If you’ve ever played a creepy black-and-white platformer, it doubtless owes Limbo a debt for paving the way. Its release on Xbox Live Arcade nearly seven years ago practically opened up a new genre of platformers to explore, those that unsettle and perplex with their ominous atmosphere and threatening aesthetic. We’re a long way out from those heady days, and it’s worth considering how well Limbo holds up now especially in the wake of its spiritual successor, Inside. But I can tell you up front, even coming to it now for the first time you won’t be disappointed.
Limbo starts you off with no fanfare whatsoever, as a silhouetted child awakening in a forest. With no guidance you head rightward in search of something, probably not the deadly traps and machines and creatures that you find, though. Your journey will take you through the darkest parts of the forest, the forgotten corners of industry, and the decrepit heights of the city, with death awaiting you at every turn. There are no items and no real enemies, just you scrambling through a world that feels like it very much does not want you there.
As far as gameplay goes, you run, jump, climb, and push things. Your jump is a sad little hop that skews pretty hard on the realistic side, but levels are designed with this in mind and being more ground-bound helps keep your options focused. You’ll need to do plenty of mantling up ledges and swinging on ropes, along with no shortage of crate pushing, log pushing, rock pushing, and so on. These skills will help you traverse the dangerous territories of Limbo, usually by overcoming some basic trap or hazard but later by clearing a path through more complex puzzle rooms.
It’s important to note that the traps and puzzles never feel contrived, as they always have some discernible purpose in the bleak world you find yourself in. Spike pits and bear traps were clearly built by someone, machines have gears and hatches to negotiate, and the creatures you meet behave in strange and wild ways as suits their designs. Puzzles in Limbo tend to be the gratifying kind, the ones that make you feel clever for sorting them out even if they’re simple to begin with. It’s thanks to some straight-forward design that makes solutions seem obvious, along with some excellent environmental detailing that helps obscure the most obvious parts.
There are aspects of the game that are left too vague, however. Limbo has no shortage of ways to kill your hapless child but isn’t always clear on how it plans to do it. A lot of deaths can easily be described as cheap the first time you encounter them by springing an unseen trap or not reacting to some new mechanic quick enough. The prime example for me is a pair of crushers in a cave about 1/3 of the way in. The first one has a raised plate, and if you step on it, you’re safe; stepping on any other part kills you. The second one is the exact opposite, with the plate calling down instant death. This kind of design guarantees that nearly every single player will die at least once here, with survival being a literal matter of luck.
Death isn’t a big deal in Limbo because the checkpoints are numerous and respawning happens swiftly. Still, the frequent unforeseen deaths have the potential to frustrate and are only really mitigated by how well they fit with the atmosphere. The lo-fi monochrome graphics give the game a terribly ominous and solitary feel that is built upon by the many unsettling and downright disturbing sights you’ll come across. Atmosphere is Limbo’s greatest asset, with few games even getting close to its horrific feel. Every time you see a new creature or device or even a shadow in the background you’ll be wondering if you should fear it, even though you likely will already.
The sharp design elements that made Limbo an instant classic so many years ago have not dulled in the slightest. The aesthetic is still at the top of the genre, the puzzles remain clever and rewarding despite a glut of similar platformers, and the simple gameplay does not get old through the 2 or so hours it will take to finish (though be prepared for an extremely abrupt and unclear ending). There are some secrets to find if you’re diligent, but really the beautiful, haunting journey is what you want to focus on here. It’s just as good as it was at release, and anyone who likes their platformers creepy should have already gotten on this by now.