Limbo Review
Limbo box art
System: X360 Review Rating Legend
Dev: PlayDead 1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid 4.0 - 4.4 = Great
Pub: Microsoft 2.0 - 2.4 = Poor 4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy
Release: July 21, 2010 2.5 - 2.9 = Average 5.0 = The Best
Players: 1 3.0 - 3.4 = Fair
ESRB Rating: Teen 3.5 - 3.9 = Good
Survival Horror
by Steve Haske

In Roman Catholic theology, limbo is defined as a place between the realms of life and death. Here, believers that were never baptized and those who were born before the time of Jesus Christ must quietly suffer, wanting nothing more than to accept God’s grace in order to gain passage to the paradisiacal afterlife. In Canto IV of The Inferno, Dante Alighieri, describes limbo in similar terms, outlaying the area’s geography with a forest, fields, and brooks. Though peaceful themselves, they do not reflect the silent inner torment over those lost souls that must forever be separated from their evangelical savior.

Limbo screenshot

Playdead’s Limbo subscribes to a decidedly more secular world view, although I suspect interpretations of the game may vary wildly from one person to another. However, the thematic center of being caught between one state of existence and the next is largely the same. By extension of the game’s name itself, a thematic base is also essentially all that we’re given to go on. If you look at the description given on Limbo’s XBLA profile, we’re told that “Unsure of his sister’s fate, a boy enters limbo.” This is the only clue we’re given from the outset and the game proper contains no text or dialogue. All we have to unravel the tenets of the story are the foreknowledge of that description coupled with the boy’s visual journey.

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It would seem that in Limbo, your only option is to press on, if not by virtue of its linear design, than by the motivation driving you towards some form of progress, though any sense of purpose or reasoning remain inscrutable. Playdead stubbornly leaves easy answers (or any answers at all, really) at the door. Is the boy’s purpose to find his sister, to escape his fate, or maybe to pass through the plane of the reality he now occupies? Reality, metaphorization, metaphysics, and the existence, or non-existence, of any of it is fair game, making much of what you take out of Limbo depend heavily on personal interpretation. It’s even entirely possible that the story, such as it is, is irrelevant, overshadowed simply by a scattering of themes that the game seems to be based around. Like The Inferno, Limbo also begins in a wooded area, where the boy comes to in the realm he may or may not have actually chosen to enter. Unlike Dante’s descriptions of a peaceful world, however, the atmosphere here is foreboding.

Limbo screenshot

The initial feeling of isolation that surrounds you after waking alone in an unknown world quickly erodes as you discover this is more than just a deserted, ramshackle wasteland. Instead, it’s a place without mercy, pity, or reason, and one where you are never truly alone, either, as death is your constant companion. Throughout his journey, the boy encounters grisly sights and creatures that will probably unnerve you; if not worse (arachnophobes beware). Even the human-types you encounter, who may actually inhabit this land, are your enemies. They seemingly taunt the boy at the outset of his travels, watching him, throwing rocks, and setting vicious traps in his path, if not outright attacking head-on. But even these figures aren’t immune to limbo’s perils. Their lives can be carelessly cut short as easily as the boy’s own. These acts happen quickly, often in horrific ways, yet as soon as the deed is done, they are tossed aside with complete disregard. If there’s one thing to be said about death in Limbo, it’s that it’s cavalier.

Limbo is grim, something that is only magnified by its striking visual style. I applaud any game willing to run the “risk” of being made entirely in black and white, and few apply it as well as Playdead has here. In fact, I’d bet that countless essays, features, and blog posts picking apart Limbo’s aesthetics will be written in the coming weeks and months. Somehow, the game managed to skirt harsh review from the ESRB, only garnering a Teen rating, but the imagery is at least as horrifying as any you’ll find in a Mature-rated game. The trick here is Limbo’s use of silhouetting, throwing everything in the foreground into shadow, which tastefully circumvents direct shots of brutal violence while heightening atmospherics. Coupled with the shallow depth of field, soft focus effects, diffusive lighting, and vignetting (which darkens the borders of the screen), Limbo takes on a visually surreal character whose ethereal qualities foster the game’s unique and creepy feel. These ideas come through well enough in screenshots, but until you see the grain moving on the picture or witness how the lighting adjusts to the darkness on-screen, the full effect can’t be understood. When it comes to interactive artistic endeavors, Limbo should be required viewing.

Limbo screenshot

Screenshots / Images
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