Limbo is an experience, not a game. Yes, it is a 2D puzzle platformer, but it tries to be more than that. It has a message, a theme running through it. The aesthetic and the mechanics work together in an attempt to invoke a very specific reaction from the player. It manages this to a degree, but unfortunately comes across as pretentious too.
The immediate comparison to Limbo is Braid, that well known title that began the trend of developers using the puzzle platformer for lofty, artistic purposes. However, it probably shares more in common with a game called The Path. Both are ﬂoaty games with minimalist interaction. Both have a very depressing tone to them. And both are, well, a little bit wanky. Going back to the platformer comparison though, Braid successfully used the manipulation of time as the primary mechanic, and each world had some truly stunning puzzles. Limbo uses the inevitability of time as its main mechanic: namely, death. Death is a huge part of any game, and here it’s used very cleverly (perhaps a little too cleverly). But unlike Braid, the obstacles faced don’t go far enough.
Throughout Limbo, you will constantly curse the developer for being downright dastardly. If you think you know how to clear an obstacle, you probably don’t. It isn’t trial and error, far from it. It’s more trial, fail, and feel like a moron. The game makes you move continuously, and as a result you will run into some spinning blade or another. But that’s OK, because as I mentioned death is the mechanic, and from it we learn. The character is in Limbo after all, and repeated deaths come with the territory. Thankfully a single decapitation will often be enough for the solution to become obvious in hindsight. Each section is very deliberately laid out so that the player keeps a constant pace, using things like rising water or a giant spider to do so. The message is clear; you can’t escape death (did I mention the game is subtle? Good, because it isn’t).
However, the puzzles are a point of contention. Undoubtedly there are some fantastic ideas here, and many that complement the theme. The majority of the mechanics seem to challenge typical ideas of platformer progression. My favorite section involved the world turning with a swinging light barely showing the way. Another has your avatar controlled by a parasite, removing control of the typical left-to-right freedom, which is a great statement. These are all fine examples, but there was simply not enough. Limbo is a short game, hence calling it an experience. Each section is a taste in order to explore ideas, but I was always hungry for more. Because everything is so planned, there is little room for experimentation.
Apart from questioning the nature of death, Limbo looks at the notion of ‘Kids Can Be Cruel’. You often face shady children trying to impede your journey. As I mentioned, at one point a giant spider chases you, but you end up tearing it’s leg off. While manipulating ﬂoating bodies, you may think, “What lengths will I go to to reach my goal?” And it’s in these ideas that Limbo loses me. The ending is perplexing to say the least. There is no explanation for anything, and you will have to draw your own conclusions from the aesthetics (which are indeed gorgeous). After the lack of meaty puzzles, the ambiguous conclusion is an even bigger let down. There is a definitive, downbeat vibe, but to what end? There’s no Moment like in Braid, just a lot of depressing images.
As a result, Limbo is Just Some Game. It looks beautiful and sounds haunting, but that wears off. It has some great mechanics, but you don’t get to play with them enough, both because of the lack of puzzles and the clear-cut nature of them. What really knocks it down is that it tries so hard to be Edgy. Braid was a success because you felt smart for solving the puzzles. Limbo on the other hand makes the player feel dumb while the developer mocks them from their high horse. If there is some deeper lesson to learn from Limbo it’s too convoluted to worry about.