Well, I successfully finished the Shivering Isles expansion pack for Oblivion (it’s good!), and I did it before Skyrim, the next installment of the series, is released. But an unintended side effect is that I now need a break from epic fantasy role-playing games, meaning I will hold off on starting Skyrim for a bit. Instead, I thought it was an ideal time to play through some of the indie games that I’ve been collecting, but haven’t had time to play yet. First up: LIMBO, from Danish developer Playdead.

LIMBO was released on Xbox Live Arcade in July 2010, but only arrived on PC (via Steam) back in August. Most reviews were very positive, and as you can see from the screenshots it has a very distinctive visual style. But what really got me interested were the comparisons to Another World, a game that does not have many imitators. So I gave LIMBO a go.

I can see the similarities. Like Another World, movement is fairly realistic, with the young boy you control in LIMBO able to jump to a believable height and distance. Controls consist of movement keys and a single interaction button, just like Another World. LIMBO also sometimes forces the player to die, often in gruesome fashion, in order to figure out how to proceed. Unlike Another World, however, LIMBO occasionally makes these solutions difficult to execute, in addition to being difficult to figure out. This can be frustrating, when a certain section must be repeated over and over, and is exacerbated by a respawn time that’s just a little bit too long. The checkpointing is mostly quite good, however, so you will seldom need to repeat sections that you’ve already completed. LIMBO also occasionally pulls the trick of making you think that the solution is difficult to execute, when actually an entirely different solution is required. This also led to frustration as the obvious path always looked like it could work, but was sometimes impossible, so it would take me some time to realize that I should be looking for a different solution.

Mechanically, then, LIMBO is similar to Another World, and depending on how you feel about trial-and-error gameplay this could be a serious drawback (it certainly led to several negative reviews mixed in amongst the more positive ones). But the most notable thing about LIMBO is not its mechanics, but its atmosphere and feel. LIMBO is beautiful, but also very creepy and sinister, and it walks the line between the two perfectly. The visual style looks impressive in screenshots but is even better in motion, where the edges of the screen are just slightly out of focus, lending a dream-like cast to the environments (or is it a nightmare?). The audio design is even more impressive, with excellent ambient sounds and simply perfect touches of music added at key moments that do wonders to enhance tension, inspire dread, or suggest momentary safety. The pacing of the game itself is perfect at the start, with things beginning simply but slowly becoming more sinister and surreal. And it’s not just the environments that create this feeling, but also many of the solutions for proceeding in the game, which really make the player question the character’s (and the player’s own) motivations. One moment in particular made me quite uncomfortable, but I will leave that up to you to discover yourself; it’s certainly a memorable sequence. Strangely, the later sections of the game lose a lot of the creepy tone, but they are interesting for other reasons which I will not spoil.

LIMBO is a very short game, taking me just over three hours to complete (although I admit I looked up one solution to a particularly complex puzzle that had me stumped). At first I thought the ending was going to be much more interesting than it actually was, but it was still pretty good. I think the game is the right length, actually, as it doesn’t overstay its welcome but does manage to offer a variety of challenges, without losing its excellent pacing and mysterious tone. Overall, I would definitely recommend checking it out; while not perfect it is certainly interesting, which I’ve argued can be even more important. If being forced to try and fail in order to learn how to proceed is a big issue for you, you might want to skip LIMBO, but otherwise I can wholeheartedly recommend embarking on this strange, dark journey.

LIMBO is available digitally on Xbox 360, PS3, and Steam, for $10. There is also a demo available on Steam; I don’t know about the other platforms.