Monday, 23 December 2013

Limbo



If you're the kind of person considering throwing yourself under a bus, or under a car; if you're the kind of person that thinks the long walk off the short cliff/pier is a good choice; if you're the kind of person that feels that parachuting without a parachute into a landfill site topped with explosives is a more preferable thing to do; if you're the kind of person that feels that running chainsaws need to be deep-throated and if you're the kind of person that has read this far and feels like topping themselves... this game really isn't for you.

Limbo, depending upon your interpretation and religion or insight into the afterlife, is usually defined as a half-way house between dying and getting to an after-life. Sometimes it's an eternal state of just "being" determined as neither good nor bad, sometimes it's a form of temporal punishment to balance out minor sins before being given the keys to the afterlife. In this case it's a very stylish platformer, rich in variety and physics based puzzles that wouldn't be too far from home as a Flash game, but instead we get it on various formats.

The story has been used a few times, someone dies and a grieving loved one takes a trip into the afterlife to go and get them back. Though this entirely belies the fantastic artwork and picturesque scenery of the game. You control LargeHeadBoy with his odd gambling gait and incredible jumping powers of... not that much, as he traverses an epic quest into Limbo through lands unknown heading deeper and further into the world created and facing off all manner of creatures, spiders, brain slugs, other kids, traps, traps and traps.

You've NO weapons, NO power ups, NO way to defend yourself save for the environment around you. Sometimes switches can be hit, boxes moved and things climbed upon but that's your entire arsenal in a very dark and dreary world.

And what a dreary world it is. The entire game is in black and white, by which I mean greyscale but saying that tends to give the wrong impression of the game and its achievements. While travelling through the land of Limbo, there's plenty of scope to see the rich environments and backgrounds the game has to offer, usually before having to avoid being cut up, squished, impaled and god knows what attacking you at inopportune moments, or even drowning. Yes there's plenty of ways to die in this game and you'll likely see most of them.

Travelling from forests and craters, industrial areas, cityscapes, abandoned buildings, to the point of being within infernal machines of an immense size and scale, the game can likely be beaten within a few hours from start to finish on a first play through. Each trap usually has a specific way of getting around it, getting past it or through it in various means and guises. Sometimes the traps will fake you out, like the Squishers where landing on the button triggers the trap and kills you while the next Squisher will kill you if you DON'T land on the button in that funny little (read: fucking annoying) way of twisting the rules that designers like to do.

Sometimes you might get past a trap and not realise it but for the most part, you'll inwardly congratulate yourself every time you make significant progress and overcome a particularly odious little trap. Some require hitting X and getting to Y before it's too late, others are just making sure you're not stood at point X when Y happens and in the final acts of the game, timing and planning become almost essential. Some traps however are fairly obvious though the most awkward ones have to be the brain slugs, a set of unavoidable instances where you'll be forced to walk forwards until meeting sunlight and then turning around, while having to navigate blocks, crates, platforms and traps until you're able to locate something that can eat the brain slug back out of your head. Otherwise you're brown-bread. It's an interesting take on the trap settings but does have that awkward drawback of forcing the player ahead at a pace that isn't their own and in a game like this, feels like you're either being rushed forwards or being arbitrarily instructed to get your arse in gear and move the hell along.

The game is bleak, don't get me wrong, everything might look impressive but at the same time, oppressive. The eternal darkness of the game getting more and more foreboding the deeper you get into Limbo and the less friendly the area looks. Especially once the spinning saw blades start up, electrified floors and so on, make their appearance and then everything looks like it's out to get you, including machinegun nests which do seem a little out of place at times. Though that's nothing to say of the rather determined giant spider back near the start of the game.

Yes, arachnophobics might want to skip the first part of the game. It's a biggy and the size that would take up a whole house if it spread out. Yes you're on the menu. Though don't expect to win throughout on skill, the control system is sometimes a little unresponsive and you don't always quite get the run-up you thought you might in some of the more treacherous leaps and bounds you have to make, which leads to a rather frustrating series of deaths that you KNOW are not your fault.

Graphically, the game is proudly wearing the "Art" style and makes full use of its lack of colour to tease and titillate the player, hints of lighter grey become rays of sunlight and seen less and less in the later levels and areas of the game, while at times the game can be a little difficult to identify what something is and what can be used or not used when almost everything is jet black in the foreground. But that is expected when you're trying to go for the doom/gloom and dank approach to the style. It works for the atmosphere but not always for the functionality of the game itself.

Though no atmospheric game could be complete without the soundtrack, of which there is little of one. It's much more ambient than boasting a soundtrack in the conventional sense. It all adds to the theme of oppression and overbearing undertones that build to a crescendo accompanying most of the more difficult and drawn out instances of traps and gauntlets that need to be run to progress within the game. The final puzzle set in the game featuring gravity switches and perfect timing, brings the music crashing into silence in a rather jarring and fantastically accompanying visual aesthetic.

Having said that, it does feel short as a game. A lot of pride, attention and bleak detail has gone into the game and rather than repeat things over and over to pad the game out, it feels that the game was half finished before a deadline and they decided to bring it crashing to a halt through a plate glass window. (Hidden reference there...). Which leaves you oddly satisfied to have beaten the game but a longer for more, not so much more in regards to the plot and the final revelation, but to see more tricks, traps and crazy environments that the game has fantastically delivered up to this point.

Part of me wants to learn more about the setting, more about how this place came to be, who the kids are at the start and if they're like you; wandering a world in search of something but lost their ways and now descend into a medley of chaos and 'Lord Of The Flies' children, how the huge city came to be and why it's so rundown, why the world is still mechanically running with nobody around to run it (not that we can see anyway...) but then I'm also reminded of a little point I bring up every now and then for back stories that aren't explained. Is it ever explained in Little Red Riding Hood as to how the Wolf can talk? No. As such it need not be explained here either, though in this game, I do want to see more which is a rarity for myself.

It's this level of intrigue that both adds and subtracts from the game's appeal, it encourages one to run through the game again to find more visual clues, if we're going on the idea that anything seen is pertinent and valuable and nothing is pointless, there is reason for everything as part of the bigger picture and whole. But at the same time, it's a little on the short side and you'll find yourself racing through chapters later on without even realising it until suddenly you hit the glass ceiling of the game and realise that this is it, it's all over.

As for wandering through Limbo, there's more dangerous (barely) and less visually satisfying games that try the same thing. Certainly worth a look if you want give Limbo a try.