Make no mistake, Limbo is a cruel game, and you will die a lot. Make no mistake, you are in limbo, a purgatory where death only means another chance to repeat the puzzle.
There is no health bar. There are no medikits. One hit kills. There are no lives and no saves. You resurrect instantly, very, very close to the puzzle – and this is a good job, because as you get into the game, the puzzles become impossible to anticipate.
The first hour of the game passes very quickly. It’s perfectly paced, the graphics expertly and subtly drawing you on. Odd shafts of light raise your hopes, while you quickly come to feel very protective of the boy himself. Strange shapes - spiders, machines, hanging chains - threaten in the background. The boy always remains black as night, but there’s a curiosity to him – perhaps because he looks up every now and then, like he’s drowned down here in the underworld, and up there are the people, life and love.
The game's puzzles frequently involve a grizzly end
Little moments stand out as the menace builds. The game is pretty, but not afraid to be messy and violent. You come across a corpse with buzzing flies, hung from a tree. You have to scramble over it to get on your way. You can hear the flies buzzing very clearly as there is no music: just the hummmm of the Xbox and the crunch of your feet in ashy gravel.
As the forest recedes and you find yourself amongst cogs and pipes in a factory, the genius of the opening fades somewhat. I can’t go into too much detail, because much of the game’s power is in how it surprises, but suffice to say, it does become frustrating that the later traps are impossible to solve using any method other than trial and error.
Often you’ll see a trap – giant spiders with legs seeking to impale you, hanging ropes and bear traps are recurring motifs – and you can feel a real sense of aversion; fear, even. It’s great to begin with, but can feel unfair as the game goes on because there's no way to proceed without dying a few times. At times, the mendacity of the puzzles caused me to cry out loud – there’ a sequence of jumping across pillars where you will die at each time jump until you learn what will happen on each one.
Despite the lack of dialogue, you really come to care for your character
That said, the puzzles are beautifully constructed. They never feel samey, and I never had to try more than four or five times before the solution became clear – Limbo is easier to approach in this respect than Braid, a game it can easily be compared to when it comes to creative achievement as well. Limbo draws you on, savage and cruel (sometimes so absurdly, it becomes funny) haunting and ultimately… well, it is best left unsaid.
Microsoft deserves credit for featuring such a distinctive, bleak and audacious game in a mainstream promotion such as the Summer of Arcade. Limbo is uncompromising – it’s short, has no multiplayer and not much replay value (given how you replay each section so intensively on the first go through) – but it’s all the better for it. 'Only connect,' says a character at the end of his novel Howard’s End as she tries to explain life, the universe and everything, and ultimately it’s the starkness and singularity of Limbo’s vision that makes the connection it forms with the player so satisfying. Limbo is a worthy addition to the long line of imaginative responses to death that seek to imagine an end to life that isn't final.