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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Saboteur or L.A. Noire, the screen hasn't simply been drained of color, and you don't feel like you're playing on an outdated 1950s television.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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