Viewed entirely in a moody black and white with the stylised look of an undiscovered 1920s German fantasy film, Limbo is the tale of a boy's progress through an unknown, nightmarish netherworld. Dodging brutal traps that threaten to crush, spike, mangle or decapitate him, he keeps on moving from left to right, pushing past every obstacle that stands in his way with nothing but cunning, bravery and rational thought.
Taunted and attacked by strange, spectral children, clambering over the corpses of other lost souls, we begin not knowing who he is, where he is going or why he is going there. On the soundtrack, weird ambient noises create a constant sense of unease, while a spare, orchestral soundtrack builds to ominous notes that punctuate the quiet.
Limbo, the opening salvo of Microsoft's Xbox Live summer of Arcade, can just about be called a 2D platform game, but Super Mario World it is not.
In fact, describing it as a platform game is actually misleading - a bit like describing Portal as a first-person shooter. In fact, the two have aspects in common. While Limbo takes place in a single world that scrolls from left to right, the gameplay is less about running and jumping than it is about using whatever tools you have to hand to get past the next barrier in your path. A huge, venomous spider blocks the way, his viciously spiked legs threatening to stab you if you get too near. Suddenly you remember the fatal mantrap you leapt over just a minute ago. Is there some way to use the one to get past the other?
Limbo is full of stuff like this, and the puzzles grow more complex as time goes on. A forest becomes a strange industrialised wasteland, which in turn becomes an underground sewer system. Gates need to be raised, giant stamps must be avoided, dart-throwing fiends need to be dealt with. The sections soon involve multiple mechanisms, or crates that you need to float on, or balloons that need to be moved in the right direction. Get your thinking cap on, or the penalties will be harsh.
You see, Limbo is a cruel and brutal place. The violence is masked by the stylised approach, but death comes suddenly, unavoidably and all the more shockingly. The checkpoints come frequently, and all you can do is take the hit, dust yourself off and try again. Sometimes the solution comes immediately, at other times it takes experimentation, but then you're off to the next conundrum, and caught up all over again. Limbo is nothing if not ingenious, and the application of real-world physics is a lot more sophisticated than it might first appear.
The style, meanwhile, is astonishing. A lesser game might have used the minimalist black and white graphics, the weird off-kilter animation, the cinematic focus effects and early film tics just to look cool - and there's no question that Limbo does that. However, it also uses all that stuff to make a world that is horribly - at times agonizingly - creepy. Somehow all the details, from the boy's childish walk to the dark soundtrack and the brilliant use of rumble, make you feel every death, and learn to dread those strange noises or those movements that you just glimpse out of focus in the foreground of the screen. If David Lynch made a Mario game, this is what it might look like.
By now, we hope you've got the feeling that Limbo is something different, something special, and a game that if you can play, you should. We also ought to warn you, however, that it's short. Unless you're a numbskull you'll probably crack it within around 4 hours, and those with a logical mind will finish it in less than that. Please don't consider this a deal-breaker. Given the budget price that's still not bad value, and we can guarantee that, come the end of the year, this is one game you're going to remember.
And wouldn't you rather have 4 hours of brilliant, imaginative gameplay than 10 of mediocre, me-too genre nonsense? If so, buy Limbo, and marvel that anyone had the artistry, the guts and the heart to make a game like this one.