This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Talos Principle.
Welp, it's cocks back on on the old grindstone, I suppose. We're all holidayed out and got a fresh, new year ahead of us. And what better way to greet the newly-birthed 2015 than to spin on our heel 180 degrees and review the last few things from 2014, still dangling off it like poo out of a fish's arse? And no, I still don't mean Smash Brothers! The Christmas break for me is a time for relaxing, using troughs and conveyor belts as dining utensils and getting completely bombed out of my skull on Cocksucking Cowboys. I'm not in the right mood for confusing fast-paced spectacle in a clashing rainbow of vibrant bubblegum colours that make me throw up a veritable landslide of Ferrero Rocher. I wanna play something calm, slow-paced and contemplative. So naturally I spent most of a fortnight playing a game by the developers of Serious Sam. No really, Croteam went and made a philosophical puzzle game, and it's called The Talos Principle, which is the kind of title that if you saw it on the board outside a cinema, your gaze would immediately ricochet off onto Transformers 9: Even Larger Stuff Breaking.
But dull title aside, you can really tell it's a Croteam game. The look's fairly unmistakeable with the ancient ruins and bright, contrasting sunlight, and impressive skyboxes they didn't bother to fence off, in case anyone wants to explore a repeating sand texture for 20 minutes instead of the actual level where stuff happens, although you do get frogmarched back if you venture too far, which is kind of in keeping with the theme.
You are an unknown consciousness that wakes up in an unknown garden where an unknown intelligence forces you to complete puzzles for an unknown reason. It's like when your parents used to make you sit in the garden and untangle the Christmas lights; and whenever you finished one, you were allowed to come in and watch one episode of The Prisoner. The occasional deliberate texture fuckup (at least I assume they were deliberate, Croteam, winky winky!) leads us to conclude early on that we are inside some kind of simulation. But as to who or what we are and why we're here, we have to piece that together from, all together now, [singing] random documents and audio logs.
I've heard some people compare this game to Portal, 'cause that's the only point of reference these fucking Millennials seem to have. First person puzzlers existed before Portal, did you know? You can make one with having to bow towards Bellevue. I mean, just because we're being herded through dangerous puzzle by a redoubtable disembodied voice for what is heavily implied to be some kind of behavioural experiment — OK, maybe it's a bit like Portal. But Talos Principle lacks two things that I would argue are absolutely central to Portal's identity: it doesn't have an innovative central game mechanic around which all else is based, and it has absolutely no sense of humour. But you know, after games like Sunset Overdrive and Sacred 3, very deliberately not trying to be funny I'm willing to count as a virtue.
And I did like the story element. There's a lot of rather dry mythological metaphor wanking in the random documents that I mostly skimmed over, but there are also emails and blogs from people in what is presumably the real world, dealing with the mundanities of life while there's some kind of unclear catastrophe hanging over them that none of that wanted to directly reference, and I found it all very human and engaging.
Certainly motivated me to keep pushing through all the puzzles, which were trying my patience by the end. And as I said, if you have a roving eye for new gameplay mechanics, you can jolly well rove off, squire! Hope you like weighing down switches with boxes and redirecting laser beams and everything else from the "Insert Puzzle Here” guide to video game design. And then we introduce a time travel mechanic, where you solve puzzles with temporal clones of yourself. I wish I could time travel back to the Newgrounds Flash programmer who first came up with that, and hold his arms while my temporal clone punches him in the stomach!
There are also a few obscure object mechanics that the game doesn't explain properly, but bases puzzles around regardless. It's possible, for example, to put boxes on top of the roving proximity mines. It's not fair if you don't make all the rules clear. If I'm stuck in a puzzle game, I prefer it to be because I'm a big thicky-bobo who can't figure out where all the pieces go, not because one of the pieces was still in the box. Forgive me if it didn't occur to me to near the bleeping explodey death ball and repurpose it as a dessert trolley.
The puzzles we complete in order to collect keys that let us advance to new worlds and eventually escape. They also draw out the pace at which we acquire new story nuggets. So if the puzzles feel kind of vacuous, it's because they could be replaced by literally anything else. Even in context, it's admittedly busywork. It's Link's problem again: forever having to prove our sodding worth, 'cause the ancient ones never even considered that there were probably a great many terribly unworthy people who can figure out how to redirect a laser beam.
The game may be overlong, as the puzzles seem to be running out of ideas by the end, to say nothing of all the optional ones. There are hidden stars in many levels, and that's all the clues you're getting. "There is a hidden star somewhere in this huge, cluttered map with tons of unused space so Serious Sam-worthy you'd almost expect headless suicide bombers to come screaming around the corner at any moment. Strap on that truffle-sniffing nose and good luck to you, Mister Piggy!" Yeah, not bothering, thanks.
Also, there are optional puzzles that unlock helpers to use in other puzzles. I'm having a bit of trouble parsing that logic. "Hey, I'm the kind of walking paradox that plays puzzle games but can't be bothered to solve puzzles. And in order of having to avoid having to solve a puzzle, I will now solve a puzzle, which will unlock a thing that will solve the first puzzle for me, and by 'solve,' I apparently mean 'give me a one-line clue as to the solution.'" Which left me a bit put out, cause for the amount of effort involved, I was expecting at least a short walkthrough, and at the end perhaps to get tossed off with a smile.
So in brief, the game is like so many polystyrene packing peanuts in that it feels like it's there to fill all the space between the interesting parts. But honestly, after completing it, or at least all the non-optional bits, I can't deny I left the game quite satisfied and prepared to recommend. The fact that I still wanted to keep solving puzzles to explore more gorgeous scenery, get to the bottom of the mystery, and argue philosophy with the MS-DOS prompt attest enough that the game is engaging and intelligent, which is all the more noteworthy considering where it came from. I mean, you ask Serious Sam to redirect laser beams, he’ll probably just redirect his bollocks into your eye sockets.
- The callous imbecile: Ben "Yahtzee Croshaw"
- You can avoid dry mythological metaphor wanking through the application of editing and lube
- Still wanking off the new year calories
[singing, with a slightly drunk voice]
- Random documents and audio logs:
- We find them stuck to notice boards,
- We find them under dogs.
- We're gonna put them in a file
- And give it a review
- When we're bored of all the gameplay,
- But we've nothing else to do.
[sound of a head dropping on a table]