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PlayDead Studios sets the underworld alight amid silhouetted eeriness in Limbo for XBLA...
With games like Limbo, we can't help but acknowledge the irony that arguably the least innovative videogame genre of the 1990s has since become a meeting place for some of the most original and artistic projects in gaming. Towards the end of the last millennium, platformers had emerged as the most prolific gaming genre. They were the sure-fire way for publishers to guarantee big bucks with film or TV licenses, and game design within the genre began to stagnate as accepted principles took hold. In many ways, platform games were what first-person shooters have since become.
More recently though, titles such as LittleBigPlanet and Braid have proven that platform gaming still has many lives left. Limbo can now raise its head high as a member of this elite band of post-platforming platform games. It's deft use of physics alongside puzzle design that gets as taxing and enthralling as some of Valve's masterpieces, makes PlayDead Studios' debut title a golden ticket to the cool club of indie developers. But it's the art style that really sets Limbo apart. Any attempt to describe it will ultimately fall short of how the visuals actually make you feel, although perhaps the best description I've heard so far comes from a friend who referred to the game as, "a silhouette of the River Styx".
With this in mind, another deep irony behind Limbo is that its dalliances with the edge of hell managed to immerse us considerably more than a couple of recent triple-A blockbusters which took on similar settings. Kratos' journey into Hades during God of War III and, in particular, the portrayal of hell in Dante's Inferno rarely came close to the constant sense of haplessly sinister abandon that underpins Limbo's world. Its end sequence in particular is amongst the most beautiful finishes to a game that we've ever seen, while the themes that Limbo seamlessly passes through and minimalist sound effects that build as the game progresses punctuate the changes in puzzle factors perfectly.
PlayDead never uses the same trick twice in its puzzles and, instead, introduces fresh takes on themes that it smoothly establishes throughout the game. From reverse gravity to laser beams towards the end (don't worry, it's not as sci-fi as it sounds), and bear traps to brain slugs (for want of a better term) earlier on in the story, there's rarely an easily predictable problem to solve or a cheap trick used to stump you. Each individual puzzle dishes out a suitably pleasing eureka moment for the gamer, while the logic behind it all remains sound throughout. If there is one criticism in all of this though, it's perhaps that the constant puzzle solving can become a touch relentless at times.
PlayDead does a very good job of pacing its puzzles, so that a particularly difficult problem is often followed by some relatively straightforward environment traversing. Still, as great as the puzzles are, they are very much the main event for Limbo in terms of gameplay. At times you almost pang to bop an enemy on the head, such is the addiction of traditional platforming, but in the few examples where Limbo does face you off against an enemy, the key is usually to be reactive rather than pro-active (i.e. you have to avoid them rather than kill them directly). Nonetheless, in almost every way this is Limbo's strength and so we're keen not to criticise the style too much, lest we come across as stuffy traditionalists.
The setup of the puzzles also lends itself to pick-up-and-play gaming particularly well, with regular save points that allow you to pretty much boot-up, solve a single puzzle, and then power-down if needs be. Limbo does fit the XBLA remit particularly well, which is evident in the way it dishes out Achievement points. One play through of the game left us with a single Achievement from a list of around 10-15 and, admittedly, the one Achievement we got was for completing the story. The rest remain secret, albeit described by a riddle (other than one super-hardcore Achievement that challenges you to complete the game in one sitting with only five deaths), and we have literally no idea what we might possibly have missed from the first play through.
Clearly Limbo is a game that doesn't give up its secrets easily then and, although a single play through will take most gamers in the region of 3-5 hours (depending on how you fare with logic puzzles), there's more than enough replay value doled out through the Achievements to keep you hammering away for a further 5-10 hours at least in order to 100% the game. This percentage completion score is then the single defining factor on the XBLA leaderboards, so there are bragging rights to be had here as well. With all of this considered, Limbo is fairly bargainous at 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20) to be honest. There are some XBLA games with more content, certainly, but few that dish it out in quite so finely weighted measures.
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