It’s March 3rd, the Friday after Limbus Company’s Sunday release.  At this point I’ve written two whole essays about Lobotomy Corporation, plan to write another essay about Library of Ruina, and have devoted a disproportionately large amount of my time to Project Moon’s work.  And after months of waiting feverishly for the release of Limbus Company, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m already very invested in the game.

I also have…thoughts.  Limbus Company is a complicated monster, even here in week one of its release, and I have a lot of apprehensions about the game, even as I grow more invested.  So at this point, I consider tracking those thoughts a good investment.  I will inevitably want to talk about this game in some detail.  Why not start now?

However, just by nature of the beast, I want to recognize that these are impressions and thoughts-in-progress, NOT some kind of authoritative thesis on the game.  So let’s keep this raw, fast, and loose.  We can talk about overall significance later, after this game is finished.  For now:

Hype and Anticipation

I picked up the scent of Limbus Company sometime in Summer 2022, I think.  I was working on my second Lobotomy Corporation essay and happened to check Project Moon’s homepage to see if they were working on a new game – and they were!  I didn’t spend much time learning about the game (I didn’t want to spoil the experience), but I did see a couple of worrying things as I tried to figure out how to most efficiently put my money in their hands.

  1. There was no “pre-order” – only “pre-registration”.
  2. The game was advertised as being sold on Google Play, the Apple Store, and the Windows 10 store.

…sooooo…a phone game?

I have never owned a decent smartphone.  The most I’ve spent on a phone is the forty bucks I paid for my current model.  It makes calls, sends text messages, and plays music, which is most of what I want my phone to do.  It also plays Little Inferno, which is pretty much the most complicated thing I could want in a phone.

But my main concern wasn’t platform (I figured I’d buy it through Windows and run it on my Windows 10 PC), my concern was audience.  Why was Project Moon releasing the follow up to Lobotomy Corporation and Library of Ruina – two games steeped in immersive horror and rich storytelling – releasing their next game on a platform ill-suited to delivering that experience?  Had I missed something about PM’s target audience?  Was Library of Ruina meant to be more casual than I realized?

Happily, Limbus Company announced a Steam release in January, and I added it to my wishlist as quickly as I could move my mouse.  But my apprehensions remained.

The Free-to-Play Single-Player Game

The release date, February 26th, finally arrived.  I was checking Steam frenetically to see when the game would finally unlock (5:30 p.m.  It was a long day…), then rushed to my computer to finally pay for the dang game, since no pre-order had been available at any time during this process.

But instead of an “add to cart” option, there was only “add to account.”

The game is free-to-play.

This…was also a matter for apprehension.

I have no complaints about being able to play the game for free, but a free-to-play game has to make its money somehow, and that usually means in-game-transactions.  I don’t have some kind of prejudice against this model, and have played many free-to-play games in my time – some where I paid money for certain features; others where I did not.  But those tended to be multiplayer games: Hearthstone, Minion Masters, League of Legends, Dungeon Fighter Online, Fortnite.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a game that was free-to-play and totally single-player.  Why?  Why would they do this?  On the one hand, I recognize that Project Moon has been pretty wildly experimental with their mixing-and-matching genres, slow episodic release of Library of Ruina, and frequently counter-intuitive game design (that usually works like gangbusters) – but a free-to-play single-player game?  Was I missing something?  What the heck was I getting into?

I’m still not sure I have an answer to this question.  But we’ll come back to that.

Installation, Technical Troubles, and Expiration Dates

Red flag number three came when I first booted up the game.  Like most free-to-play games (which, again, tend to be multiplayer-focused), Limbus Company the executable app was really just a container for a bigger download and a game that exists almost entirely online.  Again – this is not a dealbreaker for me; I realize the usefulness of this model – but once again I asked myself why this was the direction Project Moon had chosen for this game.  Especially since, as became very obvious within the first several hours the game was online, the servers went down and I could not access the game at all.

I was disappointed, sure, but these things happen.  If anything, I considered this a promising sign: the game proved to be more popular than Project Moon was expecting (a fact buttressed by PM’s very apologetic updates and generous currency donations over the following week).  Worse, I tried to put some money into the game and the game ate the transactions (but all was rectified within 24 hours).

And, honestly, I didn’t care.  I’d been trying to give PM my money for nearly a year – they were welcome to eat it.  It was frustrating, but it’s going to take a lot more ill-will for me to break faith with their work.  These are all growing pains – the sign of a studio trying an ambitious new format and running into problems they didn’t anticipate.  I’ve seen it all before.

But that “Why?” question kept coming back – “why all this grief, why this new format, when it could have been avoided?”

And, more uncomfortably: “Does this mean I won’t be able to play the game when the servers shut down?”

To me, this was honestly the biggest concern so far.  Not in the short-term “I have to wait ‘til tomorrow” sense, but in the long-term “The day will come with this game is no longer profitable and I will literally be unable to play it” sense.  It’s happened before: I’ve often bemoaned the loss of some of my other favorite all-online free-to-play games like Solforge, Fractured Space, and Chronicle: Runescape Legends.  When the game is located on the server side, it necessarily comes with an expiration date.  Solforge is legitimately gone: you cannot play it in its original form – at all.  And while that ephemerality can be an advantage (think of big events for big multiplayer games like World of Warcraft or Fortnite), it’s hard to extend that possibility to a narrative-focused single-player game like Lobotomy Corporation or Library of Ruina.  Games are hard enough to archive and retain: for every lovingly-fan-updated abandonware title, there are probably a dozen that have been lost to time: incompatible with DosBox, designed for hardware that simply no longer exists, or lost in legal-rights battles.  Most self-contained single-player games can be emulated or rejiggered to contemporary hardware, or pirated by well-meaning games historians.  But online games, when lost, are lost forever.  It’s nigh-impossible to run both server-side and client-side functions, and if you try, there’s a decent chance the original creators will sue you for it (looking at you, Blizzard).

(All the more reason to make this diary, in my opinion.  And I may well back that up with a video recording, if I have the time.)

The Tutorial

Monday morning I spent beating the Tutorial.  Since then I’ve gotten into the habit of playing for a couple hours each night – and that’s become the highlight of my day.  I advance through the story, unlock some new doo-dads for my characters, and go to bed eager for more the next day.

Here’s the pitch: Limbus Company is about a posse of misfit characters hired by some inscrutable corporation (Limbus Company) after the events of both Lobotomy Corporation and Library of Ruina, but in the same cyber-pocalyptic city setting of the earlier games.  The mission: to scour the satellite locations of the old Lobotomy Corporation and try to find the mysterious “Golden Boughs” – manifestations of the collected energy harvested by Lobotomy Corporation in its title game, left behind after the fall of the Corporation at the end of the first game.

Where are Roland and Angela?  Where are the various Sephiroth?  I don’t know.  Maybe they’ll show up, maybe they won’t?

Instead, focus is squarely on your posse of misfits: and each member of the team is, in true Project Moon fashion, a symbolically-loaded reinterpretation of a famous literary figure.

So you play as Dante, a man with a clock for a head, who has the unique power to drag each of the “sinners” (your posse) back from “hell” (?), effectively resurrecting them endlessly throughout the course of the game.  The Tutorial opens with Dante waking up in a dark wood, confronted by three brigands (named Lion, Wolf, and Panther), only to be rescued by the Limbus Company bus, the sinners (who get wrecked by the brigands), and Vergilius, who makes short work of your adversaries and promises to serve as your guide going forward.

So…a re-situation of Canto I of Dante’s Inferno in short.

Dramatis Personae

But we’ve barely started with the symbolic re-imagining.  Your bus is named Mephistopheles, and is the creation of Faust, one of the twelve other sinners.  It is driven by Charon (the famous ferryman of Greek mythology).  The sinners are:

1. Yi-Sang (unusually named after the author, and not his character: Yi-Sang is a mid-twentieth century Korean author famous for his adaptation of Surrealism and Dadaism to his novels, including The Wings – which may well be the reference point for the “Wings” of Lobotomy Corporation, i.e., the megacorps who make up the city’s mysterious ruling class.  I’d be willing to bet Yi-Sang was a huge influence on PM’s artistic sensibilities, though I hadn’t heard of him until researching this game.  My copy of The Wings is due to arrive next week…)

2. Faust  (presumably Goethe’s Faust, but really any of the Faustus legends seem to apply here)

3. Don Quixote (yes, that one: the famous mad, idealistic knight of Cervantes’ romance)

4. Ryoshu (the titular character of a novel by Japanese author Yokomitsu Riichi – I’ve looked and it doesn’t seem like this novel was ever translated into English, but I’ve got a short story collection of Riichi’s to peruse in the coming weeks) [EDIT: Further research has determined that this is actually a reference to Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “Hell Screen” and NOT Yokomitsu Riichi’s novel, which is titled “Ryoshu” only in transliterated English. More information to follow…]

5. Meursault (the character possibly referred to in the title The Stranger by Albert Camus, famous existentialist.  Meursault’s characteristic detachment from emotional investment absolutely survives to this game.)

6. Hong Lu (from the Chinese Classic A Dream of Red Mansions – which I haven’t read, but have been meaning to for years…)

7. Heathcliff (from Wuthering Heights, which I also haven’t read…though I have no excuse on this one, I guess, beyond being a bit surprised that this was the one character from British literature to make the list)

8. Ishmael (Moby Dick’s narrator and only survivor of the Pequod.  Ishmael is gender-flipped here, like Don Quixote, Faust, and Rodya, but she’s alluded frequently to her time on a ship.)

9. Rodion (The main character of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, gender-flipped.)

10. Dante (As mentioned – author and protagonist of The Divine Comedy, now the player character.)

11. Sinclair (Possibly the deepest cut of our Western Canon: Sinclair is the narrator of Hermann Hesse’s Demian – the impressionable young man infatuated with Max Demian and his philosophy.)

12. Outis (i.e., “Noman” – the name Odysseus adopts for himself as a disguise when deceiving the Cyclops in the Odyssey.  It’s worth mentioning that this became a pen-name in its own right, but the allusions throught Limbus Company make it seem pretty clear that Outis shares Odysseus’ strategic sensibilities.

13. Gregor (i.e., Gregor Samsa of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who inexplicably has been turned into a bug in the opening line of the story.  It might also be worth noting that while most of the characters’ names are rendered in the language of origin – Russian Cyrillic for Rodion, Greek for Outis, Japanese and Chinese characters for Ryoshu and Hong Lu respectively – Gregor is rendered in Jewish letters, positing Kafka’s Jewish heritage above his Austrian nationality.)

And, like the Sephiroth of Lobotomy Corporation, these characters seem to serve as the same kind of overloaded symbolic figures: each character is a re-interpretation of the original literary character, often with an eye toward thematic preservation and development.

For example…

Canto I: Gregor and the Apple

It would seem that the game is divided up into self-contained chapters, each one featuring one of the sinners.  Chapter I (called Canto I) is all about Gregor.  Gregor in the game is one of the most affable sinners, and less hostile to Dante at the outset of the game (even calling Dante “manager bud” from time to time).  But this district of the city is infested by humans with bug-like characteristics, much like Gregor’s own chitinous arm.

What I find so interesting about PM’s approach here is the overloading of Gregor’s symbolic significance.  The reference to the Metamorphosis is obvious: like Kafka’s character, Gregor is in mid-transition to insect.  But where Kafka’s metamorphosis was inexplicable, absurd, and highlighted the existential horror of his day, PM’s Gregor is a victim, subjected to experimentation by an unhinged military operation and inexplicably resistant to that transformation – and yet the victimization by society, even if pulpy here, dovetails neatly with Kafka’s ideas across his work.  It’s not hard to draw a direct line between the dehumanization of these bug-soldiers and the systemic dehumanization of The Metamorphosis or The Trial.  Most other members of his regiment have lost their humanity more dramatically: Gregor stresses at one point that most people expressed bug characteristics in their face as well as their limbs – but Gregor’s own face is untouched.  And, for this reason, he was often promoted and respected by his comrades.  Furthermore, as the sinners descend into the former site of Lobotomy Corporation (a “dungeon” every bit the harrowing, escalated challenge and threat I discussed in my earlier essays), Gregor’s history and psyche is gradually laid bare under exposure to the local abnormality – an apple (like the apple thrown at Gregor in Kafka’s story, which contributes to Gregor’s demise) which, here, attacks the party, devours a supporting character, and appeals for mercy using their voice and character.

I’m not sure the story told here is thematically-sound, but it is fascinating to juggle these layers of meaning and symbolism and derive sense from the whole – just as it was with the earlier games.  After the mission, the credits roll, and Gregor’s voice actor sings the closing song as you meditate on what you’ve seen.

Canto II: Rodya’s Heroism

I think the take on Rodion is stronger, though.  Tonally, the chapter is a bit odd.  The mission is a botched heist at a casino, and includes a lot of the trope-y heist setup, only to anticlimactically end with the same wholesale violence that the game is designed to facilitate.  It’s framed as wacky hijinks, though, which is hard to square with the aesthetics of the thing.  Still, it’s neat to see Rodion as gambler (an addiction many of Dostoevsky’s protagonists, and Dostoevsky himself, wrestled with), as well as the ultimate revelation that, like the Dostoevsky character, Rodion, too, murdered a pawnbroker with an axe (the same axe Rodion wields in each battle), but in this case hoping to distribute the wealth, Robin-Hood-style to the peasants – an interpretation absolutely in-keeping with the Rodion of the novel.

I’m tempted to do some deep diving on both of these stories, but I don’t want these pieces to grow too long; nor do I want my attempt to describe my findings to interfere with the actual storytelling on offer.  There are a lot of cool touches and surprises throughout the game, and while I’m spoiling some key character details here, it’s the execution more than the plot summary that counts.

What I take away from the first two chapters of the game is that Project Moon has departed from its tonal consistency.  Where the first two games committed to this horror-with-a-happy-face aesthetic that underscored the monstrousness of day-to-day grind with uncanny, upbeat disconnect (you know, like reality under capitalism today), the tonal discord here is more successive, rather than simultaneous.  There are sharp turns from farce to threat, off-beat character-driven jokes to psychological horror, especially here in Canto II.  It’s an ungainly structure, more aligned with something like Persona than PM’s earlier games, and almost certainly a product of letting the ensemble cast take center stage.  Lobotomy Corporation developed its characters mechanically in the meltdown-boss fights, and through philosophical monologues and flashbacks.  Library of Ruina alternated between a long-form character study of its two primary figures: Roland and Angela, which were best revealed in dark-mirror abnormality battles (again, mechanically-focused) – and interwoven vignettes developing side characters, who usually reached their culmination in – again, mechanically-focused boss battles.  Since Limbus Company is more traditionally-structured, telling one single story in successive scenes of visual-novel-esque dialogue, it ends up spending a lot of its dialogue time in small-stakes character beats between the sinners: literary gruntwork typical of sitcoms and character dramas, but which they’d been able to largely avoid in past games.  Every scene in past games tended to be developing portentous turning-point moments, rather than day-to-day socializing; here it’s unavoidable, and it doesn’t always work.  It feels like filler a lot of the time, even if it’s motivated by the newfound focus on character. 

Weirdly, though, I think this pivot has an alternative mechanical basis.  Namely:


I’m going to try to avoid fully describing the labyrinthine series of currencies, rewards, and systems surrounding Limbus Company’s monetization.  But there are some unavoidable discussions.

1. Rolling for Identities

Each character has multiple different identities, which are unlocked through a loot-box-ish system where you earn “lunacy” (generously, I might add) by playing missions, fulfilling battle pass objectives, or just putting down hard cash for the privilege, spend that lunacy, and earn a chance at unlocking a new identity.  Limbus Company introduces you to the system with a pretty great tutorial, but the system is familiar: roll the dice, most of the time you get boring useless duplicate starter identities, but once in a while you get a new identity which opens up different attacks, powers, and upgrades for your characters.  You can only use one identity at a time, but each one seems to operate both as a kind of unique power set (mechanically) and a glimpse into the characters backstory.  What’s more, this week has featured a special extraction where you get a higher chance of unlocking Gregor’s alternative identities – which I think a nice touch, seeing as he’s the featured character for Canto I.  I have high hopes of seeing Rodion featured in the next cycle, whenever that turns out to be. 

What I’ve noticed, though, is that this does, in fact, mechanically reinforce your connection to the characters.  I was thrilled when I unlocked Gregor’s “Liu Section Six” identity, and I hope to get his much-promoted, very rare military identity “G Corp Manager Corporal” by the event’s end on March 8th.  I was even more excited to unlock (by dumb luck) first Ishmael’s third-rank identity, then Meruseult’s (literally this morning).  And as I try to gauge the differences in how these identities work, I find myself thinking about each character, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they work in battle. And, as in most games with similar mechanics, duplicate identity pulls yield a character-specific currency, which you can save up to buy those same high-profile identities if you don’t manage to get lucky.  Even if I never manage to pull a “G Corp Corporal” identity for Gregor, I’m already halfway to buying it, purely because I’m getting his basic identity so frequently in the event.  Which, too, makes me feel like I’m working toward Gregor’s training and development, however obliquely.

This probably shouldn’t be novel.  Overwatch did this years ago, and was basically ripping off Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends when it did.  Unlocking cool swag for your characters deepens your connection and investment to those characters, even if it seems a bit commercial and crass, and becomes mere commodification when executed poorly.  I’m at least willing to consider that this move was deliberate by PM, and done well.  Though initially-baffled by their move to free-to-play online single player, I’m interested to see how they use these identities to further inform and develop each sinner.  Maybe future updates will add more identities, more stories, more character development?  Or maybe it’s just set-dressing to a single-player story already planned out to the end, just waiting for me to play it through.  I don’t know (hence – impressions).  I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the idea of an ongoing story, subject to seasonal changes and gradual character development over time, but I’m certainly curious, and I’m impressed with the work done so far.  We’ll just have to see what happens on that front.

2. Paying to Win?

The danger, of course, is that, since these identities are arguably more powerful than your default counterparts, or at least offer more variety (I’m still figuring it out…), that the game is effectively pay-to-win.  You can buy experience, more identity rolls, and other augmentations through the shop, which means that players who spend money will get more powerful than players who don’t.  And while this shouldn’t matter so much in a single-player game, where there is nothing resembling PvP (at least, not yet…?), this is a PM game, and that means I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I’m expecting a huge difficulty spike in the weeks to come, as I progress through the story, and I’m worried I’m going to hit that spike and discover that the only way to progress is by paying out some serious money.

But…I honestly expected it to have happened by now?  A couple times I had to go back and replay missions, and figured this is where my daily allotment of bus fuel was going to run out – but I was refunded almost all my fuel and just…replayed the mission without any serious consequence.  I have spent a little bit of money on the game at this point ($10 for the battle pass and $5 for a daily dose of lunacy), but I really don’t think that’s affected my progress all that much, especially since the developers have been handing out even more generous gifts in response to the technical problems.  I’ve had some really lucky pulls, but I don’t think the identities I’ve scored are substantially stronger than the basic identities, which have been automatically upgraded every time I beat a chapter.

I’d be happy giving PM more of my money: I paid easily $40 for Library of Ruina and I have no regrets.  But at this point I’m not even sure what I would buy.  I’m tentatively figuring that I’ll save my pennies and keep buying battle passes as long as I’m playing the game, but I’m honestly not sure whether I’m just going to beat the game at some point and be…awkwardly…done.  I’m glad I’m not getting charged through the nose, but I also don’t want PM to lose money on this gambit.  Other studios have tanked due to similar mistakes…

3. The Ubiquitous Battle Pass

I’m actually a huge fan of battle passes as a monetization scheme.  I first encountered the idea in Minion Masters, though I think Fortnite was where it really hit the mainstream.  The idea is that you unlock small, incremental rewards through continued play, with greater rewards for players who buy the upgraded pass.  On some level, I have no idea why Limbus Company has a battle pass for its single-player game, unless it’s supposed to draw out the rewards and give poorer players the same (if slower) rewards as players doling out cash.  But what I have found is that the daily rewards for play are actually slowing me down – discouraging me from playing too much in a single day.

Which, honestly, is really nice.  I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating about the potentially-unhealthy obsession I had with PM’s earlier games.  If PM is deliberately trying to make this a slow burn game, released incrementally, rewarding daily, weekly, and monthly visits rather than game-beating binges, I’m totally on board.  This is a game I’ll happily play in short sessions on my Steam Deck, then hop on my desktop for a long night of dungeon-running and story development.  Like Library of Ruina’s slow, episodic release (which I basically missed), I’m enjoying Limbus Company as a gradual, long-term experience – a single-player game rolled out over weeks and months of short sessions.

Conclusions and Anticipations

So I’m still unsure of this game for a lot of reasons: I’m worried I might be exploited, worried this investment may prove disastrous for PM, worried the game might one day become unplayable, and worried that its tonal shifts won’t live up to the high standards set by prior games.  But I’m also eager and excited to see what PM has planned.  I still haven’t explored much of the game in its current state (I literally just unlocked “Shadow Dungeons” which are apparently Slay-the-Spire-esque randomized dungeons with their own set of rewards and mechanics), and I don’t even know how much of this game is finished, and how much left deliberately unfinished.  It is, for me even if not for PM, an experiment – every bit as mad and strange as the other games preceding it.  I don’t know what to expect, even insomuch as I don’t know how much game is sitting on my hard drive right now.  Next week I might hit a pay-wall, or an unceremonious end, or an unexpected windfall.  I’m not sure all those uncertainties are necessarily good – I typically like knowing that I can beat the game I’m playing when I sit down to play it – but I’m along for the ride, for sure.  As Faust suggests at one point in Canto II, when the casino heist fails before it starts, the plan is to have no plan – I can appreciate a game that consciously embraces such a philosophy.

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