Reviewed by John Hussey
I recently bought myself the Limbo and Inside bundle from the PlayStation Store and found myself immersed in what can only be described as a very bleak experience that left me haunted by deep thought in the aftermath.
I had heard about Limbo many years back, hearing about how great it was, ultimately leaving a massive impact on the gaming community. Upon playing it I quickly realised what all the fuss was about. Now I’m usually not one to delve into the Indie market. I really don’t have a good excuse as to why I don’t, particularly when you consider how many creative developers work within this market and how many successful games come out every year. Developers Playdead did a fine job of making me shit my pants on a number of occasions, along with leaving me with a sense of dread and depression.
One could say that it’s rather impressive that a 2D side-scrolling game about a nameless boy wondering through a vague, and sinister, set of environments, whilst solving countless puzzles and avoiding life and death situations, can create such an impact. The simplicity is Limbo‘s strongest point, leaving it up to the player to piece together their own unique interpretation of just what the fuck is going on.
You start in a mysterious forest and then eventually encounter the deadliest threat in the entire game, a giant fucking spider. Now, I will admit that I fucking hate spiders, so you can imagine why the sections involving the eight legged creature would send shivers down my spine, ultimately leaving me rather exposed and feeling really tense. And that’s what I liked. It made my experience all the more terrifying, added by the already existing grimness.
Limbo is essentially built upon the idea that you’re alone, without any real hope or direction. Everything is out to get you, meaning the dreaded world you now reside within is a complete death-trap. Adding in a giant arachnid is just there to make my gameplay even more challenging!
The game has a very grey colourisation to it, which ultimately adds to the bleakness throughout. It’s a rather depressing experience. Though the violence isn’t incredibly over-the-top, it is still graphical enough to make you stop and think for a second. “Damn! Did that just seriously fucking happen?” There are many ways you can die in this game, making it even more imperative to be on your toes. But what gets me is this is a little boy you are playing as, making every moment you meet a sticky end even more depressing. You’re essentially getting a child killed!
By this point I’m left wondering what anti-social, child-hating, basement-confined, warped-minded, and potentially fucked-up, Emo is behind the wheel of this doomed voyage? That is more of a joke than anything, but seriously, I am left wondering who made this game because it’s very deep, to the point that it’s almost sickening to play because of how emotionally crippling it can feel. You get the vibe that you’re just as lost and alone as the nameless kid you are playing as.
Unfortunately, Limbo isn’t all praise. There are some important flaws to this “so-called” masterpiece. For one, I find that the unique atmosphere of dread, and survival, is quickly washed away and replaced by the constant feeling of frustration due to the game relying solely on its “in-your-face” platforming challenges. What started off as a very bleak experience because of the environments and obstacles you had to overcome are completely discarded by the half way point, which is a massive shame.
Plus the platforming becomes more tedious than a core-aspect that you can praise. Yes there were some interesting puzzle sections in the earlier segments but these felt like they were thought-through in order to feel apart of the ongoing tension of survival, particularly when it came to the giant spider. But later on they are there for the sake of it and Limbo becomes a repetitive challenge of puzzles, puzzles, and more fucking puzzles, ultimately losing its charm and becoming a benchmark for the platforming genre, as if to say, “Hey! It’s not quite dead yet.”
Super Meat Boy demonstrated this perfectly, along with allowing the Indie market to have true relevance within the modern gaming industry. It’s almost like Limbo is trying to cash-in on the previous success but completely failed to see why Super Meat Boy was fun. It was fast-paced! You could jump in rather easily and the game constantly flowed, despite your repetitive deaths throughout your gameplay. Here, on the other-hand, the game retains its bleak tone and becomes a really depressing experience, which leads to frustration because the game feels really unfair at times.
What doesn’t help further is the gameplay mechanics. The nameless boy is far too slow in his movements and his jump is ridiculous. Honestly, his movements are fucking barbaric at times, making a lot of the later platforming/puzzle sections more like chores than fun challenges. There was one section in particular where you had to run across an area which became electrified once the mine-cart you was previously riding on touches the switch underneath. But you need to use the mine-cart to reach the area in question, thus having to run across the across as fast as you can before you are electrocuted.
But the problem lies with the boys slowness and that you have to do the section in a precise way in order to make it in time, which became very annoying to endure. And that’s what I hated about the game, it was too structured. Yes puzzles are supposed to be solved in a certain way (that’s obvious) but to the point where the character’s movements are almost pre-programmed to perform the puzzles in a given structure makes things far too unbearable. What started as a great game became a really disappointing game because of its repetition, lack of immersion, and the destruction of its own unique formula and atmosphere.
Inside, on the other-hand, does fix a lot of the problems that Limbo hit. From the very beginning you can tell that Playdead have put even more effort into this new project, upping up the graphics and colourisation in order to create an even more immersive experience. You can tell its very similar to Limbo, in terms of its controls and structure, but beyond that it does feel like a new journey, which becomes even deeper and depressing than Limbo. Heck, I’d go as far as to say that Inside becomes very fucking disturbing, particularly by the end!
Once again the protagonist is a boy, though this time slightly older (probably in his teens) and once again his traumatic journey begins within a forest (or woodland). Unlike Limbo, in which had barely any human contact to make you feel more isolated in your personalised purgatory, has far more humanoid enemy encounters who are all out to get you. This journey sets itself in a realistic environment (for the most part) as you find yourself in an alternative present, or possibly a not-so distant future, in which an unknown corporation has taken over and its operatives are out to get you for unknown reasoning.
At every encounter they are out for blood, chasing after you in order to silence you. It’s far worse when they send out their hounds because they will physically tear out your fucking throat. At least the guards try to be delicate by straggling you from behind. Again, it’s the depressing imagery of watching a child being killed in graphic ways, from drowning, to breaking their body from falling, to being torn apart, the list goes on! These games are not for the faint hearted, that’s for sure.
The puzzle sections are back but they’re not so prominent in this journey, and more neatly worked into the storytelling. In fact, that’s what I love most about Inside. It goes about to tell a mysterious tale that slowly unfolds as you journey further into this twisted, industrialised setting. Things become stranger when you’re introduced to zombie-like drones that are seemingly controlled and turned into slaves. Were these once people, or where they built? Many questions are asked but no answers are ever given, allowing the players to once again come up with their own unique version of the truth.
It’s hard to say which game has the better story, because in many ways Inside has a more coherent plot, and literally uses the entire game to deliver information in cryptic messages, and by utilising the environment and the journey itself. On the other-hand, Limbo appears a lot more obvious from the get-go, specifically by its own suggestive fucking title.
Overall I enjoyed Inside a lot more because of the amount of immersion I felt. It wasn’t just a passing fancy like with Limbo and constantly delivered meaning, despite whether or not I fully grasped what was going on. Maybe that was for the best. I also liked that the puzzle segments and platforming felt balanced with the storytelling, blending into one mixture to create a more coherent game. There wasn’t many sections that I got frustrated with. The only time this occurred was during the water sections because the swim speed was really slow and sometimes you had to be very precise in order to out-swim those annoying fucking underwater things!
By the end Inside became a rather questionable experience, in which I didn’t know whether I should be amazed or just really creeped out. Seeing that strange blob monster-thing was utterly disturbing. What made things worse was the knowledge of whether or not the boy you was playing as became another mindless drone for the purposes of a higher being. Was he originally intending to escape the powers of the corporation, and then unfortunately became apart of the scheme to free the creature by suggestion, or was he being controlled all along? Inside is very deep and thinking about it for too long is a sure way to making your brain explode.
One aspect that I liked was the secrets. Both games had hidden collectibles you could find throughout. Limbo featured strange eggs that you had to crush, whilst Inside featured power spheres which powered the many cables throughout the industrialised world, probably controlled by the evil corporation. Though I will admit that I had to look-up most of them, but nevertheless, they added much to the already existing gameplay, granting the player even more immersion and purpose to their struggling, and often, mysterious journey through dangerous odds.
Although the secret area you unlock in Limbo can go fuck itself! Granted I did it without using a walkthrough (score brownie-points!) but fuck me was it hard, something I will never, ever repeat in a million years unless I want to torture myself for making a massive mistake.
Both games met with a horrific conclusion, to which I had to question my existence. “Why the fuck did I endure these depressing experiences, and potentially added money to the pockets of a sadist?” I have to give credit where credit is due. Playdead brought out two very well-thought-out games that left me scratching my head, and wanting to slit my wrists due to the endless torture I committed to myself and the two innocent children I caused to die time and time again.
Joking aside, these games were bloody good (though Inside is clearly superior for the reasons I stated) and leave you in an awkward pause because you literally don’t know what to do with yourself. It’s one of those things where you don’t get the answers you were seeking, the evil isn’t conquered, and the endurance you have blatantly suffered has no real pay-off. Instead you are either left to repeat your endless cycle of Hell, or you are absorbed by a wired fucking blob monster-thing which eventually escapes its captives and dies on a beach. “Welcome to the life-lessons of how to write the most cheeriest endings to a story known to man!”
But seriously, I recommend these games. If you’ve already played them you’ll know what I’m talking about, and for those who haven’t played them just simply examine this review and figure out for yourself whether this is the experience for you. If you don’t think you can handle a bleak hour of death, misery, and no answers to your tormenting questions, then this probably isn’t for you. But at the very least try to satisfy that curious niggle in the back of your mind because the pay-off might just be worth it. And who knows, you might walk away from these games wanting to jump off a cliff too.