema. For a far more striking example, look to this frame from the 1922 film "Haxan" about the history of witchcraft. Is there any more universally recognizable setting when presented in monochrome silhouette than the unsettling mysterious forest?

Though not original themselves, these elements are at least unique to a modern video game, making Limbo a truly intriguing project that feels more like a piece of interactive digital art than something that shares shelf space with Mario and Master Chief.

PlayDead Studios

About the author

Scott Stein is a senior editor covering iOS and laptop reviews, mobile computing, video games, and tech culture. He has previously written for both mainstream and technology enthusiast publications including Wired, Esquire.com, Men's Journal, and Maxim, and regularly appears on TV and radio talking tech trends.

Dan Ackerman

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of laptops, desktops, and Windows tablets, while also writing about games, gadgets, and other topics. A former radio DJ and member of Mensa, he's written about music and technology for more than 15 years, appearing in publications including Spin, Blender, and Men's Journal. See full bio

Jeff Bakalar

Jeff has been at CNET for more than five years covering games, tech, and pop culture. When he's not playing ice hockey or pinball, you can catch him live every day as the host of CNET's infamous daily show, The 404 Show and every Friday in CNET's first-ever tech comic, Low Latency. See full bio

 

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