Have you ever stood in the middle of a deserted forest and heard the noises it makes? The strange rushing sound of the air in your ears, the creaks and cracks of trees settling in the heat and cold of the day, and the various mysterious little rustles and squeaks from hidden wildlife as it goes about its daily business.
Play Dead Studios kick off their utterly fantastic XBLA title Limbo with little fanfare, no convoluted storyline to set up, and what at first glance appears to be an extremely stripped down set of visuals. But oh boy are you in for a surprise once you start playing.
Some games rely entirely on a playerâ€™s instincts and Limbo is one of them. If youâ€™ve never played a videogame before, and if youâ€™re unfamiliar with physics-driven platform games, you might struggle to get a foothold in Limboâ€™s world. All you know is that you control a boy-like shadowy character, you can move left and right, you can jump, and you have an action button. At first this is all you need to know but later on as the game sinks its fangs, needle sharp talons and hook-like tentacles into you, your instincts will need to be as sharp as a porcupineâ€™s quills.
In time-honoured platform-game fashion you make your way from left to right across the landscape as it unfolds before you. Likening Limbo to a simple platform game is like comparing Virtua Tennis with Pong though, so donâ€™t be fooled by the way Limbo gently breaks you into how things work and how far you can stretch your characterâ€™s abilities. Five minutes later youâ€™ll be fighting for your life.
In fact Play Dead couldâ€™ve subtitled this game â€œ101 interesting ways to leave a videogameâ€ because with the kid-friendly filters switched firmly to the â€œoffâ€ position (letâ€™s face it, thatâ€™s one menu option that precious few are ever going to use in this game) Limbo comes up with many, many inventive ways to kill you. Youâ€™ll drown, youâ€™ll be gassed, speared by giant spider-like creatures, youâ€™ll fall onto spikes, get squished by heavy weights and brain-controlled by slugs. I think I lost count after a while but itâ€™s almost worth dying just to see the intricately detailed little animations that surround a playerâ€™s death.
Youâ€™re not alone either. It becomes clear as you progress through the game that the strange feeling that youâ€™re being watched is not unfounded. Other sets of blinking eyes are seen just out of shot. Other shadowy figures seem to be one step ahead of you, setting traps and trying their best to slow or halt your progress. Who are they? Come to think of it, who the hell are you? The simple answer is that it doesnâ€™t matter a jot â€“ what matters is that you have to stay alive and you have to make your way to the end and in Limbo you donâ€™t need a complicated reason to do so, youâ€™re back to relying on your instincts again.
Limbo is beautiful and playable but it can also be utterly frustrating, joy-pad-gnashingly so but what becomes apparent is that various moments where you get stuck are your failings, not the failings of a broken game. It does not lead you by the hand or by the nose through each puzzleâ€™s solution, you know the extent of your abilities and you know how far you can jump, stretch or how fast you can run â€“ the game knows too and will push you to the limit of your mental and physical powers.
I liked that about it, I liked the fact that Play Dead are obviously masters of the gameâ€™s environments and know how to tune each puzzle finely enough that success is often a matter of a very narrow margin, and every time you fail you can fully see why you have.
Limboâ€™s game world, picked out in its stylish monochrome hues, might feel stripped down but itâ€™s surprising just how varied it is. As the dangers of nature give way to a more industrial and eventually an urban landscape, Iâ€™m reminded of games as diverse as Ico, Braid and even Flower â€“ where the minimalist approach to drip-feeding you information is what sends your imagination into overdrive. Each â€œchapterâ€ in Limbo complements the others, and itâ€™s perfectly possible that seasoned players will want to go right back to the beginning once theyâ€™ve completed the game to attempt the holy grail, a complete playthrough without dying. Good luck with that.
Microsoftâ€™s â€œSummer of Arcadeâ€ has often been criticised for not delivering on the core promises of the service â€“ to provide fairly short but utterly essential slices of golden gaming. Limboâ€™s look and feel will certainly raise a few eyebrows but itâ€™s effortlessly steamed into the top spot as the best XBLA release of the year (so far) and even though 1,200 points might feel a little on the pricey side for something that you can polish off in an evening, itâ€™s probably less costly than a pizza and a six pack.
Proving once and for all that two staples of videogaming â€“ 2D and Platforming â€“ are definitely not dead, and even proving that you donâ€™t need a garish palette of colours to convey a massive breadth of emotions, Limbo is technically polished, extremely playable and more than a little bit sick in the head in places, but as a 360 owner you owe it to yourself to get hold of this game. Itâ€™s the stuff of legends.