Note: Limbo Box Art // Star full // Limbo gdc awards 2011 cropped
Limbo's initial release on the Xbox 360 has received acclaim from video game critics and journalists; the subsequent release of the game for the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Windows platforms received similar praise, holding Metacritic aggregate scores of 90/100 and 88/100, respectively, compared to the 90/100 earned by the Xbox 360 version. Some journalists compared Limbo to previous minimalist platform games such as Another World, Flashback, Heart of Darkness, Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Ico, Portal and Braid. Reviews consistently noted Limbo's short length for its higher selling price: two to five hours of gameplay for 15 euros or 15 U.S. dollars. Reviewers asserted this length-to-price ratio was the largest drawback for the game, and would be a deterrent for potential buyers. Some journalists contended that the length of the game was ideal; The Daily Telegraph's Tom Hoggins considered the short game to have a "perfectly formed running time", while Daemon Hatfield of IGN commented that "it's better for a game to leave us wanting more than to overstay its welcome". Numerous independent game developers, in an organised "Size Doesn't Matter" effort, commented on the critical response to Limbo's length-to-price ratio. The independent developers questioned the need to quantify that ratio, and noted that it only seems to be used as a factor in judging video games and not other forms of entertainment such as films.
Limbo was generally praised for its puzzle design and the simplicity of its controls. Jake Gaskill of G4 TV was impressed by the complexity of the puzzles based on the two simple actions of jumping and grabbing onto objects, similar to LittleBigPlanet, with a variety of elements to assure "you're always facing something new and challenging" during the game. Game Informer's Matt Miller commented that part of the success of Limbo is that "every one of these [puzzles] stands alone"; the game accomplishes this in Miller's opinion by varying the elements throughout the game, and preventing the player from getting too accustomed to similar solutions since "everything changes". GameSpy's Ryan Scott believed that the game empowered the player to work through solutions themselves, and its puzzle design, "with its elegant simplicity, offers up what feels like a world of meaningful possibilities". The frequency of death was not considered a distraction from the game; not only were the deaths seen as necessary as part of learning and overcoming each obstacle, but reviewers found the checkpoints where the player would restart to be plentiful throughout the game. Will Freeman of The Guardian praised the game but noted that beyond the "smoke and mirrors" of Limbo's artwork, the game is "undermined by the title's lack of innovative gameplay", which he says has been seen in earlier platform games.
Limbo's graphical and audio presentation were considered by reviewers as exceptional and powerful elements of the game. The monochrome approach, coupled with film grain filter, focusing techniques and lighting, were compared to both film noir and dreamlike tableaus of silent films, allowing the visual elements of the game to carry much of the story's weight. Cian Hassett of PALGN likened the effect to watching the game through an old-fashioned film projector that creates "one of the most unsettling and eerily beautiful environments" in video gaming. Garrett Martin of the Boston Herald compared the art style and game design decisions to German Expressionism with "dreamlike levels that twist and spin in unexpected angles". The art style itself was praised as minimalistic, and considered reminiscent of the art of Lotte Reiniger, Edward Gorey, Fritz Lang, and Tim Burton. The use of misdirection in the visuals was also praised, such as by using silhouettes to avoid revealing the true nature of the characters or shadows, or by showing human figures across a chasm who disappear once the player crossed the chasm.
Reviewers found the sound effects within the game critical to the game's impact. Sam Machkovech, writing for The Atlantic, called the sound direction, "far more colorful and organic than the fuzzed-out looks would lead you to believe". Edge magazine's review noted that the few background noises "[do] little else than contribute towards Limbo’s tone", while the sound effects generated by moving the boy character "are given an eerie clarity without the presence of a conventional soundtrack to cover them".
IGN's Hatfield concluded his review by stating, "Very few games are as original, atmospheric, and consistently brilliant as Limbo". Chad Sapeiha of The Globe and Mail summarised his opinion of the game's atmosphere as an "intensely scary, oddly beautiful, and immediately arresting aesthetic." Limbo is said to be the first game to attempt a mix of the horror fiction genre with platform games. The game has been considered an art game through its visual and audio elements.
The game's story and its ending have been open to much interpretation; the ending was purposely left vague and unanswered by Playdead. It was compared to other open-ended books, films and video games, where the viewer is left to interpret what they have read or seen. Some reviews suggested that the game is a representation of the religious nature of Limbo or purgatory, as the boy character completes the journey only to end at the same place he started, repeating the same journey when the player starts a new game. Another interpretation suggested the game is the boy's journey through Hell to reach Heaven, or to find closure for his sister's death. Another theory considers that either the boy or his sister or both are dead. Some theories attempted to incorporate details from the game, such as the change in setting as the boy travels through the game suggesting the progression of man from child to adult to elder, or the similarities and differences between the final screen of the game where the boy meets a girl and the main menu where what could be human remains stand in their places.
The absence of direct narrative, such as through cutscenes or in-game text, was a mixed point for reviewers. John Teti of Eurogamer considered the game's base story to be metaphorical for a "story of a search for companionship", and that the few encounters with human characters served as "emotional touchstones" that drove the story forward; ultimately, Teti stated that these elements make Limbo "a game that has very few humans, but a surplus of humanity". Hatfield praised the simplicity of the game's story, commenting that, "with no text, no dialogue, and no explanation, it manages to communicate circumstance and causality to the player more simply than most games". Both Teti and Hatfield noted that some of the story elements were weaker in the second half of the game, when there are almost no human characters with whom the player comes into contact, but that the game ends with an unexpected revelation. GameSpot's Tom McShae found no issues with the game posing questions on "death versus life and reality versus dream", but purposely providing no answers for them, allowing the player to contemplate these on their own. McShae also considered that the brief but gruesome death scenes for the boy helped to create an "emotional immediacy that is difficult to forget". The New York Daily News' Stu Horvath noted that Limbo "turns its lack of obvious narrative into one of the most compelling riddles in videogames".
Other reviews disliked the lack of story or its presentation within Limbo. Justin Haywald of 1UP.com was critical of the lacking narrative, feeling that the game failed to explain the purpose of the constructed traps or rationale for how the game's world worked, and that the final act left him "more confused than when [he] began". Haywald had contrasted Limbo to Braid, a similar platform game with minimalistic elements which communicates its metaphorical story to the player through in-game text. Roger Hargreaves of Metro stated that the game has "very little evidence that [Playdead] really knew where they were going with the game", citing the second half, when the player is traveling through a factory-type setting and where he felt the game became more like a typical two-dimensional platform game, and led to an anticlimactic ending; Hargreaves contrasted this to more gruesome elements of the first half, such as encountering corpses of children and having to use those as part of the puzzle-solving aspects.
Sales and accolades
Before its release, Limbo was awarded both the "Technical Excellence" and "Excellence in Visual Art" titles at the Independent Games Festival during the 2010 Game Developers Conference. At E3 2010—about a month before its release—Limbo won GameSpot's "Best Downloadable Game", and was nominated for several other "Best of Show" awards, including "Best Platformer" by IGN, "Most Original Game" by G4 TV, and "Best Puzzle Game" by GameSpot. The game was nominated as one of 32 finalists at the 2010 IndieCade festival for independent developers, ultimately winning the "Sound" award.
Following its release, Limbo was named "Game of the Year", "Best Indie Game", and "Best Visual Art" at the 2010 European Milthon Awards during the Paris Game Show in September 2010. Game Informer named Limbo their Game of the Month for August 2010. Limbo was awarded the "Best Indie Game" at the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards. The game received the most nominations for the 11th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards, earning seven nominations including for the "Best Debut Game", "Innovation", and "Game of the Year" awards, and ultimately won for "Best Visual Art". The title won the "Adventure Game of the Year" and "Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design" Interactive Achievement Awards from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences and was nominated for "Outstanding Achievement in Game Direction" and "Outstanding Innovation in Gaming". The Academy also named Limbo as the winner of the 2010 Indie Game Challenge award in the "Professional" category, along with a $100,000 prize. The game was selected as the 2010 Annie Award for Best Animated Video Game. Limbo was named as one of ten games for the publicly voted 2011 "Game of the Year" BAFTA Video Game Awards. In addition, the game was nominated for the committee-determined BAFTA awards for "Artistic Achievement", "Use of Audio", "Gameplay" and "Best Game". The inclusion of the independently developed Limbo among other larger commercially backed games such as Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Call of Duty: Black Ops for such "Best Game" awards is considered an indication that the video game industry has started to give more recognition to these smaller titles.
Several publications, including Time, Wired and the Toronto Sun placed Limbo as one of the top ten video games of 2010. IGN named it the third best Xbox Live Arcade title of all time in two lists, published in 2010 and 2011, in both cases following Shadow Complex and Pac Man Championship Edition. Limbo was spoofed by the comedy troope Mega64 during the 2011 Game Developers Conference, and later by the CollegeHumor sister website, Dorkly.
Within two weeks of its release on Xbox Live Arcade, Limbo gained more than 244,000 players to the global leaderboards—a rough measure of full sales of the game—which was considered an "incredibly impressive feat" compared to previous Xbox Live Arcade titles, according to GamerBytes' Ryan Langley. Within a month of its release, more than 300,000 copies of the game were sold. By the end of August 2010, the number of players on the global leaderboard grew to 371,000, exceeding the number of players of other Summer of Arcade games released in 2009, and approaching the number of lifetime players of Braid, released two years earlier. Langley, who had expected Limbo's sales to fall "due to the lack of repeatable content and being a strictly single player experience", considered that these figures had "beaten everyone’s expectations". Phil Spencer, the Vice-President of Microsoft Game Studios, stated in September 2010 that Limbo was "our number one Summer of Arcade game by a long stretch", and further posed that Limbo represents a shift in the type of game that gamers want out of online on-demand game services; "it's becoming less about iconic [intellectual property] that people know and it's becoming more diverse". Limbo was the third-highest selling Xbox Live Arcade title in 2010, selling 527,000 and generating about $7.5 million in revenue. In March 2011, Microsoft listed Limbo as the 11th-highest selling game to date on Xbox Live. Playdead stated that more than two million users on the Xbox 360 service played through the demo within the year of the game's release.
The developers announced that as of November 2011, they had sold over 1 million copies of the game across the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Windows platforms. By June 2013, just prior to the iOS release, Playdead announced that total sales of Limbo across all platforms exceeded 3 million. The PlayStation 3 version was the top selling third-party downloadable game on the PlayStation Network service in 2011. The PlayStation 3 version was also voted "Best Indie Game" in the 2012 PSN Gamers' Choice Awards. The Mac OS X version of Limbo was awarded with Apple's Design Award in 2012.
Applications for grants from the Nordic Game Program, which had funded Limbo's initial development, increased 50% in the second half of 2010, believed to be tied to the game's success. Playdead was able to buy itself back from its investors in August 2011 from the revenue made from sales of Limbo. Playdead's follow-up title, Inside, first released in June 2016, is visually and thematically similar to Limbo, and includes some elements that were cut from Limbo's development.