Hitbox Review: Limbo

Graphic by Michaeline Collins.

Limbo should be renamed to Limbo: Prepare to Die edition. It’s not a matter of if players die, it’s how many times. Experimenting to find solutions to environmental puzzles will almost always result in at least one death. The world of limbo is not a place where anyone should live. It’s actively hostile and out to kill the player.

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC [reviewed], Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

Developer: Playdead 

Publisher: Playdead

Initial release date: July 21, 2010

Price: $9.99

Players never know what danger lies ahead of them in Limbo’s dark and mysterious world. Screenshot by John Novotny.

Limbo begins with a boy waking up in the forest. The player receives no explanation as to why he is there or what his motivations are throughout the entire game. It’s strange because the boy, who the player controls, could be anyone. The boy has no defining features except an outline of his hair. He never presents any personality traits aside from wanting to survive. The game also doesn’t explain what any of the controls do. Players will find no tutorials in Limbo.

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Thankfully, Limbo slowly introduces the player to gameplay mechanics they’ll be experiencing throughout the game. The player jumps over a ditch full of spikes, pulls a wooden cart to jump up to a high ledge and climbs down a rope before riding a boat across a lake.

Players must move various objects, such as wooden carts, to solve environmental puzzles. Screenshot by John Novotny.

Puzzles in Limbo aren’t of the jigsaw variety. Instead, players attempt to figure out how to move forward using what is made available to them in the immediate area. One of the first puzzles players face is finding a way across a small lake. Since the boy can’t swim, this presents the player with a challenge. A box on the shore of the lake is immediately visible. However, when stood on, it becomes apparent that alone, it’s not nearly enough to cross the lake (early puzzle solution spoiler warning).

If the player is anything like me, then they’ll spend the next few minutes hopelessly attempting to just use the box to cross the lake before stumbling across the solution. Drag the box backward to a hanging rope from a tree, climb the rope, jump across branches to the top of a tree and push the top of the trunk off to the ground (graphic content warning).

Most often, the consequence of failing to solve one of Limbo’s many environmental puzzles is death. It could be drowning, being decapitated by a bear trap, impaled on spikes or any number of other grisly outcomes. The first few deaths were shocking. One of the most memorable deaths I encountered was when I accidentally stepped on one of the first bear traps and the boy was decapitated and silhouetted blood began spewing from his neck. However, my shock was quickly replaced with irritation after the 15th time I died to the same thing.

In fact, Limbo’s entire design began to crumble after my transition to being irritated in the first half-hour of play. Because the game is in black and white, objects in the environment tend to blend into the background. The obnoxious film grain filter only makes this problem worse. This combination makes the game look like the player is squinting their eyes and only seeing a small fraction of what is actually occurring on the screen.

Compared to environmental puzzles, giant spiders are the least of the boy’s worries. Screenshot by John Novotny.

Later in the game, players will come across motion-activated machine gun turrets. The problem with this is that they don’t look like turrets. They look like fighter jet engines with laser pointers coming out of them. The lasers are so faint that they practically fade into the bright background.

Sadly, the controls aren’t any better. The silhouette boy will continue to move for just a second longer than when the player lets go of the analog stick. The boy also takes forever to climb up a ledge. This leads to the player feeling like they’re merely suggesting where the boy should go. The loose controls become a problem when Limbo wants players to perform very precise jumps and execute a series of moves with incredibly tight timing.

The more I played Limbo, the more I absolutely despised the new challenges Playdead decided to throw at me. I hope players didn’t have a problem with the lack of clarity in the environment. At a certain point, the game takes away all ambient light and plunges the player into complete darkness except for a single swinging light bulb, which they must use to temporarily memorize the environment. Oh yeah, did I mention that the entire room is spinning during this sequence?

For a game that was so praised at launch, for the life of me I just can’t figure out what people saw in Limbo. Playdead asks players to perform precise movements and obtuse tasks while handing the player a Nintendo Power Glove for a controller and a 144p screen. If players are looking for an irritating monochromatic adventure with sluggish controls, Limbo is the game for them. If not, players are advised to look elsewhere for a compelling experience.

Want to suggest a video game for review? Contact John Novotny at [email protected]