It has been compared favorably and otherwise to everything from Braid to Ico. In truth, Limbo is a sum of several familiar gameplay components, wrapped in a dark, morbid, and mysteriously surreal narrative. What it is not, is for the faint of heart. Or wallet.|
Gameplay consists of platforming, with only a jump and a contextual interaction button adding to the standard left and right movement. The sensitivity of the left analog stick determines walking, running, or creeping along, and that's it. No ducking, looking around, or direct combat. This streamline approach, rather than confining the experience, focuses the player on the two biggest features of Limbo: the environmental puzzles and the atmosphere. Oh, the atmosphere.
Limbo's palette is black, white, and grays, and nothing else. Instead of using this refined spectrum to construct high resolution and detail, the designers use the opposite extreme to grand effect. The visual filters and muted shades paint a dreamlike visual experience that is unique and immersing. Background and foregrounds are at a constant haze. Environments feature sparse lines and sharp angles that just barely convey a sense of open woods, labyrinthian underground tunnels, and complex industrial areas. Indeed, the world of Limbo only roughly sketches its home, then hands the pencil to the player's mind to draw the rest of the details. Where this could be easily viewed as pretentious or even lazy on the developer's part, the design is definitely purposeful, as the rest of the tools are clearly in the iron grasp of talent.
The animation is top notch, with subtle particle effects and little details emphasizing every action. Many clues are given for gameplay as well as narrative in the smallest of touches. The audio wisely follows the consistency of the visual design; sparse, light overtones occasionally punctuated by dramatic flair, and effects that will make the player much more squeamish than the persistent visual violence. I began playing with two friends watching, but before the hour mark I was alone. This brings me to an important point:
Limbo's content is not for everyone.
There is implied murder, torture, gore, drowning, dismemberment, and very dark themes. Without giving away spoilers, some actions will likely stun you in their graphic nature. This is not Mario. It is not Braid. It is a game designed around a certain theme, and that theme is played out fully. In the same manner that South Park may appear to target a young audience but is designed for adults, the same could be said for Limbo.
Though I personally feel games should always be based on their own merit, and there are flavorful and unique elements to the experience that is Limbo, everyone will compare titles. As mentioned before, Limbo imbues a desolate and lonely aura likened to the PS2 classics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, comparative indie vibes to Braid (also an 'artsy' title criticized as derivative and overpriced), along with gameplay similarities to PC/PSX's Heart of Darkness.
And if the biggest sell for Limbo is the original atmosphere (and it most certainly is), the other is gameplay. Physics based puzzles and platforming challenges make up the bulk of the experience, with exploration and attentive observation yielding literal eggs for completion and achievements. A chapter select allows for easy access, and the game respawns the character only moments before each mistake, again putting the emphasis on puzzle solving and atmosphere. Some of the timing elements of the game are, true to the genre, mostly trial and error, and the designers were wise to avoid any life count or continuing limitations, allowing the player to simply keep at it until done.
Which brings out Limbo's only real 'fault' making the rounds of the critic circles at large. At fifteen bucks, is a game that can be completed in only a few hours worth such a premium? Limbo would certainly not survive the current expectations of boxed retail, and as a Live arcade download only title it is expected to compete with cheaper games containing more longevity. The almighty Castle Crashers, Braid, and even Ikaruga have fielded the same complaints, and review scores are bashed in light of perceived value.
I intend to write an article on the perception of entertainment value later. As for now, it comes down to this:
Limbo is original. Limbo is exceptionally well made. Limbo is, for a certain audience, wonderful. Limbo is fairly short, even abrupt by today's gaming standards. If you are interested, play the demo. It will tell you all you want to know: do I want more of this? Will the experience be worth the money to me, individually? Will I feel at a loss for paying this much for a few hours?
I know I, personally, have no regrets about purchasing Limbo. Indeed, I consider it a gaming experience to rival my top ten. But if you play the demo and are still not sure, Limbo probably is not for you, fifteen bucks or otherwise.
As an end note, I feel that the narrative played out in Limbo is terrifically realized, despite forum debates passed to and fro over the subjective nature of the story and its details. I thought it was rather clear in its intentions, and if it is not painfully obvious by now, I also feel it was a masterfully well done experience. If you are curious about my thoughts on the particulars of the story, feel free to PM me: I don't want to ruin or cheapen the experience for the curious by posting said thoughts in a forum.
I finally got a working copy of Snatcher on Sega CD this week (I've owned the import Playstation version for a long time but can't read Japanese) and went through it mostly in one sitting.
It is quite remarkable, coming from someone who went through the entirety of American Metal Gear games first, to go back and see what is essentially the prototype CD-ROM narrative of Hideo's work. Every major facet Hideo is known for is present in Snatcher, and since both the man's ideas and the technology were both so relatively new at the time, to go back and review it seems to almost distill what makes a Kojima project into its very essence.
The heavy clash of anime and western influences. The repeated fourth-wall breaks and humor. The obsession with humanizing technology while showing the isolating effects. The noir style. The jazz overtones in the drama scenes. The overcooked dialogue and emoting. The crazy plotting and pacing. The stretched out to ridiculousness monologues. The romantic entanglements and hero worship. Humanity needs a savior from outside of humanity mantras. Tons of hidden or easy-to-miss easter eggs and secrets. Walking robots.
***MGS3 and Snatcher spoilers ahead alerts !!!***
Heck, huge chunks of Metal Gear Solid 3, my personal favorite of that series, seems lifted right out of Snatcher, including Cold War east-west tensions, genetic manipulation, father/son legacy issues with elements of patricide, secret government WMDs that fell into private hands, impossible resurrections, double agents, I could go on and on. I was amazed over and over at the copied elements.
The technical elements were very similar in many ways as well. Both Snatcher and every MGS title were known to push technological limits of the hardware at the time; while Snatcher doesn't expand the Sega CD into new territory like the MGS games did with Sony's hardware, the use of the then new CD storage was put to justified use.
Snatcher has lots of voice-overs, CD-quality music, a rather lengthy story, and it's own in-game accessible historical database of game fiction to dig into. It was one of the first Sega CD games that simply could not have been as engrossing on a cart.
It also has almost no gameplay. And I love it for that.
When I wrote earlier that I went though all the American Metal Gear games, that's true, from a certain point of view. I myself completed MGS and over half of MGS2. But the gameplay mechanics began to really frustrate me in 2, feeling overly complicated and unintuitive. All the immersive factors in the world are lost to me when after four hours of play I still fumble with the controls. I don't know exactly why. But I played MSG 3 and 4 and felt the same way.
Thankfully, my buddy Arkyst is a real MGS nut and doesn't have the same hang ups, so he took me through all of MGS 2,3, and 4 and even showed me all of the little tricks and secrets. I love those games, I just can't play them well.
But Snatcher is a different animal all-together. The closest it comes to a traditional video game is the arcade-like shooting scenes, where you use the d-pad and select a quadrant (the screen is divided into a 3 X 3 grid) and press a button to shoot. They get fast-paced, but out of an eight hour experience there are perhaps around half a dozen times you do this (and few other times the game requires you to shoot once or twice.)
The rest of the gameplay is simply selecting from menus, using the look and investigate commands on the same selections of each area repeatedly. It may sound boring, but it turns the experience into more of an interactive graphic novel, or better yet an electronic choose-your-own-adventure book. The story is good enough (and the voice acting and writing tolerable enough) that you want to solve the mystery, and the game's universe consistent and well thought out enough that everything makes sense in the context of the well developed background. Most things in Snatcher reach around to get full circle in a way that even good novels often miss the mark, not to mention the hack job that often passes for a video game narrative.
Unlike MGS 2 and up, I could play Snatcher, and it almost never got in the way. That is, until the very end, in which the shooting sequence took a Mount Everest sized spike in difficulty that saw me getting out the Genesis Justifier light gun to get past, as the d-pad went from passable to yeah-right. This end bit was admittedly a klaxon in a symphony. There has to be a better way to ratchet up the tension at the end.
For a game that requires little more than for you to stay awake and occasionally solve an obtuse puzzle for 98% of the time, you are suddenly expected to have cat-like reflexes for the rest of the 2% of gameplay. Imagine getting through a Zelda game, reaching Ganon, and suddenly you have to play through a Battletoads 3rd stage hyperbike scene with no recourse in order to see the ending. That's comparatively what Snatcher pulled, and while I finished it, it was jarring.
Nonetheless, overall it was a refreshing experience, and now I desperately want to go through the spiritual-successor follow up, Policenauts. Unfortunately that never made it over here in the States, and I'm not sure I'm brave enough to try a patch method. Ah, who am I kidding. One day I'll try.
Snatcher was a great experience that made me briefly re-evaluate what a game is, and somewhat surprised me (even more so than the MGS games) into remembering that for all the critics of cut-scenes over gameplay, everyone's understanding of interactivity is a little different. I enjoyed 'playing' Snatcher more than the MGS games not because it controlled better, but because the 'gameplay' fit like a glove for the format (until the very end) and I could sit back and enjoy it instead of being hampered by gameplay choices that I might not overcome. I doubt I'd have ever experienced the rest of the MGS saga if it weren't for Arkyst (I put many, many hours into MGS 4, I really tried) and it would be a shame if that happened to Snatcher as well.
So, even though it is still pricey, I HIGHLY recommend Snatcher if:
a) you are a Hideo Kojima fan and want to see how much his early stuff fits in with the rest
b) you like Blade Runner (of which the story is 85% derivative of)
c) you are a fan of Cyber Punk and Sci-Fi
d) you enjoy the type of gameplay found in the likes of Hotel Dusk, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and the Carmen Sandiego series
e) you want to see a game that really needed an M rating for violence, blood and gore (if only for a few scenes)
f) you are collecting Sega CD games and want something to flush the taste of 'Lawnmower Man' down
g) you want to see an inventive and eclectic puzzle design (seriously, the Oleen puzzle was nifty after you recheck your inventory and know what it wants, but the extra letter at the end of the real answer made it a bit too unnecessarily abstract for me.)
h) you want to see a club in a video game that contains people dressed up like the Contra guys, Goeman, Dracula, Simon Belmont, and Sparkster (that scene was so cool!)
i) Dude, you should number lists if they're gonna hit 'I'
j) Seriously, you made it to 'J'?
But enough talk. Have at you!
(Yes, I know the difference between Hideo and IGA. But both the title and end references are from Konami and the title fit. Hush.)