Toren: review

Game code provided by PR

Toren is a very heavily story-led game. It takes elements from myths such as the stories of Icarus, Sisyphus, and the tower of Babel; but people who buy The Sun needn’t feel left out, as there’s also a nasty dragon and a magic sword. 

It’s difficult to talk about gameplay without delving into story, as the two are so closely intertwined. It’s a traditional videogame in that you control your avatar from a third person perspective, walking around and occasionally jumping over gaps. The aforementioned magic sword doesn’t come into play immediately; the game begins with you in possession of it briefly, but the dragon who plays the part of your nemesis quickly knocks it from your grasp and then kills you. You are then resurrected at the bottom of the tower (the eponymous Toren) where you and the dragon both live. Thus one of the main recurring themes begins, and the true story begins to unfold.

This is one of those games that takes a rare – and extremely welcome – approach to death that differs from the simple ‘select continue and pretend nothing happened’. This is in part due to the fact that deaths not dictated by the script are very rare. You can fall to your doom if you miss a jump (unlikely) and it’s possible to die at an unscripted moment if you mess up one of your encounters with the dragon (even less likely), but that’s about it. There are a few handfuls of mysterious, aggressive small creatures scattered throughout the adventure; but if you have your sword just one swipe will do the job, and even if you’re unarmed, a few button taps will throw them off you. Regardless, whether your last death was demanded by the developers or not, you’ll be reborn at the last checkpoint.

Death is a theme that permeates the experience but so, too, is life – and the early stages of it. You play as a girl identified only as Moonchild, the origins and destiny of whom are slowly revealed as you play. She spends most of the adventure, we’d say, as a teenager – but you’ll also flit back and forth at times between her toddler, child, and adult forms. Your goal is ostensibly to reach the top of the tower and defeat the dragon, but – as the story itself hints – appearances can be deceiving. Your true goal is to discover and understand what has happened in the past, what is happening now, what will happen in the future – and why.

There’s an undeniable beauty in Toren, but you have to work for it. It’s a beauty that goes deeper than the sumptuous, colourful world and gorgeous, string-laden soundtrack. The phrase ‘environmental storytelling’ is one carelessly sprayed around the industry like cheap perfume, sometimes plastering over a poor or largely absent script. Toren however nails the concept nigh-on perfectly. You’re fed lore directly by the old man who speaks to you each time you die and in dream sequences, but this merely scrapes the surface of what there is to discover. If you look carefully at your surroundings – which you must do constantly if you don’t want to miss anything – you’ll see a world rich in symbolism, visual backstory, and other narrative treasures. In truth, the traditional storytelling sometimes lets the side down; the old man’s words can stray closer to obtuse than cryptic.

As you may have gathered, there’s very little challenge in terms of making your way from the start of the game to the end, but we don’t consider that to be much of a problem in a game like this. Nor are the minor (but noticeable) technical issues in the PS4 version, such as very light screen tearing in the early stages. In our first PS4 playthrough, we also held on to one of the small creatures for a full two minutes, which we’re still not convinced was intentional. Even the tank controls introduced for some sections in the PC version for keyboard controls are forgiveable, thanks to the option to use a gamepad (which works excellently). What bothers us most, however, is what isn’t in the game.

All together now: “He’s behind you!”

There’s no hand-holding in Toren. You learn what to do and how to do it through excellent game design, for which we ferociously applaud Swordtales. Those expecting challenging and inventive puzzles, however, will be sorely disappointed. What few puzzles there are, are almost exclusively a simple matter of scraping something along the ground to move it somewhere else. In terms of puzzles there is so, so much potential here; the different stages of childhood and adulthood, the fact that the dragon can turn you to stone while you’re unarmed, the scale of the tower, the concept of resurrection keeping your previous actions intact – and this potential is almost completely ignored. Also, we completed the game for the first time in a single session of roughly two and a half hours. While we greatly enjoyed those hours, and returned for a second playthrough to re-examine the story, the game isn’t explicitly designed to encourage a majority of people to return – which is a real shame.

Toren is a great example of why we need a strong indie scene to keep the industry interesting and alive, and it’s also an extremely impressive debut for a new developer. If Swordtales’ next project recognises everything Toren did right and acknowledges what little it did wrong, they could be rightfully accepted as The Next Big Thing in indie development.

critical score 7

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He’s the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value.

He doesn’t have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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