Tuesday, 24 January 2012

LIMBO

The Title Screen

Introduction
LIMBO is an single player only, indie, 2D side-scrolling, puzzle platformer by Playdead; a Danish company set up exclusively to produce this game. LIMBO was released on the Xbox (XBLA) in 2010. After the one year exclusive deal with Microsoft, it was ported to Playstation Network and PC (Steampowered). There is only the singleplayer campaign.

It can be argued that all platformers involve some puzzle element due to their style of gameplay but unlike pure platformers, solving puzzles is clearly the core point of this title.

It is hard to pin this game as a "Horror" game. I doubt many people are ever truly scared or jump while playing. You are definitely supposed to feel your character is in a scary / horrific environment but I do not think many players would be outright scared. Maybe the bit with the spider. Perhaps.


The First Thing
The first thing that strikes you about the game is the art style, which it should because it was that element which drove the production of this game. For those that know what it means : It is very Film Noir inspired. The title screen looks like it could be from an old film and immediately tells you almost everything you need to know. The game throughout is monochrome with bright white being used to add detail (like the main character's eyes), emphasis (look at this!) or even gameplay mechanics (weird, mind-controlling slugs). The games location is either forest or industrial and it moves between them with relative ease. The background it is either for setting or occasionally to help with puzzles. 


Plot & Devices
The game has no plot. No, really. Or rather it does, if you read the description on the marketplace before you bought the game. You are told before you buy the game "uncertain of his sisters fate, a boy enters Limbo". I suppose they had to write something there other than "please buy me". This is not a mistake, but a deliberate design decision.

Wake Up

I've never quite seen anything like it. Your character just "wakes up" in a forest and off you go. There is zero exposition or tutorial in LIMBO. You can infer from the title that you are in 'limbo' but that's about it. During the game you will occasionally encounter creatures and humanoid looking things of which you could theorise about what place you are in, but as the point of the game was to have no discernible plot any inferences you draw will be your own. Because there is no plot, there are no specific devices to comment upon.


The Game
LIMBO was aimed to be simple and minimal. The art style is minimal. The play style is minimal and therefore the controls are simple. The art style naturally determines that the graphical power of this game is very low (if ever there was need of a good example for how improving graphics does not directly correlate to improving the game, this would an outstanding contender).

Everything simple

You can move, jump and "interact" with objects (which usually just means you can grab 'something' and pull it or push it. This can be a box / bigger, longer box / something that could be a box I suppose / lever / switch). Everything comes down to the puzzles you will find. There is no changeable difficulty, the game is how it is. 

The puzzles are, most of the time, not conceptionally difficult. Often you can see what you should be doing and it is a task of just performing it correctly (the platforming element). It is clear that if you are on one side of a big hole or a big, spinning disc of death that you need to get to the other side. The punishment for failing a puzzle is usually instant death.

Learning from a gruesome death

Death is handled nicely in this game. It is both unforgiving and forgiving at the same time; unforgiving in that you instantly die from a mistake, but forgiving in that you only lose a few seconds of previous gameplay. Dying in LIMBO offers a surprisingly gruesome animation and then you reappear. There is no retry limit and death is used as a learning technique, rather than notification of failure. This is good compensation for the lack of tutorial or explanation. The death animations are quite brutal, but I never felt punished because I knew that it would take me seconds to return and after a while I started laughing the first time I died in a new scenario - which is the ideal in a puzzle game, the player should never feel punished at failure.

(It's worth noting that for the younger gamers, the death animations can be turned off so that the screen just goes black upon death.)

The puzzles are varied. Jumping and box puzzles exist throughout but are situated inside different mechanics; from avoiding living creatures, to water based puzzles during a rainstorm and then finally to complex gravity-based puzzles towards the end. Because there is no tutorial or plot, you are never lead by the hand and only progress based on skill, in-game experience and observation. 

I wouldn't say there is a definite soundtrack to the game. All the sounds relating to effects or objects in the game are top notch and quite meaty in places - the incident with the spider springs to mind again. Much like the visual backdrop, the background soundtrack only aims to be ambient and succeeds well. 


Wrap Up & Negatives
I have to be careful with this game because although I enjoyed it, I could see how other people might not. I am a skilled gamer, who also enjoys puzzles and platforming. This is not the game to play for mindless gaming - you have to think and be aware of mechanics and what the game is trying to get you to solve. In my opinion the art style is an exceptional accomplishment, but one can not recommend a game on art style alone (or maybe I can?).

It was refreshing to have no plot, no tutorial and a minimalistic game, but sometimes you feel that you could be just playing a well-made Flash game. As there is no plot to identify with, after you've finished your puzzles there is no reason to replay the game or to give it any second thought. 

Once or twice it was not clear what I had to do to solve a puzzle. One moment with a giant fly that I solved accidentally by trying to do something else springs to mind. The game is limited by its simple controls and most of the time there is a sound or visual clues that you can observe, but occasionally it is not particularly clear. Luckily this is a rare occurrence.

The PC port in my opinion is a little too minimal. I realise that was the design goal but not allowing a PC gamer to rebind the keys is annoying (especially when there are only 6 in total), and not allowing to run in windowed mode is close to unforgivable. I played this game on my 360 pad because I find anything ported usually works better that way. Also, it has been so long since I used the arrow keys for movement I could not really be bothered to re-learn that. The controls were tight and served the purpose well.

A short game...

The biggest negative I think people will have with the game is that it is short. So much time was put into designing their own visual engine that the developers themselves have admitted already their sequel will use an existing engine. The misplaced time spent has resulted in "amazing visuals, short game". I would have enjoyed an extra couple hours of gameplay. The military shooters are doing just great at lowering our expectations for how long single-player should be but 4 and a half hours is short in my book. "But wait!" I hear you say, it is an indie game. Yes, but the price is relatively quite high. The game is £6.99 on Steam so considering the brief campaign and zero re-playability I think the short nature the game does become a small negative and is worth mentioning.


Personally...
The game was worth it for me, but if you're unsure perhaps wait for it to inevitably appear on a Steam Sale. If you ever happen to see it on sale and like puzzle games, get it. Even if it just for later.

It is a superb looking game with medium level of difficulty. You are punished instantly for mistakes, but never heavily enough to annoy you. I am looking forward to the sequel. I never encountered any production bugs and I walked away feeling this was exactly what the developer said he was going to do: an ambient, well polished puzzle game with a plot left open for the gamer to interpret. 

And you will definitely remember the spider...



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