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Review: Limbo

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

I’m currently basking in the afterglow of christening my brand new Xbox in one of the coolest ways I can imagine – finishing Limbo. Upon downloading Limbo from the XBLA I hit the ground running with my new console and found myself spellbound by a tiny boy with unearthly glowing eyes. Created by Playdead, a relatively-new indie developer founded in 2006, Limbo is Arnt Jensen’s directorial debut. Boy has he set the bar high for his next project. Within it’s first 8 days of sale, Limbo had over 200,000 people on the XBLA leader board. If the best friend of the indie game is word-of-mouth, Limbo’s name is getting a fine reception amongst players and reviewers alike, as shown by winning awards for Excellence In Visual Art, and Technical Excellence at the 2010 Independent Games Festival.

Limbo’s appeal is the classic successful formula of elegantly matching simplicity with a gorgeous art style. You start out the game just a boy in a forest waking up. No idea how you got there, or where you’re supposed to go. No backstory apart from a short description in the XBLA that informs you that he’s trying to save his sister. No idea what from or who has her (my bet was on some kind of spikey dinosaur for a while there). There’s no tutorial, no highlighted flashy bits saying “Press B here!”, you’re on your own, which funnily enough isn’t frustrating or confounding. The controls are simple and easy to pick up, all you can do is move (left control stick), jump (A), and interact (B). The learning curve is extremely minimal, I took to the game instantly having never even held an Xbox controller before. Gore can be turned off if you prefer, but I think the gruesome death sequences add to the atmosphere of the game. Seeing his glowing eyes close after he falls down like a lifeless rag-doll is heartbreaking enough to give you motivation to try not to kill him again. Even though you’ll fail in doing so. Over and over again. You aim to avoid dying yet most of the time you only learn something can kill you after it’s already killed you. How they managed to make this not frustrating as hell is quite frankly beyond me. With no loading times and no story-telling cutscenes to distract me, once I was immersed I was immersed and refused to surface until my little monochromatic buddy was safe.

The art style is breathtakingly beautiful. I struggle to try and do it justice with comparisons but I think it can best be described as Art Deco (the glass dome in chapter 12 and the elevator in chapter 21 particularly) meets Steampunk (all the gears and industrial goodness from about chapter 15 onwards) meets Alice in Wonderland (the forest in the earlier chapters). It’s entirely greyscale, and has no background music. Two very bold decisions made by the creators, but completely and utterly suited to what they were trying to achieve. I cannot imagine it any other way. If there was music, it would feel tense and ominous at times, it would be too much. If there was colour you’d get lost in the details of the surroundings and lose focus on where you were supposed to go or what was something to interact with and what wasn’t.

The puzzles and interactivity are on the perfect difficulty curve. I teetered ever-so-close to ragequitting. I was right on the cusp of throwing down my controller and never going back, but then was quickly rewarded for my patience just in time. I enjoyed Braid (another side scrolling puzzler with a vaguely similar narrative), but found their decision to make the time travel mechanics essential in solving some of the puzzles sort of jumped the shark for me. Having time travel as a back up for when you die was great, but having it as part of the strategy seemed to unnecessarily up the difficulty into FrustrationTown™. Limbo avoids that by keeping it really clean and simple. You interact with a limited number of things, you can push and pull things, climb ropes and chains, flick switches and pull levers. You mess around with gravity and magnets at some points, but it’s never overly elaborate or exhausting. Any tedium was of my own stupid doing by missing a simple jump or not grabbing a rope in time. (Yeah, I’m looking at you that thing on the flying fox, go to hell).

‘Limbo’ is the perfect name for this game as you’re constantly between two worlds, not quite sure of where you’re situated. I don’t know how they did it, it’s spooky and eery and quite menacing at certain points, yet I felt an overwhelming sense of wellbeing and even warmth. Unlike some other horror-themed games I didn’t want to just get it over and done with as soon as possible so I could avoid wetting my pants, I was comfortable in that world, even though it was supposed to be unpleasant. The boy himself is creepy – a black silhouette with glowing eyes – yet he’s innocently endearing and quite sweet. The world of Limbo is riddled with a feeling of being unclean, there seems to be a ‘grit’ on everything, there’s rotting debris, flies, and dead bodies contrasted by the occasional hopeful ray of light, trees straight out of a fantasy novel, and a few sporadic glimpses of optimism represented by pure white butterflies dancing in the dark. Every morbid fancy in this game has an equally good and pure side to it – every black has a white. Suddenly the saturation choice makes unabridged sense. Limbo is a game of good and evil at it’s very core, but with charming and appealing differences that made me fall in love with it. Sometimes you find the good and the evil even in the same entity. Your protagonist isn’t a once-wronged macho caricature hell-bent on revenge, it’s a tiny boy lost in a scary world just trying to survive. The contrasts in this game are many, and they’re engaging enough to feed your brain without needing a clear spelled-out story. That is what makes this game so surprising, at first glance you think it’s over-simplified, and the more you play it you realise that it isn’t lacking anything at all. I absolutely adored my time in Limbo and look forward to going back to get some more achievements so I can be in that world a little longer. The gorgeous goose-bump-inducing ending is reason enough for me to play this game through at least more than once. So if you don’t mind, I’m off to go repeatedly impale, squish, drop, fling, drown, and electrocute a small boy.

Drear-E3

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

A few weeks on from E3 and I’ve finally emerged from the shock enough to write about it. It shouldn’t be a shock. It has always been this way and it probably always will. No it’s not the wonders of the Kinect (previously known as project Natal), nor the Move, nor the douchebag from Microsoft. It was the fact that the best display we have of the most ground breaking, state-of-the-art gaming related technology was the same as it is every year. Each year I almost fall asleep while watching the press conferences, and yet each year I remain surprised at this fact. Don’t they say the definition of insanity is repeating the same behaviour over and over again and expecting a different result? The dreariness of E3 may have turned my nutso up to eleven.

I’m amazed that a group of professionals whose job it is to entertain people can be so incredibly characterless, insipid and mind-numbingly boring. Why do I need the head developer to tell me about the game or the new console? Their job is to make the thing, not sell it. The intros and cinematics were great, they got me all pumped up, only to be disappointed once I saw a lacklustre human start talking. Is it too much to ask to have professional public speakers or those without massive sweat patches and trembling knees give the keynote speeches? Where is the gravitas?! I want to see someone with some idea how to captivate an audience. You’re asking me to part with a fair amount of money to buy this new gadget you’ve made, give me orators! Someone to get the people on their feet. Every single speaker representing “the big 3” (Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo) used the phrase “This. Will. Change. The way. We. Play. Video Games” enough abuse of the dramatic pause! In the wrong hands it looks like an awkward silence. The pause has seen too much! Can’t you just leave it alone? You cruel heartless bastards.

Microsoft unveiled a few upcoming titles, notably Gears of War 3, Halo Reach, COD: Special Ops, Fable 3, and some softer motion based titles through the Kinect such as Kinectimals and Kinect Sports. The new Xbox surprised me in terms of how little it had to offer. A bigger hard drive and built in wifi was about as exciting as it got, with a slimmer casing, and still no Bluray support (Guys what the hell… seriously…). Their focus was clearly on developing the Kinect. Lots of word stumbling. Lots of sweaty underarms. Shameless abuse of the dramatic pause.

Sony grabbed 3D by the balls and ran with it at E3 this year, with massive titles available in the new dimensional trend such as Killzone 3, Mortal Kombat, and Gran Turismo 5. They also showcased their motion based gaming peripheral, the Playstation Move, which looks like it may be a fraction cheaper than the Kinect upon release, with a single controller costing around USD$50, and a PS3/Move bundle running at about USD$399, and boasts titles such as SingStar Dance, and TV SuperStars. Still boring when a head started talking, but not actively bad, just felt more like a presentation to the board rather than one to the public. More shameless abuse of our much mistreated dramatic pause.

Nintendo won the show for me. Having had the upper hand with already having motion based devices and games in the market for over 4 years, they really had the room to completely leave the others in the dust. Logic was on their side dictating that clearly if they have had motion control for years already and the other companies are just now catching up, that they must be at least 4 years ahead of what everyone else is doing. You could be mistaken for thinking surely they must hold the key to the future of gaming. What did Nintendo show us as the future of gaming? The past. Nintendo’s big drawcard this year was revamps, and nothing gets us nostalgia-buffs panting like a good revamp. New Metroid, New Donkey Kong Country, New Zelda, New Goldeneye, and featuring everyone’s favourite mouse, Epic Mickey. They weren’t to be left out of the innovation wars however, with the Nintendo 3DS making it’s debut strapped to the torsos of a bevvy of beauties. Just to kick Sony while they were down, the 3DS doesn’t need 3D glasses, either. Ouch Nintendo! You saucy minx. Still a fairly monotonous performance in the conference, and the most painful blatant molestation of the dramatic pause in the entire expo.

As the dramatic pause packs for a well earned holiday before bracing itself for the barrage of abuse it will no doubt encounter next year, I find myself in the same position as usual. Underwhelmed with the presentation, but excited about the content. Perhaps that’s the point. To showcase the amazing work these people have done, and not let it get lost in bravado, pomp and circumstance. The more beige you make the speakers, the more vivid the videos and gameplay seem. Perhaps it’s the digital equivalent of cleansing your palate before moving on to the next tasty morsel, and it leaves me wondering what our taste-buds might be treated to next year.

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