Limbo hit Xbox Live Arcade almost three years ago. I picked it up on launch day and it sucked me right in. Gorgeous artwork, a mysterious atmosphere, and brutal trial-and-error gameplay kept me engrossed until I had completed it in one sitting. Like many players, I fell in love with the game and recommended it to anybody with an Xbox 360. Limbo has since sold over 3 million copies and has been ported to many other platforms, now including iOS!
For those of you that have never experienced it before, Limbo is a 2D puzzle platformer. You play a young boy who is searching for his sister. He wakes up in a strange, monochromatic world that is fraught with danger. The boy can run, jump, climb, and interact with objects like boxes and levers. Notably, he has no attacks.
The game is designed around trial-and-error gameplay, with failed attempts resulting in gruesome deaths (in fact, the developers call it “trial and death” game play). The boy is a fragile creature in a brutal environment. Get to close to a spider and you’ll be skewered. Fail a jump and impale yourself on the spikes below. You thought you could swim? Well, now you’re drowning. If your deaths are coming fast and often, you’re playing the game right. I can’t help but laugh at the excellent pacing of the traps. There are many surprises and I envy those of you who get to experience Limbo for the first time. There’s nothing quite like having an enormous boulder start rolling your way and being forced to run the other way only to find that you are now running towards the enormous spider you just escaped from.
Fortunately, there are a lot of checkpoints, so you’ll never respawn too far away from where you died. It seriously cracks me up when I finally get past a trap that has been giving me trouble only to have a surprise trap right next to it take me out. Struggling through the trial-and-error puzzles takes up most of your time. The very first time you play this game, it is going to give you 3-5 hours of solid gameplay. Once you know how to solve each puzzle, you can beat the game in about an hour.
The graphics in Limbo are distinct and beautiful. The world is presented in grayscale and everything is silhouetted. The boy is completely black except his glowing white eyes. In the same way, spikes, boxes, platforms and everything else is a highly detailed but single-colored silhouette. Lighting effects and particles add surprising depth to graphics you would expect to be flat. The total effect is absolutely striking and easily what Limbo is best known for. The game has a film grain filter applied constantly that really adds to the eerie mood but weakens the effect of the retina display. Don’t get me wrong, the graphics look excellent on the retina display and sucked me right back in. I just think Limbo could have been stunningly gorgeous without the noise filter (see BADLAND for an example of gorgeous unfiltered silhouettes).
Like any heavily atmospheric game, Limbo is great with headphones in and the lights low. The sound effects are crisp and creepy. They beg you to pay attention to them, especially because a lot of them are your cue that something’s about to take a shot at killing you. The water sound effects are particularly lovely. Rain and waterfalls generate realistic white noise that drown out everything else while pools of water will muffle your hearing when you’re underwater. Music is played rarely and always very briefly, but it is used very effectively to make you aware of scene changes and impending doom.
Poorly implemented touchscreen controls can single-handedly ruin a great platformer, but I am thrilled to report that the controls work great. The first thumb that touches the screen initiates an invisible floating joystick that controls movement. While your first thumb is on the screen, your second thumb presses the screen to interact with objects or swipes to jump. You can swipe sideways or up to jump, adding some much-appreciated control. It is really interesting to me that the game concerns itself with which order your thumbs touch the screen instead of where they touch the screen. Depending on which thumb touches the screen first, you can instantly make the controls left-handed or right-handed.
My biggest concern with the controls are that the game doesn’t tell you about them at all. This added to the mysterious atmosphere on the Xbox, but you could easily figure out the controls because there are only so many sticks, buttons, and triggers to interact with on the controller. I guess that’s the same for iOS. I tried to run at first by tapping the left or right side of the screen. When that did nothing, I tried swiping and figured out how to run on my own. I’m sure with enough trial-and-error, players will figure out the controls. Still, I worry that people who never played Limbo before will take a while to figure out that you can interact with objects by tapping with your other thumb.
As I mentioned earlier, the game only takes about 3-5 hours on your first playthrough. Gameplay that short is enough to make anyone hesitate before spending $4.99 on an app. Let me put your mind at ease. Even if a single playthrough was all there was to the game, it’s carefully crafted mood and puzzle design are top notch and Limbo is definitely something that every gamer should experience. While I think the experience of a single playthrough justifies the price by itself, there are several additional features that will keep completionists and explorers busy for many hours more. 21 glowing eggs are hidden throughout the world and will take hours of exploring to find. There’s also a tough achievement that challenges players to beat the game with five deaths or fewer. I still haven’t pulled this off on the 360 version where my personal best is six deaths.
So here’s the deal: if you’ve never experienced Limbo, I urge you to do so now. Even though the story’s pretty thin, the world is enchanting. The puzzle design is a blast… and even though I remember a couple puzzles that got a little frustrating before I could figure them out, I know there were plenty more that had me laughing out loud because they were so unexpected. The art style is hauntingly beautiful and silhouettes look crisp and highly detailed on a retina display, despite the film grain.
For those of you who have already completed Limbo on a different platform, you already know whether or not you like Limbo. If you’re still reading, I imagine your decision comes down to how good the port is. The art and sound are still as great as ever. The controls are surprisingly good. Like, “I wish this is how most iOS platformers controlled” level of good. I love that there are no virtual controls to lose or mispress because you can touch the screen anywhere (except the top-left corner, which is where an invisible pause button sits). While I don’t think touch controls will ever be better than physical controls for a platformer, these come pretty close and the ability to swipe sideways to jump sideways honestly made some of the jumps easier than in the Xbox version. What else can I say? It looks the same, sounds the same, and plays the same. I really enjoyed returning to the world of Limbo, immersing myself into it, and laughing out loud whenever a trap I’d forgotten got the best of me.