One of the nice aspects of modern digital distribution is that classic indie games are now often available – quickly and inexpensively – on the newest console systems. Designers looking to extend the life cycle of a previous title can reissue their games on PlayStation Network, Xbox Live or Nintendo eShop. I sense an example is in order....
Recently ported to the PlayStation 4, the 2011 indie game “Limbo” ($9.99, rated T) is a dark and elegant piece of work that deserves a wider audience. It’s often cited by those who argue that video games can indeed be considered works of art. With its monochrome design and grim existential themes, it’s like a digital age riff on German Expressionism. But, you know, in a fun way.
Like so many good independent games in this arena, “Limbo” takes a focused and minimalist approach. It’s a bare-bones side-scrolling platformer, essentially, heavy on atmosphere and creative puzzle design. Players assume the role of a nameless silhouetted little boy who awakes in a shadowy forest of lethal creatures and booby traps.
‘Trial and death’ play
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This is Limbo, and our hero is on a quest, although the nature of that quest is a mystery at first. There are only three controls to worry about: movement, a jump button and an action button. Most of the platforming action is basic – climb this, jump over that, drag this object. But the designers create some diabolical dilemmas when it comes to the featured puzzles.
“Limbo” contains no text or dialogue, but it does provide auditory clues that are often the key to unraveling a particular obstacle. Timing is key in many instances, whether you’re dodging a wrecking ball or a giant spider’s deadly proboscis. Traps are cleverly concealed, and if you fail, your little avatar will be dispatched with stylized goriness. Pretty much anything you encounter in Limbo is decidedly hostile. Forget “trial and error,” the designers have described the gameplay philosophy as “trial-and-death.”
In later levels, you’ll encounter other children stranded in Limbo. But they’re not happy to see you, either, and deploy even more traps and ambushes to hinder your progress. It’s all part of the game’s nihilist gallows humor. Everything plays out in a textured black-and-white background that subtly strobes with the flicker of an old-time cinema screen.
“Limbo” is a relatively short game, with about four or five hours of playtime in total. But it’s a worthwhile title to put in the queue, if for no other reason than to enjoy the designers’ gleefully malicious take on existential ennui and puzzle design. Watch for the similarly themed game “Badland” – originally designed for the iPad – to get a reissue this spring on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U.
‘Lego Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin’
Speaking of puzzles, the handheld game “Lego Ninjago: Shadow of Ronin” ($29.99, rated E-10) is the latest spin-off in the Lego franchise, and provides a familiar adventure for fans of the series.
Like similar games in the Lego line of licensed properties – Star Wars, Batman, Lord of the Rings, etc. – the game is a mix of platforming, puzzle-solving and goofball combat. This time around, the action is centered on Lego’s own “Ninjago” universe, featuring elements from Chinese and Japanese myths along with wisecracking teenagers.
The light-hearted tone is preserved throughout, with wacky scenarios and comedic banter concerning ancient talismans and Nunchuks of Lightning, or whatever. Kids who are already invested in the toys, or the animated show on Cartoon Network, will have fun with this one. But the game pales in comparison with the clever pop-culture riffing of older Lego titles. As far as I’m concerned, the Lego “Indiana Jones” games have never really been equaled.
New This Week: The epic action RPG “Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin” and the indie puzzler “Steath Inc. 2: A Game of Clones.”