James Stephanie Sterling
The Talos Principle Review – Why, Robot
A game that wants you to think… while you think.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Format: PC (reviewed), PS4
Released: December 11, 2014
Copy acquired via Steam press account
By my estimation, an unquestionably good puzzle game is one that can take a seemingly rudimentary idea and showcase just how flexible and complex it can be. I admire a game so efficient with its concepts that it doesn’t need to keep introducing ever more contrived elements, choosing instead to twist what it already has in order to produce consistent depth. Portal was one such game, presenting one straightforward idea – the placement of two interconnected dimensional holes – and reiterating it through a set of increasingly clever variations. The Talos Principle plays with a few more pieces than Portal did, but the general concept is the same – its individual tricks are plain enough to explain in a single sentence, but the things Croteam does with them are consistently, progressively impressive.
The Talos Principle‘s puzzles generally revolve around taking objects with distinct functions and placing them around the world, opening a path to a sigil locked away in each stage. At its most primitive, this could involve pointing electronic jamming signals at patrolling droids to stop them from attacking the player, allowing one safe passage. Jammers can also be used to disable barriers and gun turrets, and early challenges involve knowing when and where to place them, as well as when to move them to new locations (at the risk of re-enabling obstacles). The general theme remain the same throughout – get objects, place objects – but the tools themselves change. Pretty soon, one will have to play around with lasers – laying down conductor rods to channel colored beams throughout stages in order to power on machinery. Lasers come in both red and blue, and crossing the streams will cancel them out, leading to all sorts of juggling challenges. Then there are boxes to step on or block drones with, powerful air fans that can fling items (as well as the player) around the map, and computers that record your actions and play them back, Braid style, for solo co-operative puzzling.
These ideas do not remain in their own little worlds, either. At its most cunning, Talos combines its ideas in some truly staggering ways – one simple example involves sending a laser beam to a conductor, then putting the conductor on top of a box that’s on top of a vertical fan, elevating the connection over a wall that’s stood between the laser’s power source and the socket that opens a door. Sometimes a puzzle consists of laying down a delicate house of cards, using lasers to open doors to grab jammers, using the jammers to hold the door open so the laser can be redirected elsewhere, all in a constant game of mixing and matching. Other times, the solution might be deceptively forthright – a case of sending the correct box flying over the correct wall, and just plugging the right thing in the right place. The Talos Principle can be very good at manipulating the player into overthinking things – I once came up with a very clever solution that involved passing a blue laser beam sneakily under a red one, but I kept ending up one conductor short – the actual answer was nowhere near as involved as mine, but I’d been convinced to try and be smarter than I needed to be.
While players can tackle a large number of puzzles in any order, a lot of content is locked away by the aforementioned sigils – by collecting enough of these Tetromino-shaped objects, one aims to have enough to place on panels by locked doors, arranging them like a jigsaw to unlock paths to whole new environments. There is a nice balance between having the freedom to save tough puzzles for later, and doing enough to progress the game, and there’s also a ton of optional content for those canny enough to get it.
Beautifully designed, The Talos Principle is one of those games that will make you feel smart or stupid at the drop of a hat – an excruciating challenge might suddenly slap you with the solution in a moment of revelation while you curse your blindness, or you may hit the “zone” and find yourself breezing through a puzzle like the brightest rat in the lab. The toughest challenges are distributed evenly enough throughout the course of the game, allowing for moments of respite between the more brutal trials. What matters most, however, is that nothing is wasted – everything presented in Talos is there because it’s meant to be, without extraneous details that might otherwise unfairly confuse you. By always keeping that in mind, by sussing out the logical process behind the construction of each new environment, the solution can always be found. It might take a while, but it’s always there, staring you in the face, and each new moment of clarity is a truly invigorating moment. The excitement in seeing the path to a new sigil open, in knowing the case has been cracked, is a special feeling indeed, a celebratory affair that few games ever successfully evoke in a player, much less with the kind of consistency found here.
If puzzles were the sole draw, there’d already be enough to recommend, but the various tasks and hindrances are lent a more involved context via Talos‘ disarmingly philosophical narrative. Players awake as an android, the supposed creation of a disembodied – allegedly omnipresent – voice naming itself Elohim. This voice claims to have not only built the player character, but the world in which it roams, a land consisting of three “gardens” that promise eternal life should their puzzles be conquered. As Elohim showers his child in assurances and promises of splendor, a series of computer terminals offer scraps of text hinting at a wider backstory, as well as potential conversation with another entity – the somewhat condescending and cajoling Milton. Interactions with Milton open up the game’s wider themes – the nature of personhood, the existence of human consciousness, and what it means to have autonomy. In truth, a lot of the story is somewhat heavy handed, and the religious allegory could have benefitted from a touch more subtlety, but the questions pondered by The Talos Principle are nonetheless thoughtful. As players steadily defy the word of Elohim and answer Milton’s increasingly provocative queries, it becomes just as satisfying to consider the implications of free will and the more sci-fi oriented questions concerning what might happen if we were able to artificially create a consciousness indistinguishable from humans.
Further story can be gleaned from audio logs and QI codes dotted all around the place, each giving further glimpses into the world and the mysterious android’s situation. There’s much to uncover, sometimes in unlikely places, and I’ve found it hard not to be enthralled with each fresh discovery.
Few reviews will give up the opportunity to point out that Croteam is famous almost exclusively for the Serious Sam series of games – a first-person shooter franchise that proudly holds itself up as one of the dumbest, most gratuitous exercises in violence you could hope to experience. I’m breaking no molds in pointing this out, but it’s difficult not to express an impressed shock at how a studio could go from something so gloriously stupid to this attentive, inventive, comprehensively graceful experience. When one enters the Egyptian themed levels for the first time, it cannot be ignored how closely the surroundings resemble Serious Sam 3‘s environments, and the thematic contrast lends itself to even more amazement. If this studio felt it had something to prove to those who demand more intellectually provocative videogames, I’d say Croteam knocked it out of the park and into the stratosphere.
As noted, it’s difficult not to see the visual similarities between The Talos Principle and Serious Sam 3, but Croteam has taken a rather humble engine and made a suitably beautiful set of worlds. Elohim’s gardens are colorful and vibrant, yet hauntingly bereft of life – an unsettling note made more profound by the occasional stylized “glitches” that illuminate the simulated nature of the place. The soundtrack is really the crown jewel of the presentation, however, consisting of tunes as eerie as they are beautiful. The music deftly weaves itself into the background of one’s puzzling endeavors, and serves as a real highlight of the whole production.
Despite its originality, I do have to note that the game does wade in very familiar water with its whole narrative structure. The comparisons one could make to Portal go beyond fundamental, with the relationship between our silent protagonist and its overseer closely echoing that of Chell and GLaDOS. Similarly, those moments of defiance, where the player leaves the beaten path and explores the “real” world in all its industrial grime feel lifted straight from the latter portions of Valve’s critically acclaimed game. Clearly, this game aims more for profundity than humor, but it’s impossible not to see the glaring similarities in overall design, which sometimes undermines an otherwise fantastic journey of introspection.
The Talos Principle may spend a bit too much time stroking its beard and showing off how deep it is, but the fact remains that it regularly deserves to posture. Not only is it a highly accomplished puzzle game, it’s a genuinely fascinating collection of reflective notions. Those without the patience for such things may be tempted to write the whole affair off as pretentious, but there’s a reserve in Croteam’s efforts, a sense of nuance that speaks to the authenticity of its intentions. This is a game with things to say – or more importantly, things to ask – and it gets to be one of the few existing videogames out there that can give your brain a complete workout in more ways than one. There’s enough to satisfy those looking for either puzzles or an interesting story, but if you’re searching for both, then The Talos Principle is going to be something very, very special for you.