Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch. Copy supplied by publisher.
Originally released in 2010, Danish developer Playdead’s LIMBO arrived on the gaming scene at the peak of the indie game boom. It carved a place for itself among the plethora of 2.5D platformers with its distinctive art style and minimalist narrative storytelling, providing an eerie experience that got players and critics alike talking. Its success can also be measured by the sheer number of platforms it has appeared on in its eight years on the market, from Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC, to Playstation 4, Xbox One, MacOSX, Linux, Playstation Vita, as well as iOS and Android.
And now it has debuted on Nintendo Switch, the first Nintendo platform it has graced, and a whole new market of console gamers can experience the repeated disembowelment of a lost child as he explores the dangerous reality he finds himself in.
LIMBO’s story is difficult to explain, as there is practically no explanation offered up for your purpose in the game. Following the title screen, the game just begins, with no button prompts or direction, leaving you to use your wits and instincts to progress. The only clear description of the story from the developers is the blurb on all the storefronts selling the game, which says “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO.”
From there, the rest is open to interpretation. Normally such a vague narrative style would irritate me, but LIMBO sells itself so well on its atmosphere that it just draws you in. The boy wakes up in some dark woods, where he soon encounters horrifying traps and creatures, and only by venturing onward will he perhaps find a way out, or whatever he is searching for.
With no written or spoken dialogue, the art design, animation and soundscape are what create LIMBO’s haunting world. The monochromatic colour scheme combined with flickering film grain create gloomy yet incredibly beautiful visuals. As is customary in 2.5D games, the backdrops give an illusion of depth, making this oppressive environment feel grand and endless. It leaves one feeling very small.
Aiding this feeling of vulnerability are the gigantic horrors that lie in wait, eager to maim. From bear traps, spinning saw blades, huge spikes, freakishly large insects and the most terrifying giant spider in gaming history, practically everything you encounter on your journey has a means to kill you. And kill you they will, because everything can kill with a single hit, prompting a restart at the last checkpoint, which thankfully often aren’t too far behind.
The frequency and efficiency of these checkpoints are a real blessing when it comes to the activity you’ll spend the most of your time doing, which is solving puzzles. Puzzles range from simply finding a means to climb from A to B, to physics puzzles, to timed jumps, to a combination of all the above. And more often than not, these puzzles must be solved quickly, as they are usually what stands in the way between you and escaping a pit of spikes, a meat grinder or the spider’s languorous limbs.
The quality of the animation really sells the terror and the grotesqueness of all these encounters, as well as enhance the beauty of the environment. The boy runs in an adorably cartoonish manner, but he believably stumbles and struggles during feats of exertion. The grass under his feet rustles as he passes, trees sway gently in the wind. And as for the other creatures, they move very realistically and purposefully. Seriously, the way that spider crawls sends shivers up my spine.
All of this runs beautifully on the Switch, which isn’t surprising given the game values a creative art design over complexity. In docked mode LIMBO performs as perfectly as it does on PC, at full 60fps and 1080p. When played in portable mode things run equally as smoothly, although personally I feel the art style doesn’t lend itself too kindly to a smaller screen and inconsistent lighting conditions. There are moments where things are hard to make out in full screen as is, so on Switch’s smaller screen these moments are exacerbated.
My only real complaint with LIMBO is that the amazing, intriguing, haunting atmosphere it builds up at the start essentially disappears after the first act, where the environment turns from creepy woods to a grimy industrial zone. Sure, there’s still an eerie vibe to the whole place, but when the giant spider and other mysterious occupants are replaced by whirring machines it just loses some of that charm. It’s here the puzzles occasionally become a little obtuse as well, but not too terribly.
Don’t get me wrong, LIMBO never wanders into bad-game territory, but it definitely has a strong opening and haunting conclusion with a comparatively disappointing middle. But still, if you’ve never played it, or like me played it a long time ago and are keen to revisit it, this Switch version is more than enough reason to.