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Is Limbo the next great puzzle game?

Before this week, I'd never heard of Limbo. Now, after seeing and playing the game, I can't stop thinking about it.

Xbox Live is home to dozens of puzzle games with quirky titles and quirkier concepts. Few, however, are truly all that original or innovative once you dig beneath their seemingly bizarre surfaces. Some end up having poor design and controls. Others are repetitive, one-trick ponies. Many come across as nothing more than Braid or Peggle wannabes.

Limbo is different. Limbo is special. Limbo is a title worth remembering, whether you like puzzle games, adventure games, atmospheric art games or even violent action games. Here are five reasons why.

It's beautiful

Yes, I've played games in black and white before, but none as pure as Limbo. Check out that image above. Unlike The Saboteur or L.A. Noire, the screen hasn't simply been drained of color, and you don't feel like you're playing on an outdated 1950s television. Limbo looks more like an abstract photograph you'd find hanging in an art museum, or an old book of illustrations discovered in a dusty corner of the library, or even a forgotten animation cel from a darker side of Disney. The world has been reduced to nothing but shadows and light, shapes and lines. It's hauntingly gorgeous, and even more so in motion.

It's simple

The best puzzlers are easy to learn and difficult to master. Limbo's so intuitive from the start, in fact, that there are absolutely no instructions. The game loads, a small boy appears standing on the screen, surrounded by trees, and the player is expected to learn everything else on his or her own, either through common sense or experimentation. One button jumps. A second button performs simple, context-sensitive actions. And the analog stick moves the boy back and forth.

That's it. All of Limbo is a single, unbroken, side-scrolling level. No music plays – only natural, ambient sound effects – and the story is told entirely through visuals and actions. During my demo, I heard no dialogue. I read no text. I was introduced to no characters. The only reason I know that the story involves a brother searching for his missing sister is because the developers told me so.

It's complex

Two colors, two buttons and an analog stick? How hard can Limbo be? The answer will surprise you, as well as seriously test your mental skills. At the beginning, the only thing I had to worry about was running forward and jumping over obstacles and gaps. Within five minutes, though, I was swinging from ropes, sailing across lakes, dodging boulders and carefully positioning steel traps to capture the stabbing legs of a murderous, house-sized spider.

Then the developers took over and showed me how to solve a few puzzles much later in the game. The complexity was mind-boggling. They were switching gravity on and off to slide pulleys into the exact right locations. They were sprinting on top of rolling gears, trying desperately to avoid the electrified floor below. They were pitting different species of make-believe creatures against each other in order to progress. Limbo's controls may be simple, but the timing and environments are definitely not.

It's mysterious

Why is this small shadow of a boy searching for his sister, and what has happened to her? Seeing as how both of his eyes glow in the dark, is he really a boy at all? Where is he, and why do the dark forest settings of trees, water and deadly wildlife eventually blend, and combine, with darker industrial settings of metal, spark and deadly machinery? Why is the title Limbo? Are you stuck? Caught between a nightmare and waking life, or between heaven and hell? Is this game Purgatory, and is your search really all that noble and innocent?

This is a game that teases. All of the questions above floated through my mind, and I only played for half an hour. The finished product should last for four or five.

It's gruesome

I promised that even violent action game fans might like Limbo, and here's why. For a puzzle game, it's brutal. When you fail, you really, really fail. Miss a jump and your character is impaled on the spikes below. Misjudge a monster's timing and he could be stabbed through the torso with a pincer the size of a tree trunk. Mistime a buzzsaw and you'll watch as he's sliced into bloody, flailing pieces.

You can drown. You can be smashed. You can be electrocuted. You can find yourself smothered in cocoon web and left dangling from a cavern ceiling as a midnight snack. I mentioned the spiders, but I also saw toothy, dog-like creatures and worms that latch onto the boy's head, bore into his brain and stifle his movement. All of these deaths and dismemberments are depicted in stark shadow, of course, but this almost makes the horror worse. Your imagination fills in the gore with far more macabre detail than a handful of pixels ever could.

Limbo is set for release this summer, exclusively on Xbox Live Arcade. If this article hasn't convinced you that the game is worth getting excited about, watch the gameplay video below and prepare to be mesmerized.

Mar 12, 2010

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17 comments

  • CandiedJester - July 7, 2010 1:17 a.m.

    CH3BURASHKA, I went to that Unfinished Swan site, and I am so jumping on that bandwagon. Game looks so original! I love it! I hope it releases at some point. I could see becoming addicted to a game like that. For sure. I've never seen anything like it either, and that excites me. :D
  • bluscorp - May 13, 2010 11:04 p.m.

    I'm gonna get that.
  • MaynardJ - March 19, 2010 12:01 p.m.

    This looks brilliant. I loved Braid, and this new game reminds me a bit of Heart of Darkness on the PS1. I guess it's the shadow thing.
  • TheBoz - March 15, 2010 9:26 p.m.

    @KayRedd, thanks for that, it's a fun little game.
  • Evilsafetyboy - March 15, 2010 6:38 p.m.

    I love 2D games. They've come a long way since the 8-bit days: Odin Sphere, Muramasa, Braid. Gotta get this.
  • KayRedd - March 14, 2010 11:20 p.m.

    Hey, if you like indie games like this, check out the flash game "The Company of Myself", just type it into google, beautiful game
  • bonerachieved - March 14, 2010 9:24 p.m.

    I didn't think anyone played this game but me. *applause Bonrawrs all around
  • Xeacons - March 14, 2010 9:14 p.m.

    Whoa...It's like...it's like...and yet it moves...meets...boy and his blob....meets...oh I can't describe it. You have my total attention now.
  • Navarre1991 - March 14, 2010 3:42 p.m.

    Looks like the anti-Braid. I may have to get this now. reCAPTCHA from henchman
  • minimaxi - March 14, 2010 12:35 p.m.

    *I mean 400p leftover :P
  • minimaxi - March 14, 2010 12:34 p.m.

    summer release exclusive xbla? hmmm I smell a $15 game... gosh is there no longer a $10 'blockbuster' xbla title nowadays? 800p leftover from those 1600p vouchers always irks me
  • Krathos - March 13, 2010 9:29 p.m.

    This is why sometimes I regret not having a Xbox 360 (and God knows how I love my PS3!) Any news on a pc release? ( I know it's XLA exclusive, but there could be some news on that)
  • jar-head - March 13, 2010 8:22 p.m.

    Love how you ended the clip with the title "Gruesom" under the vid, gata Love GR!
  • Gazanator101 - March 13, 2010 2:38 p.m.

    This game does looks unique in terms of visuals, design interface and being a 'puzzle' game - this will definitely be a hit. XBLA titles recently have surprised us on how good indie developers can make games of such originality and usually on a low-medium budget, and thanks to Microsoft, some get noticed and gain instant popularity, the minute their title hits the XBLA service. Limbo looks like another interesting puzzle game, like Braid and PB Winterbottom (two great puzzle games) and hopefully it would be just as good and successful.
  • EnragedTortoise1 - March 13, 2010 2:38 p.m.

    Jeshus, I don't know why, but the way that video cut off at the end was actually kinda scary.
  • DarkTone - March 13, 2010 5:13 a.m.

    I can see this game being addictive. I'm just glad to see more originality in game play (cause lord knows it's been a while...) instead of focusing on graphics
  • CH3BURASHKA - March 12, 2010 10:26 p.m.

    Indie developers simply don't have the budget to make Uncharted-esque 3D graphical experiences. Hence they stick to beautiful art. And that's the way it should be, seeing as how very few of the big developers make 2D games. Also, this reminds me of another indie game I'm desperately waiting for, The Unfinished Swan. I've pimped it a few times, but once more can't hurt: http://giantsparrow.com/games/swan/

Showing 1-17 of 17 comments

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