The First Hour Of… Limbo

Limbo is unsettling, creepy, unrelentingly strange and utterly alien. It’s quite the oddest game I’ve seen in some time. And it’s coming to Xbox Live Arcade, of all places, this week.

This is the first hour of Limbo. Below I’ll describe what I saw, what I did and what was going through my head at the time. It’s not a review, it’s my first-hand impressions of what I’ve played so far.

00:00 – White light dissolves then comes into focus. I’m looking at a forest clearing in silhouette. Sunlight (or is it moonlight?) penetrates the canopy and highlights the fine mist swirling around the black tree trunks. Nothing happens.

00:01 – Is it still loading? I think to myself. I wiggle the analog stick impatiently. Nothing happens. I press the A button. Wait, is that a light? A pair of white dots appear near the ground in the clearing. They blink. They’re not dots, they’re eyes. I press A again and a figure – a small boy with white dots for eyes – get to his feet, blinking as if just awoken from a deep sleep.

00:04 – With the analog stick I can move the boy left and right. I run left, swimming against the tide of platformer design. I run behind a tree and – yes! – the level scrolls to the left. I find a glowing gem in the grass and collect it. “Achievement Unlocked – Wrong Way” says the pop-up. There’s nowhere else to go so I turn back and run to the right.

00:07 – I run to the right, hitting A to jump. It’s a floaty kind of jump – analog, too, in that the longer you press A, the further you’ll jump. Emerging from the forest, I find myself standing on a fallen tree at the edge of a cliff. The only way is down, so I jump.

00:09 – The cliff isn’t very high, actually. It quickly gives way to a slope which I slide down, coming to a stop before a small gully. Are those spikes? I mistime my jump over the gully and skewer myself on the spikes in painful Prince of Persia fashion. I respawn back on the fallen tree at the top of the cliff.

00:12 – Beyond the gully I encounter a wooden structure on the lip of another cliff. There’s a raised platform I’m unable to reach and, above that, a beam jutting out over the sheer drop with a rope attached to it. Under the platform is some kind of trolley or cart which I can grab by pressing B and pull by holding B and moving back to the left. I’m now able to climb onto the trolley and then onto the platform from where I can jump out onto the rope.

00:15 – Shimmying down the rope brings me to platform hanging in mid-air. I can jump down from here to a ledge on the cliff to my left. From the ledge I can jump down to the ground to my right over a small well. There’s a real sense of physicality thanks to some subtle vibration in the controller when you land. It’s noticeably stronger, too, when you jump from a greater height.

00:17 – I experiment with jumping into the well at the foot of the cliff. I drown instantly and respawn on the wooden structure back at the top of the cliff. Both of my deaths thus far have been accompanied by an eerie silence – no cries of pain or muffled gasps for breath, no game over sound effects or music. Indeed, aside from a faint ambient drone, like the whirring of some distant machinery, and the scuffed footsteps of the boy, there’s no audio at all in the game.

00:20 – I run through a small cave that leads to a lake. There’s a tiny single-mast boat docked on the near shore. I jump in and it immediately sets sail – despite having no sail – across the fog-shrouded waterway. Moments later it reaches the far shore and comes to a halt several metres shy of a ridge. Remembering this section as the one I got stuck in at E3, I jump out of the boat, grab hold of the bow and drag it further up onto the beach. I can now climb onto the boat and clamber up onto the ridge.

00:23 – A vine snakes up the cliff-face above the ridge. I climb it up until I’m able to jump from it onto a rope hanging from the top of the cliff. I climb that until I’m able to hoist myself up to the top of the cliff.

00:26 – Entering another dark forest, I spot some spikes – smaller than the ones that killed me earlier – on the ground. I’m not sure if I can jump far enough to clear them, though, so I edge forward, slowly. Hey, did he just extend his hands? I step away from the spikes. The boy lowers his hands. I step back towards them and he extends them again. I hold the B button to grab the spikes and, as I drag it away, I realise it’s actually two spiked animal traps lying next to each. After moving the first one, I can now jump over it and then the second one with ease.

00:30 – Deeper into the woods, the mist appears more dense. Two white fireflies are chasing each other in circles. The boy’s eyes follow them as they pass overhead.

00:32 – I come across a small ravine. Overhanging it is a branch from which an unidentifiable dead animal dangles on a rope. There are flies buzzing around the carcass, but no sign of how it got there or for how long it’s been hanging. I jump out and grab the rope, clinging to it above the dead animal. From here I try to jump to the other side of the ravine… but fail and land on top of an animal trap, killing me instantly.

00:35 – Respawning at the top of the ravine, this time I just jump down, grab the animal trap and pull it over underneath the dangling carcass. I pull myself back up to the top of the ravine and again jump out to grab the rope. My weight causes the branch to bend and the carcass plunges into the jaws of the animal trap which, in turn, snaps shut and rips the carcass off the rope. Minus the extra weight, I’m now hanging high enough to jump from the rope across to the other side of the ravine.

00:39 – I jog through more forest, ducking under some rocks and down a small hill past thick, black trees in both the foreground and background. There’s still no sound other than my footsteps crunching on the dirt and, now and again, the buzz of invisible insects. It’s cold out here.

00:43 – At the foot of a valley is a little hole in the ground. On the other side of the hole, a log rests on the ground as the hill rises up again. I jump into the hole and grab onto the log and pull myself up. As I begin walking up the log, it shudders and slides down the hill, wedging itself in the hole. A fraction of a second later a ball – at least my height in diameter – comes rolling down the hill towards me. I turn and run, leaping off the log and over the hole. The ball, which I realise is some kind of tumbleweed, crashes into the hole and not, fortunately, me. I jump over the tumbleweed, run up the log and continue on my way.

00:46 – I pass by a tree with a suspiciously horizontal branch that has a piece of rope tied to it. Surely I can get up there? Both the branch and the rope are too high, remaining out of reach despite my mashing of the jump button. I press on and come to a pond where I find a small crate floating in the shallows. Thinking I might be able to use the crate as a buoy to carry me across the water, I push it out of the shallows and try to climb onto it. The crate tips over under my weight and I topple off and drown in the deep water.

00:48 – Reassessing, this time I pull the crate out of the water and bring it all the way back to the horizontal branch. I’m now able to reach the rope and scramble up onto the branch. There’s another horizontal branch higher on the tree next to me. I jump across, then again and again, climbing steadily higher as I leap between the trees. Finally I reach the top of one tree where its trunk is split several metres from the summit. I lean into the trunk… it cracks and falls to the ground, presumably somewhere near the pond that killed me earlier. Foolishly, I jump from the very top of the tree, proving that – yes – the fallen trunk has landed in the pond but also that small boys cannot survive jumping from the very top of trees.

00:52 – As I repeat that short section, I find myself reflecting on what I’m doing: Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing? And why? I realise I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I haven’t even a clue. I’m a boy in a dark forest and I need to keep moving. That’s all I know. I’ve seen a dead animal and some insects. I’ve seen man-made objects. But so far, it’s just me in this world. Am I all alone?

00:55 – Once across the pond, I keep running through more fog and past more trees. I pass by one tree that holds a spiked animal trap in its lower branches. Again, however, it’s just out of my reach.

00:58 – Suddenly, I hear a crash and from out of the large tree ahead of me stretch one, two, three enormous spider legs. They unfurl then stamp into the ground as I retreat out of the way. I watch as the unseen spider lifts its legs and leaves them hanging mid-air, poised menacingly. With caution, I step forward until I’m underneath the first leg. The spider lifts its leg slowly. Is it following me? Then in a flash it strikes, driving its vicious leg like a spear through my body before flinging my limp corpse across the screen.

00:60 – I have no idea what’s going on. But I love it.


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