Game Review: The Talos Principle
To my surprise, The Talos Principle didn't let me down, even in the end, and it's the best game I've played all year.
At it's core, this is a First Person Puzzler. While Portal is probably the closest comparison, there's enough that sets The Talos Principle apart to make it something fresh. There are puzzles, check. There's an over-arcing story that reveals itself as you go along, check. There's an omnipotent voice talking to you as you solve the puzzles, check. However, where Portal zigged, this game zagged.
Here's what I knew at the start - I was a robot in a computer generated rendition of ancient Rome. There was a computer terminal beeping at me, and I was able to access it and read some of the files. A booming voice who called himself "Elohim" (Hebrew for "God") talked about how I was his child and was to play in his garden, as long as I stayed away from the big tower in the middle. A very straightforward setup (obviously I was to climb the tower) but now I wanted to know why.
The story is the stuff of philisophical science fiction, written by Tom Jubert (FTL, The Swapper) and Jonas Kyratzes (The Sea Will Claim Everything), and is told through computer terminals and audio logs left behind by a scientist. Emails, Wiki pages, blog comments, they're all sprinkled throughout the world and give you a glimpse into your purpose. The text is written in a way that you would expect - since, apparently, everyone on Earth is going to experience the same event, nobody needs to actually spell out what the event is, you just have to glean it from the out of context clips.
That's not to say that there's just files to read - there is an entire subplot where you're chatting with someone else at the computer terminals, who issues you a Turing Test (to see if you're human) and questions your faith. While this acts, sometimes, as a conversation tree that you can go through every answer, some of the questions present six answers, and you can only choose one, and that determines where you go next in that subplot. You're asked what it means to be a person, what is the purpose, and why do you want to be. It's heavy stuff for a puzzler, but ultimately works very well.
There's also another subplot told in the form of QR Codes left by previous versions of whatever you are. In a neat twist, you can also leave QR Codes for people on your friends list to find later, if you can find a bucket of paint.
You'll have to use all of these in creative ways to get the Sigils. You'll quickly learn techniques that you will need to use to get your tools with you to later areas, and in the end you'll have to use everything you've learned under the stress of a time limit. Once you have enough Sigils to unlock a door, you go and arrange them to fill an entire grid, which is a whole minigame itself. (They called it Sigils of Elohim.)
The only downside is that if you get stuck on a puzzle, there's little to no recourse other than going to the Internet to get a hint. There is a hint system in the game, however it doesn't unlock until you're a third of the way through AND you solve a series of Sigil puzzles, and there's only three of them available. In a red puzzle (the hardest kind) you can "ask for guidance" and, if you have a Messenger available, a cryptic answer in the form of a QR Code will show up - and may or may not actually help you.
For the hardcore puzzle fans out there, there are also stars in the levels, which require you to think outside of the box - literally. One Star puzzle early on required you to use tools outside of the game (and even your computer) to solve it. Others require you to actually use connectors from other levels that you have already solved. These easily add many more hours to the game, and are required to unlock the third ending.
I made it through two of the three endings after roughly 23 hours of play. The puzzles and story were both engaging, and I eventually even got an idea of what the hell was going on. While a lack of an internal hint mechanism was frustrating in the beginning, I decided that I just needed to suck it up and figure it out. (Plus, there was even an achievement for figuring out the solution after Elohim helpfully tells you that maybe you should move on and come back to it later. There's also one for leaving when he suggests it.)
While I haven't played everything that came out in 2014, this release by Devolver Digital is definitely the best game I've played all year. If you like games where there is no manual or explanation (like Myst) and you are ready for a philosophical adventure questioning life, then The Talos Principle is for you. You're never clueless as to where to go next, only how to get there.
And yes, there is a cat...If you're able to look at it.
Version Reviewed: PC
Acquisition Method: Promo code provided by publisher
- Engaging backstory that raises philosophical questions you didn't realize you had.
- Puzzles that are difficult but very satisfying when the "A-ha!" moment comes.
- You're never clueless about where to go next, even if there's no explanation as to why.
- No real in-game hint system, but suck it up, Buttercup.
- You haven't played it yet.