Review: Limbo (iOS)

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written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)

Here’s a treat for the iOS crowd, the game that was originally a XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) exclusive… and has since been ported over to PS3 and PC platforms… is now available for the iOS platform, playable on iDevices such as the Phone/Pod/Pad. I never got around to playing it before but have heard of it via many games publication websites that lauded it as an achievement in gaming and a shining example of games being considered works of art. I usually am very skeptical of games that were originally meant to be interacted with via a game pad but are ported to touch interfaces, usually this yields an awkward “virtual” touch pad and buttons that take up some much needed screen real estate. Let me preface this by saying my skepticism was far from needed this time around. Now lets get into it.

Limbo is a side-scrolling puzzle platforming game touting an impressive physics engine. The player character is an unnamed boy searching for his missing sister in this dark and dangerous world.

Story:

As stated above, you are looking for your missing sister in this dark and dangerous world on the edges of the realm of the living and the realm of the dead. Hence the name Limbo fits perfectly in this case (or Purgatory for those familiar with the concept of it). The narrative is light with very little driving the player forward other than the thought of finding his lost sister and surviving the traps and monsters before him.

hauntingly beautiful visuals

hauntingly beautiful visuals

It’s gorgeous expression at its best, and the story does a great job with driving the player to continue with his search and face numerous obstacles. While some may be turned off by the purposeful lack of any direct narrative, I found this to be very beautiful and allowed me as the player to craft the story and imagine what I think this whole journey means. Even without the hand-holding, I could connect immediately with the character and with his journey to find his sister. Being an older brother myself, I know that I would go to similar lengths and face perilous dangers for that very reason.

Personally, I feel that the lack of direct narrative complemented the game more so than hurt it. This forced us as gamers to really think about the media we are consuming. This is one of the reasons that I stand behind the notion of games being art, much like in movies… a Citizen Kane can exist in the same universe as a summer blockbuster like Independence Day, much like how a game like Limbo can exist side by side with a game like Halo. Rather than spoon feeding me the story of this boy’s journey, I had to experience it and come up with my own interpretation of what was presented to me, much like walking through a museum.

the developers dubbed it a “trial and die” format... some puzzles may seem so daunting when initially placed before the player, when you solve it you get such a satisfying “AH HAH!” moment, you wonder why it wasn’t so apparent when first tackling
giant spiders! creeeeeepy

giant spiders! creeeeeepy

Presentation:

The art direction is truly unique. The game is presented in this dark monochromatic palette of black and greys. The visuals are hauntingly beautiful and truly immerse you as the player in this bleak environment the player-character has been thrust into. Graphics are simplistic, mostly consisting of shadows and rays of light, but this adds to the charm and character of the game. The visuals were never a deterrent for me and I found the monochromatic color scheme to be both terrifying and beautiful. It lends greatly to the feeling of isolation you as the player experience as you help this unnamed boy find his sister.

Levels are straight-forward with very little need for backtracking, as you traverse this interpretation of purgatory (my interpretation mind you) you’re faced with a myriad of obstacles that force the player to really think about how to continue on. The music and sound effects are ambient and subtle, sometimes providing little clues how to complete a puzzle.

The game is also very violent, much like how in this year’s Tomb Raider reboot, Lara Croft would die by all manner of gruesome circumstance, the unnamed boy faces some pretty gruesome deaths as well. From being impaled by a giant spider to being ripped to shreds buy a buzz saw, the world is truly a danger. In contrast to the violent nature is how the violence is presented. With the game being entirely monochromatic, it’s like in those PG-13 films where gruesome deaths would be seen off screen but illustrated by shadows against a wall, it’s a lot like that. I found myself purposely failing some puzzles just to see by what manner my player will die. Ultimately though, as the levels progress, I pretty much died multiple times at every puzzle, trying to just figure them out.

Gameplay:

Side-scrolling platforming games never seem to work right on a touch interface. A lot of times, game developers will pull the “lazy” card when developing or porting a game over by just overlaying a d-pad and buttons. This game took the touch interface and really ran with it, and guess what? It bloody WORKS!

such a beautiful and terrifying art direction... 

such a beautiful and terrifying art direction... 

You control your character by dragging you finger across the screen, a quick flick up forces the character to jump, and by holding down on one point on the touch screen allows the player to interact with objects in the environment. The controls work and feel pretty damn intuitive. I did find myself facing some slight hiccups with this all-in-one touch input system, like for example having to tap the screen to active an elevator and then move past the switch to jump on to, many times the act of dragging my finger across the screen would force me to hit the switch again… reversing the lift. While not game breaking or even a deal breaker, this did provide some frustration, especially when it would lead to my character’s death.

The puzzles are created to force a trial and error way to figure out how to get past, you WILL die multiple times and the developers dubbed it a “trial and die” format. What I loved is that some puzzles may seem so daunting when initially placed before the player, when you solve it you get such a satisfying “AH HAH!” moment, you wonder why it wasn’t so apparent when first tackling.

Verdict:

This game is beautiful and one you should definitely not miss, personally I wonder how the game would play on other platforms like the big boy consoles or the Vita. I may buy it on one of those platforms, but this game is an experience I hope all gamers get around to trying. Much like how I felt after completing BioShock: Infinite, this game gave me a bittersweet feeling. While I am definitely glad I got to experience such a beautiful example of art in gaming, I’ll never again get to experience it for the first time. I know many a gamer who have played the game once and never picked it up again, it’s one of those experiences that stay with you, I hope you get to try it yourself.

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