Arty indie games often compensate for less-than-striking visuals with an excess of moody atmospherics, letting players fill in the graphical gap with wistfulness, gloom, or angst as the situation demands. Limbo, the most eagerly anticipated title in Xbox’s third annual Summer Of Arcade, skillfully evokes these emotions, but doesn’t skimp on the packaging of its cunning, delightfully gruesome puzzles and platforms, which are composed of minimalist silhouettes and out-of-focus, grayscale backgrounds, all polished to such a high gloss that the look is instantly iconic and immersive.
Like early NES games, Limbo outlines its story through promotional materials, which describe a boy in search of his lost sister in an unforgiving netherworld. There are occasional glimpses in the distance of a spectral figure tending to a garden, but these visions largely provide contemplative breaks between physics-based puzzles and run-ins with blowgun-equipped natives. After all, this is a game about paring, not cluttering: There’s no health-bar or item management, and players are only able to jump, run, and grab objects. But these familiar mechanics feel invigorating and fresh when the object to be grabbed is an outsized, twitching spider leg, and the platform to be reached is an intermittently electrified O in a long-discarded hotel sign at the edge of the world.
Limbo fits in with other cerebral Summer Of Arcade alumni like Braid, but Amazing Studio’s Heart Of Darkness feels like the proper antecedent, and the nameless, glowing-eyed protagonist even resembles a member of that game’s horde of shadow-spawn. Copenhagen-based studio Playdead has crafted a game that progresses by “trial and death”: bear traps are meant to be stepped in and tripwires are supposed to be triggered the first go-round. Sentient flukes burrow into skulls and hamper movement, and inexorable buzzsaws turn your diminutive hero to slush often enough to more than atone for whatever sins he committed in a past life. But reincarnation is quick, and gamers will approach those ingenious traps armed with new ideas to try.
The early meditative outdoor areas are especially enthralling, with later stages introducing more standard videogame tropes like boxes to weigh down pressure-plates, and switches that reverse gravity. But the sometimes grisly, sometimes pacific sound design is never less than pitch-perfect, and stuck between worlds or not, Limbo’s three hours of play time are concentrated, puzzle-gaming heaven.