As the game begins, you awaken to find yourself in the midst of a dark and expansive forest. Muted sunlight strains to find its way through the branched canopy above, with little success. Save for a chilling wind, the soft padding of your feet on the earth, and the sound of your breath, the forest is eerily silent. You're only a little kid, but your sister is out there somewhere, and you need to find her.
From the moment I took my first in-game steps, LIMBO's monochrome aesthetics burrowed into my head like a parasite and wouldn't let go. Presented entirely in black, white, and shades of gray, the game uses light and shadow to create an oppressive-feeling dreamscape. Foreground and background art are displayed in soft-focus, lending an impressive sense of depth to the 2D platformer. The game's audio is also exquisitely subtle with location-appropriate ambient sounds and crisp effects helping construct a sense of foreboding and loneliness.
LIMBO's protagonist (known only as "the boy") controls comfortably, though his suite of actions--run, jump, push, pull, and activate--might seem limited at first. The sheer variety of different puzzles quickly puts that concern to rest. It takes no time to get used to moving the boy around, which is very important because the vast majority of the game's puzzles require precise timing to solve.
LIMBO's puzzles take the form of a series of incredibly well-designed traps, many of which are all too easy to trigger inadvertently on first encounter. Death in LIMBO, however, is often one of the best learning-tools available. Each misstep (intentional or not) reveals clues about how to circumnavigate the deadly machinations. It's as if the team at developer Playdead raided Rube Goldberg's childhood nightmares to find inspiring ways to kill the boy.
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Despite LIMBO's lack of any text or dialogue, the game manages to tell a very engaging story - yet another testament to how well each of its components have been fused together. I constantly found myself in precarious situations that carry with them a "monster under the bed" feeling of pure dread that brought back memories of fearing the bogeyman under the bed. It's impossible to discuss more deeply in a spoiler-free way but rest assured, the unsettling melancholy that permeates the world of LIMBO is bound to stick with you, long after the credits roll.
With its striking minimalist presentation and psychological undertones LIMBO delivers on the creative promise of an independently developed Xbox Live Arcade title. It provided me one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I've had this year despite its relatively short length, and should not be missed. Plus, there's no excuse for not sticking around for the subtly disturbing ending that caps it off.
LIMBO was developed by Playdead, and is available exclusively on Xbox LIVE Arcade for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15).