The Talos Principle (PC) Review

By Jordan Hurst 06.07.2015

Review for The Talos Principle on PC

Few games can provoke a "Wait, what?" reaction from gamers with a single line of description as easily as The Talos Principle. It's a philosophical puzzle game made by the creators of Serious Sam. The fact that it even exists is kind of ridiculous. That it's also a triumph of videogame storytelling and one of the best games of 2014 is something of a miracle. Not to sell Serious Sam short - the series is great fun, and often much more intelligently designed than its minimum-thought gameplay would suggest - but it's practically a footnote compared to the grace, humanity, and intellect on display here.

Whereas Serious Sam looked backward to the days of the hyperkinetic early FPS for inspiration, The Talos Principle looks forward, asking very real, soon-to-be pressing questions about artificial intelligence and the definition of personhood. It's also a thoroughly modern game, falling in with the current wave of ludonarrative-driven puzzle games kicked off by Portal and Braid. It opens with the robotic protagonist activating in a serene garden populated only by ancient Greek, Egyptian, and medieval ruins. A disembodied voice, calling itself Elohim, declares itself the robot's maker and instructs it to solve the various puzzles spread throughout the garden, while the occasional computer terminal provides clues regarding a greater scheme. Intentional graphical glitches betray the garden's nature as a computer simulation very early, but anything beyond that is impossible to describe without spoilers.

While the game is not remotely subtle about its intention to be high art ("Elohim" is almost immediately noted to be the Hebrew word for "god"), it ends up being even more effective for its bluntness. Using questions as themes is always a dangerous proposition - too much narrative integration risks the audience not thinking about their own answer, while not enough can feel tactless and lazy. The Talos Principle strikes the perfect balance by requiring players to fashion practical answers from theoretical questions posed to their surrogate character in plot-central conversations. This might not have worked in a game with less sophisticated writing, but The Talos Principle is penned by Jonas Kyratzes and Tom Jubert (whose presence in a game's credits is essentially a seal of quality at this point), so these conversations are sometimes even more engaging than the actual gameplay.

Screenshot for The Talos Principle on PC

Said gameplay seems almost pedestrian at first, a jumble of standard puzzle-solving elements (blocks, lasers, switches, even the ability to create a ghostly copy of the player) piled together to fill the time between narrative deductions and introspective debates. However, with the exception of the lock puzzles found in each hub area (which involve arranging tetrominoes into larger shapes and never evolve beyond that), each component has a twist or two associated with it that makes it more interesting than it sounds. The laser puzzles, for example, aren't just about directing beams of light into receptacles; they involve strategically blocking and splitting the beams into three or more branches when needed. The player-copying mechanic, meanwhile, is embellished with two abilities: creating duplicates of any object the copy interacts with and turning the copy into a mobile platform.

This functional expansion affords the game a complexity that's virtually unseen in puzzle games. Every mechanic in The Talos Principle interacts with every other mechanic (for example, fans are initially only used to launch players across gaps, but can also launch other tools), vastly widening the options available for puzzle solutions, all of which are used by the game at some point. With 90 core challenges and over 30 secret ones (most of which involve exploiting mechanical quirks to collect hidden stars - hello, Braid influence), the game has an almost obsessive need to make the most of its material. Actions that are considered full solutions to early obstacles are used as small steps in the enormous apparatus of later areas, and even the enemies (automated explosive drones and turrets) occasionally become problem-solving tools.

Screenshot for The Talos Principle on PC

Mechanically, the gameplay appears to be completely unrelated to the story, but conceptually, it's brilliantly fitting. The first-person camera is a particularly inspired choice. Many of the puzzles are only puzzles because of perspective, and if the player was ever given a bird's-eye view or had any red herrings identified, they would practically solve themselves. Limiting the view to that of the character solidifies its role in the story. Furthermore, using multiples of one tool type to create situations that would appear to be chicken-or-egg scenarios to future observers is a frequently required technique. Additional examples would require spoilers (these ones are already tip-toeing around them), so suffice it to say that the gameplay is at least indirectly connected to the story.

With so much solid design, it's not surprising that The Talos Principle also features a satisfying, finely tuned challenge level. A hint is dropped early on that the strategy for most obstacles is to identify and re-examine any assumptions that are being made about the game's mechanics, and that's entirely correct. It is incredible how consistently it is able to obscure its solutions behind the gamer's instincts. The only real flaw in the design is that it's somewhat overlong, with the huge, multi-part puzzles of its last third often evoking some déjà vu as the initial steps of each are usually smaller versions of previously completed conundrums. This is also true of the lock puzzles, which start out tolerable, if unnecessary, and grow to become obnoxious in direct proportion to their size.

Screenshot for The Talos Principle on PC

Otherwise, assuaging potential player frustrations seems to have been a major goal of the developer. The movement controls are clean and simple, movement is done at a generous pace, and there's a reset button available in the surprisingly rare event that a puzzle is accidentally rendered unsolvable. Most impressively, and unexpectedly, Croteam seems to have solved the problem of first-person platforming with a sort of lock-on mechanic. Anytime a surface that looks like it needs to be jumped to is actually looked at, a hologram of the lead's footprints will appear, and pressing the jump key will send them right to it. It's incredibly flexible and never restricts people to specific action spots, but it completely eliminates the unpredictability of leaping without visible feet. A similar system is also applied to held objects, making physics-based gameplay more manageable, as well.

Just in case Croteam's transition from mindless shooters to introspective puzzlers wasn't complete, The Talos Principle also takes a stab at having atmosphere as a major draw…and succeeds spectacularly. Elohim's garden is a beautiful setting of haunting tranquility, flickering foliage notwithstanding. It's a shame that the game needs to rely on signposts to direct players toward each trial, rather than level design, but then, making the world more structured would remove one of its unexpectedly vital pleasures: exploration. Wandering the landscape discovering secrets and especially striking locations is rarely a viable avenue of entertainment, but The Talos Principle is immersive enough to pull it off. The eerily beautiful soundtrack helps a lot, as does the excellent voice acting. The sound effects are informative, but anything that emits a beeping noise (computers, enemies) gets annoying quickly.

Screenshot for The Talos Principle on PC

Cubed3 Rating

9/10
Rated 9 out of 10

Exceptional - Gold Award

Rated 9 out of 10

It is entirely possible that The Talos Principle will be discovered as a novelty, just to see how Croteam went about developing a puzzle game. Anyone who does so is in for a shock, though, because it turns out that Croteam is a fantastic developer of puzzle games. It may look innocuous, but hidden within its artificial setting and simple interactivity lies a mechanical depth and a profound, relevant story with a very human core. This is a title for anyone who has ever looked at the ocean or the night sky and been stunned by the unfathomable vastness of the universe and the mystery of the human condition. Hopefully, that's everyone.

Developer

Croteam

Publisher

Devolver Digital

Genre

Puzzle

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  9/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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