If you go down to the woods today, you might wake up alone.
Itâ€™s the third annual Summer of Arcade on XBL and if the first title on offer is anything to go by, weâ€™re in for a scorchingly good time!
Not that thereâ€™s anything sunny or cheerful about Limbo but fret ye not because what you do get is one of the best puzzle-platformer games youâ€™ll ever play. Waking up in the misty black and white forest, you play Boy who is nothing more than a silhouette with bright blinking eyes. Using the most basic of controls â€“ left stick to move, A to jump and B to push/drag â€“ off you set into the dark and eerily quiet landscape.
Itâ€™s hard to say what will have the greatest impact on you first, the mood or the actual gameplay? Thereâ€™s the distinct lack of a soundtrack, only the sound effects of the wind, Boyâ€™s footsteps through the long grass that swishes as you scamper by and thereâ€™s the occasional bird crowing as you walk through the charcoal smudged scenery. Thereâ€™s a fabulous sense of depth to the environment, which seemingly has no real beginning or end, whilst the attention to detail is incredible.
Itâ€™s also hard to write about this game as most of the pleasure in playing comes from the startling macabre surprises that lie in wait for the Boy or from enjoying the sheer ingenuity of the puzzles. To describe them here in any detail would ruin that element. The first few obstacles Boy comes across are pretty easy to overcome but are hugely inventive and very clever. As you progress the puzzles become increasingly tricky and take longer to work out but when you do, you canâ€™t help but be delighted and impressed with the solutions, many of which require you use physics, gravity or sheer bravery. Part of this titles unique charm and brilliant satisfaction is the shock element, which doesnâ€™t come from a deliberately disturbing storyline but from a forbidding world in which Boy must traverse. Reluctant exploration will sometime reward the courageous but be warned, there are plenty of creatures awaiting you in the dark.
Of course, as the answers to so many of the conundrums arenâ€™t immediately obvious, you will die countless times. In fact one of the achievements on offer is for completing the game with fewer than 5 deaths but once again, developers Playdead have been unpretentious in their design. They know that when playing this game for the first time you will die many times and instead of making a song and dance about it the game simply fades to black and youâ€™re back to a point just before the puzzle started to try again. This instantly evaporates any frustrations that could build when attempting the same section over and over and allows you to fully immerse yourself into the game â€“ no long winded breaks of momentum here, no breach in tone or atmosphere, just a welcome focus on great game playing that works.
As you move from the woods to a more industrial area, the potential for death increases and it often comes with a jump! Dare I say it but sometimes you can even enjoy dying. Even in death, Boy remains silent and all youâ€™ll hear is the splatting of his crushed/chopped/spiked/electrocuted body unless youâ€™re drowning when youâ€™ll hear nothing at all. Even when his death is horrendously violent and the shadows of mutated limbs and mashed innards slump to the floor, Boy doesnâ€™t utter a peep. Itâ€™s creepy but often strangely graceful and beautiful.
There are exceptional audio moments (low rumblings or water rising) that slowly build up tension and drama as you try to get the timing right on some of the puzzles or are pursued through the monochrome world. Itâ€™s only when you get through and the silence returns that youâ€™ll realise that you were holding your breath or youâ€™re knuckles are white and this is what this game is really about â€“ psychological thrills. Itâ€™s what you donâ€™t see or hear that brings a shiver to your spine. It shows you where you need to go next then hints at what kind of death awaits you if you get the puzzle wrong or donâ€™t make it in time.
A wonderful combination of the Boyâ€™s muted but relentless determination with simple yet masterful techniques (lighting, scenery and sound effects) make Limbo a tense, surreal and shadowy place definitely worth exploring on your own with the lights offâ€¦