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‘Limbo’ for iOS game review

For seasoned gamers, especially those who regularly haunt the dark gray alleys of Steam, Limbo isn’t anything new. Released back in 2010, the game was incredibly well received by everyone and has won several awards ever since.

For someone who spends considerable amount of time playing both PC/console as well as mobile games, Limbo was one of those games that I was really hoping would make it to the mobile platform. And then the developers decided to grant my wish. Available only on iOS for now, Limbo is finally out on the mobile and so we decided to see how well it has translated over to the smaller screen.

Title
Limbo
Developer
Playdead
Platform
iOS
Release Date
July 3, 2013
Content Reating
9+
Size
103MB
Price
$4.99

Premise

There is honestly not much to say here. The game is very cryptic in the way it goes about explaining what’s going in, and by that I mean it doesn’t actually explain what’s going on. The game description says ‘Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO’, which is the most you get in terms of an explanation.

You play the role of a boy who suddenly wakes up in the middle of the forest. You don’t know how you got there and you are not really sure what you are supposed to do. So you do the only thing you can and keep going forward. The journey is made ridiculously difficult due to the presence of deadly traps placed in your path and you have to solve the puzzles to keep all your body parts intact while going through them.

Along the way you come across some other children but instead of helping you they only offer more resistance. Eventually, you reach the last level in the game, at which point the game ends abruptly with little explanation of what just happened and what happens next.

Gameplay

Limbo has three basic controls. There is the movement control for moving forward or backward, jump, and grab for holding and dragging objects such as bear traps and crates. On the iOS version, the game does not show a single control on screen, which can cause some confusion. And unlike the desktop/console version, there is no controls screen to show you the controls.

So here’s how it works; you slide left or right on the screen to move forward or backward, similar to operating a virtual joystick on the screen. This works anywhere on the screen and you don’t necessarily have to do it on the left side. Swiping up makes the character jump and swiping down makes him drop down and grab the ledge. To interact with objects, press and hold anywhere on the screen.

Once you figure that out you then have to deal with the puzzles. Limbo has some of the cleverest and deadliest puzzles I’ve seen in a game. It usually involves sliding some crates around, throwing some switches and jumping at the right moment but fail to do that correctly and your character goes through some of the most gruesome death animations in any video game around. Due to the inherent black and white and minimalistic nature of the visuals, there is no dramatic splattering of blood around but it’s still unsettling to see the little boy get skewered on spikes, shred to bits by a blade or crushed to a pulp. The game especially takes pleasure in showing the various bits fly around or in case he gets crushed in a machine, his now pulped body slowly drip from the surface.

These are not the only ways you can die. The boy is quite delicate so he can easily get killed even if a wooden crate falls on him, or if he gets crushed between a cart and a wall. He also can’t swim so the moment the water goes above his head it’s instant death. And it’s best to stay away from all sorts of electrical surfaces.

The gameplay relies heavily on trial and error. Many of the puzzles are designed in a way that there is absolutely no way of knowing what they do unless you walk through them and get killed. It’s only during the second time then that you know how it works and then work a way around it.

The puzzles in Limbo are challenging but not overly so and can be figured out without pulling out too many hair. The hair pulling happens when it comes to actually solving them. Even if you know what to do, doing it right requires some good timing and lots and lots of patience. You will be dying so often and in so many ways that eventually it almost becomes hilarious because you know you’re going to die even if you try again. Of course, this also means that when you do solve the puzzle there is an enormous sense of achievement as a reward.

The game basically goes from one puzzle to another and nothing much happens in between. Each level in the game is basically one puzzle and you can jump directly to the one you want (after you unlock them) when you start the game. Your progress gets saved automatically and even synced across devices over iCloud.

Let’s talk once again about the controls in the iOS version. I’m fine with not having the controls displayed on screen as it makes the game more immersive. I’ll even excuse the fact that the game does not bother explaining the controls to you, even in a separate menu. What I do have a problem with are controls that either respond incorrectly to your inputs or don’t respond at all.

This is most commonly see while jumping, where quite often you end up falling and dying because the game failed to register your swipe. At times, you end up jumping when you don’t want to, which also often results in death. For a game that relies so much on precisely timed jumps, such blunders end up ruining the experience. It’s hard to say whether it is a flaw with the game itself or an inherent limitation of touchscreen gaming but the end result is not as fun as playing on a desktop or a console with a proper controller.

Graphics and Sound

Limbo employs a completely black and white visual style for the entire game, with a heavy grain filter applied on top. Moreover, the game is purposefully dark and backlit, which means the characters on screen only appear as silhouettes. Quite often, all you’ll see of your character are his glowing white eyes, which appropriately dim out when he dies. The darkness can get overbearing at times and every ray of light comes as a relief. The game is entirely two dimensional but uses a nice parallax effect for the background to convey depth.

To go with the minimalistic visuals, Limbo has an equally minimalistic soundtrack. And by minimalistic I mean virtually nonexistent. For a majority of the game there is absolutely no music playing and even when it does it’s simply a slow, dramatic tone that’s just there to convey something major happening.

Most of the sounds in the game are environmental and the game does this very well. Listen to it on a good pair of headphones and you can hear small things such as the sound of water droplets reverberating inside a cave or the sound of gushing water and the rain. The traps in the game all sound appropriately ferocious, particularly the giant rotating blades that produce terror every time you hear them spin. There are also some lovely sounds of body parts breaking, crushing and disintegrating for your amusement.

Limbo has absolutely no dialogues. There are a few human characters in the game but no one ever speaks. There is no narration as well. Add the glum visuals and the bare bones soundtrack and the game produces a sense of loneliness and despair like no other.

Verdict

Limbo is one of my favorite games of all times. I love how it manages to achieve so much with so little. The fact that they managed to translate all of that on to the small screen is commendable. True, the controls let down what would have otherwise been a perfect game but even with that shortcoming Limbo manages to conjure sheer brilliance through its darkness.

Rating: 9/10
Pros: Challenging puzzles, simple mechanics, intriguing story, hauntingly beautiful visuals and sound
Cons: Imprecise controls

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