I have played through Limbo about five times, in its previous releases across Xbox 360, PC, and Mac. I happen to think that it is an excellent game. But as with any mobile port, there is no guarantee that such excellence will be translated well to smaller screens and touch controls. Platformers in particular can often lose control precision without thumbsticks or D-pads. This makes Limbo on Android all the more impressive.
Limbo places you in the shoes of a boy who wakes up in the woods, left to wander through a series of darker-than-Grimm hazards in the hopes of finding his sister. The game’s visual style is striking: both the boy and the environments are completely silhouetted in black, with white highlights on lights, fire, and the boy’s eyes. A heavy film grain effect, along with some bold fonts, make the game feel like a silent film, particularly those of the German expressionist movement, like Nosferatu or Metropolis.
The boy navigates this world as a series of puzzles. There are common elements throughout, most notably crates that can be pushed to allow the boy to climb to higher ledges or ropes. But one of my favorite parts about the game is that every bit of it feels hand-crafted. Platforming is generally a genre made up of repeated blocks and tiles, set in new arrangements as the game progresses. Limbo, on the other hand, feels entirely new in each section. Grassy wooded clearings give way to booby-trapped caves, even deadly sawmills and city rooftops later on.
As such, each puzzle requires the player to learn something new. Beartraps will quickly kill the boy, but they can also be dragged around to the players’ advantage. Brain-worms will latch onto the boy, forcing him to run in a single direction, until a beam of light causes them to turn him around. Giant cogs set the entire world spinning, and in the end, gravity even flips up and down on a timer.
All of this feeds into a very trial-and-error experience. For first-time players, death comes frequently and gruesomely. You’ll see the boy dismembered, crushed, drowned, and impaled over and over, with little fanfare. You can stare at that body as long as you like, until you tap the screen to restart at the section’s beginning. It is very unsettling and different from the way most platformers treat death. The sound does everything it can to complement the dark mood. Sharp metallic clangs and fleshy squelches provide shocking contrast to the sparse ambient music.
All the mood in the world, though, is nothing without good control to back it up. And Limbo certainly has that. Left and right movement is controlled by a virtual thumbstick, originating from either thumb, wherever you want to place it. You can jump by swiping up with the other thumb, and grab onto objects by holding down that thumb while moving. There is no tutorial or control screen to explain any of this, but it all feels perfectly natural. Any failures are offset by the game’s generous checkpoints, although a few timed sections can be long, and send the player back to the start of the timer.
What pleases me most about this Android version is that it means I can trust the developers’ integrity. It would have been easy to put out a sloppy cash-in port, but they did the work to make sure that it’s just as good here as anywhere else. Playdead has done just the thing to make me excited for their new game, Inside, expected later this year.