Another day, another indie port for Nintendo’s scrappy little hybrid console. This time, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Limbo, a beloved 2010 puzzle-platformer from developer Playdead. Despite its stellar reputation, however, I would be lying if I were to sit here and tell you that my time with it wasn’t riddled with problems.
Limbo’s setup is presented in a single sentence on the Switch eShop: “Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters Limbo.” Playing the game makes it clear that Limbo is a dreary place filled with traps, nasty bugs, and deranged individuals who seek to kill you. It’s your job to guide this kid through a trial-and-error gauntlet of murderous puzzles, from a forest and through an ancient factory, just to survive and make forward progress.
By far, Limbo’s strongest asset is its sense of style, one that continues to give it a strong identity even eight years after its initial release. Its monochromatic, minimalist presentation is not only creepy, but it also welcomes the player to use their imagination. Less obvious at first is its impeccable sound design, which practically necessitates the use of headphones when playing in portable mode. The music is appropriately forlorn, but is used sparingly and never takes the forefront. Instead, the world’s ever-present hollow echoes and gurgling mechanical noises accentuate your journey with a very Eraserhead-esque flair, punctuated by the loud crashes of the many traps you’ll spring. And hoo, boy, I do mean many.
If there’s a way to fail in a given scenario, you’ll probably find it; Limbo is proudly centered on trial and error. I cannot say for sure whether this can ever be a good thing, but it sure isn’t here. Perhaps the best way to illustrate my key frustrations with Limbo is to walk you through a particular puzzle. I run forward under this jungle gym of garbage as this jerk who tried to kill me runs away and climbs out of view. As this happens, a bear trap tied to a rope swings down from behind me and closes on my body. Respawn. Maybe I stepped on something that tripped this trap? Hard to tell; the grayscale graphics have an unfortunate tendency to obscure crucial environmental elements, especially on the small screen. Playing Limbo means accepting that you’ll run face-first into hidden deaths and right past puzzle pieces.
Anyway, I jump over this little protrusion on the ground that might be a pressure plate and nope, that wasn’t it. Respawn. Maybe it’s the guy pulling the rope? No, the trap comes down before he reaches it and he just climbs up the rope, so really it’s just being sprung when I hit some invisible trigger. Get used to having multiple, equally logical possibilities, with only one yielding the desired result. Respawn. So I turn around right at the trigger, dodge the trap (the timing is very precise thanks to the boy’s lack of agility, so it takes a few tries to get this right), and continue forward. Only then does the hidden second bear trap come swinging down from in front to kill me anyway. Needless to say, the timing to dodge this one is even harsher.
The issues in this puzzle pop up throughout the rest of them, with rare and welcome exceptions. There are very few “a-ha” moments in this game, because most of your tribulations are conquered through an unintuitive process of elimination. It’s unsatisfying, frustrating, and logically incongruent all at once. As timing becomes more important, the boy’s sluggish movement and tiny jump arc become a serious nuisance. Even when you’ve found what to do, you may not even know it, because it occasionally seems impossible to actually execute the needed movement. Oh, I was supposed to just jump over this gap? Because I tried that about six times already and I was starting to look for other options.
It’s tempting for those who share my grievances to deem Limbo “all style and no substance.” But that’s not really the case, because the substance is there, and occasionally it’s even delivered through fair, logical puzzles. So in truth, this game is more accurately excellent style and poor substance. Limbo’s idea of a challenge is to lure you into false solutions until you happen upon the one that works, that is to say, if it works within the parameters of your limited movement. But the harsh truth is that trial and error is actually quite easy once you accept its inevitability. In fact, at that point it even manages to be minimally frustrating. The real issue is that it’s just so overwhelmingly dull, so mentally unstimulating, akin to floating in some kind of... limbo. Hm.