Review: Limbo (Vita)

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The word limbo can be defined in several ways: a place where souls are trapped, a place of neglect, a place of confinement, or even an intermediary place (with the hope that further progress will eventually occur). Each of these definitions can be used to describe Playdead’s stark puzzle-platformer sharing the name.

Back in 2010 on Xbox 360, Limbo was lavished with praise, but it was a game that I didn’t have the opportunity to play at the time. A year later it was released on PS3 and Steam, but other games held my focus and again I missed out on playing the title. Flash forward almost two years later, Playdead has released Limbo for the Vita. Finally the stars aligned at just the right time for me to play through the game.

I’m not sure what I expected. Trial by death is an appropriate description of the game. Meaning, any puzzle encountered throughout the game will likely end in death multiple times before a solution can be realized. Or the controls offer just a touch of floaty lag to cause the required precise timing to be off enough to result in grisly death. There is something to be said about this style of gameplay; it is exactly the title of the game. Forward progress won’t continue until repetition has been mastered and all hope is lost. Often I found myself shocked that I managed to navigate through a puzzle on the first attempt, only to encounter the next one and be completely stumped. Dying repeatedly.

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Dying is the dark charm of the game. How many different ways can the nameless, faceless boy die? Spiders, spikes, fire, drowning, electrocution, saw blades, or being squished to pulp by massive blocks. The list goes on and on. Many times death from one particular method displays a different and more spectacular death animation than the last. More often than not, the animations are subtle and even more chilling because of the fine nuance.

Limbo conveys a dark, oppressive world filled with traps and puzzles that a nameless boy travels through in hopes of finding his sister. This stark black and white world is filled with noir grit and heavy shadowing, allowing the mind to fill in the gaps of what is and isn’t seen. Over and over again, new ways of dying play out and let the imagination take over, progressing from a spooky forest through a dark, neglected city and into a monolithic industrial plant only to find completion and a finale that truly sums up the title.

I enjoyed the puzzles (even if some of them were a bit twitchy–meaning quick reflexes are required to pass through certain short timed sequences). I love the visual monochromatic aesthetic. Seeing the fluid grays, blacks and whites focusing and shifting as foreground and backgrounds shift and pop while the nameless boy travels through Limbo are truly impressive on the Vita screen. Bright white eyes blinking in dismay and conveying fear or sadness at each turn truly enriches the experience.

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My only real complaint is the fact that the controls feel a touch floaty at times, as mentioned before. Many traps require precise timing in order to avoid death, but learning how to judge when to time jumps or move caused more unexpected deaths than I would care to have experienced. It’s not that the Vita isn’t precise, but rather the floaty movement seems to vary in which direction you are intending to move. Timing a floaty jump while moving left or right becomes second nature fairly quickly; however, timing an upward jump, or jumping while swinging caused more frustration than fun.

For a game with the title Limbo I would expect an ending that lives up to one of the definitions I mentioned above. While I’m not complaining about how the ending plays out, I will say that I didn’t care for how the last few puzzles led up to the finale. The last few puzzles seem to feed off of the weakest aspect of the game–the floaty controls–and require such precision that it was out of pure frustrated dumb luck that I reached the final trigger point which brought out the ending sequence. I was in such a state of frustration and anger at the game, that the final moments felt way too anti-climatic, to the point that the intended message felt like a throwaway moment. It wasn’t until I let my older daughter play the opening few puzzles (past the spider) and then flipped to the last puzzle, that the ending had any real impact. Not suffering through so much trial by death and witnessing her reaction to the final moments were what finally gave the end the weight I think Playdead intended.

Even though the game is presented in simple black and white, Limbo is a visual feast on the Vita. It is also a relatively short game with quick puzzle segments that work best for brief sessions while gaming on the go. While many puzzles have one obvious end goal, there are many with “out of the way” paths that tease brains and often reward adventurous gamers with a trophy. For those gamers looking for a small yet dense puzzler, Limbo is a perfect buy, especially since it supports Cross Buy with the PS3 version. (But sadly there is no Cross Save functionality.)

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Pros:
+ Stunning visuals
+ Challenging, well designed physics-based puzzles
+ Short play sessions fit nicely with the Vita
+ Cross Buy value
+ No forced Touch Pad/Touch screen gimmickry

Cons:
– Floaty controls can be a source of frustration
– No Cross Save functionality
– The ending leaves a bit to be desired

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS Vita, also available for PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac and iOS
Publisher: Playdead
Developer: Playdead / Double Eleven
Release Date: 6/4/2013
Genre: Puzzle-Platformer
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.