Review: Limbo

Just me and my fun boat, going to have some good times together. What could possibly go wrong?

Wait! Don’t leave just yet, hear me out! I know, it’s crazy to think that a Limbo review is coming out in the year 2011, and while that may be the case, you should be aware that everyone has a backlog of fantastic games that they haven’t played with the excuse of, “I’ll get around to that at some point, I swear.” This just so happened to be on my list, and the purpose of this review is to tell everyone else who has this on their respective backlogs to get off their lazy cans and hop to it, since Limbo is something that deserves the attention. If you’ve already played it, then you don’t need me to tell you that it’s something special; if you haven’t yet taken the dive, then be prepared for an exquisitely-crafted foray into gloomy adventure.

You’re dropped in Limbo without any clues or concepts of what you’re supposed to be doing. It initially appears to be a simple sidescrolling platformer, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that it’s much deeper than that. As you progress further along, there is a steady progression of puzzle-solving mechanics to get from one area to the next. It is not uncommon to die several times just trying to move on (often in a gruesome fashion) due to the diabolical hurdles that lie in wait, but the checkpointing is spot-on and the continues are infinite, so you can retry as many times as it takes for your brain to squeeze out enough theories to crack the code of each riddle. The rate at which new mechanics are showcased is fantastic, though several times you’ll have to think long and hard to work on a new and sturdy enigma with a “think outside of the box” mentality.

I’m not going to cite any examples, since I don’t want to spoil any solutions, but I can easily recall a few obstacles that had me stepping extremely far out of my personal comfort zone in order to overcome them. On top of that, Limbo occasionally subverts expectations regarding the frequency of deaths with an incredibly unique twist, where you think you’ve just encountered a new and grotesque demise. But in reality the puzzle has NOT ended, and the realization that you still have control over your character sets in. It’s beautifully executed each and every time it happens, and it’s a great example of the overarching lack of lucidity that the game presents.

There is a great sense of foreboding simply in the way the game looks and sounds. Everything is presented in silhouette without any color. The backgrounds are foggy and muddled behind a depth of field filter, leaving you to rely on the impressive lighting to figure out what’s going on. You won’t lose track of your character even if the screen is pitch black, because of his cleverly-designed white blinking eyes. The environments you go through all seem incredibly foreign, even if you can distinctly tell what they resemble. Wandering through a forest is much more frightening than it may sound, since it may be littered with lifeless bodies suspended from wooden cages, and working your way through an abandoned factory may leave you wondering, “Who designed this machine-operated labyrinthine hell?” The ambient background music constantly fluctuates between tones of relaxation and confusion, and the sound effects are all disturbingly visceral. Everything works together seamlessly to create a world that fills you with apprehension, but also the intrigue to keep pushing forward.

Continuing the theme of hazy confusion, there seems to be a plot buried somewhere, but it’s never inherently clear what exactly is going on, nor the motivations of the character. Even after beating the game, I had more questions than answers about everything I had gone through. It seems to be a deliberate choice to leave it open to interpretation and letting the player fill in the blanks of the story, which fits perfectly. I wouldn’t say that the lack of narration is intensely compelling, but it’s also hard to completely write off what appears to be yet another jigsaw piece of the Limbo puzzle.

My main negative takeaway from the whole experience is just how short Limbo is. Within a sleepy Sunday afternoon, the entirety of the game came and went, and I had seen everything it had to offer – with the exception of collecting all of the hidden “eggs” which don’t seem to do anything other than gift achievement points. There isn’t much reason to replay it beyond achievement incentive, since you’ve already seen all of the tricks it has to play on you, and you’ve already labored out in your head how to do most of the puzzles. The extras are there for the completionists and perfectionists, but don’t do much to add to the high points of the experience.

Replayability aside, Limbo succeeds in just about every other way. The oppressive-yet-uncertain atmosphere, the creative puzzles (combined with the rush you get from solving said puzzles), and the palpable tension from the whole package delivers a very unique and fresh gameplay experience. It’s a bit short, but also in a league of its own, and its uncommon approach has something great that is easily worth the asking price from whichever platform you decide to pick it up on. It’s worth mentioning that at the time of this writing, it is only $9.99 on Steam, which is five buckazoids cheaper than on PSN or 360 at $14.99/1200 MS Points respectively.

4 out of 5

Review: The Binding of Isaac

You'd cry too if your mom was trying to kill you.

You'd cry too if your mom was trying to kill you.

In the biblical account of the binding of Isaac, Isaac is not so much a character as he is a plot device. He accompanies his father Abraham on a test of faith – God wants Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove he fears God. Isaac remains passive throughout, even as his own dad ties him up and raises a knife over his helpless body. The Isaac of Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl’s account is a little bit more proactive.

Your quest in The Binding of Isaac is to guide Isaac as he attempts to escape the misguided zealotry of his mother. You’ll travel through his house’s basement, which seems to be connected to hell itself. Along the way you’ll encounter numerous terrifying creatures and other oddities that can help or hamper you in your quest for freedom.

The game plays like Robotron: 2084 mixed with a Zelda adventure. You can only shoot in the four cardinal directions, and your projectiles and stats can be upgraded through items found in the dungeons. You’ll never quite have the same game twice, as enemy placement, room layouts, item drops and secrets are all randomized heavily. With so many variables in play, conquering the game is as much a game of luck as it is skill. Finding the right gifts out of dozens of possible items will definitely factor heavily in a successful run, with each new item appearing on poor Isaac’s horrified face and body. After several such upgrades, Isaac usually bears closer resemblance to the antagonistic grotesqueries of the depths than the innocent child he began as.

With its roguelike influences so readily apparent, you can expect to fail – a lot. No save system exists here, which is fine since a complete run through Isaac’s basement is not very long. The Binding of Isaac delivers a compact experience in about half-hour bite-size chunks, making it the perfect length as the curious diversion it is.

The art looks like something out of a Flash game, because it is. It might not be much to look at it in still screenshots, but in motion everything comes alive with the sick creativity of McMillen’s imagination. Horrors lurk in every room, and the disgusting creatures within the hellish atmosphere are simultaneously gross and amusing. This is not a game for the kids. The excellent soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky adds to the uneasy tone.

One of the disadvantages of the Flash technology powering the game is that everything runs off the CPU rather than a dedicated graphics device. This means that even with an above-average system, you may run into a lot of slowdown in some of the busier rooms. Ironically, this actually tends to work to your advantage as the dozens of flying projectiles become much easier to dodge in slow motion.

I’m not sure what statement if any McMillen was attempting to make with The Binding of Isaac, or if the source material was merely inspiration for his own twisted vision. It’s an endearing game, as odd as that may seem, and a great value at its $5 asking price. You may find yourself coming back to it again and again, because surprises still remain in abundance even after you’ve seen one of the endings. It’s not for the faint of heart or the easily frustrated, but those who persevere will be rewarded with a unique and unforgettable experience.

4 out of 5