Saturday, January 1, 2011

REVIEW - Limbo.

Let's get down to brass tacks, gentlepeople - Limbo is a stunner. Not in terms of value - of potential time per gaming dollar, or of depth of play - but in terms of the unique strengths that independent development fosters.

It's risky. It weird. It's unique and very emotionally engaging and absolutely nothing if not the result of a singular, passionate vision.

It's also pretty expensive, for a two-and-a-half hour game. Fifteen bucks? Ouch. I just bought Mass Effect for fifteen bucks, and that felt very reasonable. Charging so much for so little is the single greatest strike against Limbo, but having said that I feel no whiff of buyer's remorse.

It's rather like that one rare, art-house film you have in amongst your blu-ray collection. An old black-and-white affair, representative of an artist at the peak of their craft, which you paid through the nose for.

So yes, perhaps it is thoroughly pretentious. It's a stark, minimal game with no music. No words. No greater narrative save the one the player imposes on it, through their experience - and it succeeds so well because it's so pared-back. So focused. There is nothing here to distract from the haunting atmosphere, cynical symbolism and clever puzzles.

The bare, essential presentation separates Limbo from its peers, and demands the player impose their own emotional value on the proceedings. It never tells you what you should feel, or think, or where you should go - it leaves all that to you - and this produces an experience of uniquely powerful emotion. Lovely.

In terms of gameplay, it's a straightforward 2-D platformer with physics puzzles. At first blush that sounds pretty boring, but when it comes to puzzle design the game is an unmitigated success.

This game will beat you, quite regularly. It will stab or crush or decapitate you. Electrify you, impale you, throw you to your death or sink you to a watery grave - and when you instantly recover yourself, as if nothing had happened, you will peer into its dark world a touch more closely.

Examine it. Look around. All the tools for your success - and no more - are here, and available to you. You only need to see it.

Some solutions come naturally - some come mere seconds before I was prepared to relent and check GameFAQs - but earned success is pure satisfaction.

The overall experience falters a bit during the latter half, when the incredible atmosphere of the title begins playing second fiddle to the increasingly complex puzzles. It has one of the most engaging first hours in gaming - and it may well have been impossible to maintain such high tension and creativity - but that doesn't mean we should not place a caveat on the game's overall experience: it is not perfect. It is merely really great.

And really expensive, for so limited an experience. But what an experience.

-stark, beautiful, haunting presentation and atmosphere
-a creepy examination of the awful things little boys do
-clever, satisfying puzzles with excellent design
-pretty pricy for a game that's
-pretty short

Strong from any angle, Limbo is mechanically simple and emotionally complex - but not a good value for the money, [update] though cross-buy on PS3 and Vita soothes the sting. [/update]

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