Toren is a surreal puzzle adventure that provides an evening’s entertainment, even if it doesn’t live up to its influences.
Backlog is a new, irregular VG247 feature in which we take advantage of quieter times to check out games that went under our radars. Indies, sale bargains, classics or just missed opportunities – nothing is safe from our ravenous team. In this episode, Brenna tackles Toren.
Toren costs $10 and will last you about two hours at most: let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. It’s not the sort of game you’ll want to replay, as you might with a comparable experience like Journey. Think of it like a movie rental or a ticket to a show – something to soak up a few hours on a free evening.
I like shorter games, and I don’t do the kind of dollar-per-hour calculations some people use to judge the value of an experience (this is my privilege as someone who gets dozens of games a year at no cost, of course). But even so, I can’t give you Toren kind of unreserved recommendation I’d give comparable length experiences like Gone Home, Journey and Portal.
Your mileage may vary, I’m afraid. Let’s talk about it a bit.
Big shoes to fill
Toren was made by a new, small team of developers – and it shows. Part of its problem is the broad category it falls into is home with genuine classics. There isn’t a name for the kind of game I mean, but everyone who talks about Toren (and comparable projects like Tequila Works’ upcoming Rime) name drops Ico, and one look at the terrific trailer should show you why. A mysterious and beautiful world full of puzzles to explore with a vulnerable, silent protagonist? Hand me the pen, I am ready to sign up.
Comparisons of a debut indie to Ico, a first-party game, are unfair, and I acknowledge that – but people are going to make them anyway. And it does seem a bit in for a dig that a game released 14 years after Ico still manages to have clunkier and more unpleasant controls than a game notorious for being a bit slow and fiddly. The number of times I got stuck on a bit of geometry or missed an important jump due to the character’s lumbering animations greatly contributed to my playtime.
Another point of comparison is that both Ico and Toren have pretty mysterious, mythologically-inspired stories that hint at lost secrets of a now fallen civilisation.
But Ico (and Shadow of the Colossus, while we’re at it) set up very simple narratives (boy escapes castle with girl, boy fights monsters to save girl) and hint at greater complexity. You’re given a small number of hints which pretty much amount to “there is a broader world beyond this” and you fill in the blanks in your own mind, inspired by the atmosphere. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls do something similar.
Where Ico and Shadow of the Colossus provided a few spare clues and left you to imagine complexity, Toren throws a bunch of complex, cryptic information at you and expects you to sort it out. You can barely move without having the game spout gibberish at you. You get gibberish when you find a puzzle, when you solve a puzzle, when you move between chapters, when you die, and on several occasions or no particular reason at all.
This overload of “wooooo we’re so mysterious” has the opposite effect of Team Ico’s bare-bones approach: instead of encouraging you to build a universe outside the game’s confines with your own imagination, it just confuses and befuddles with meaningless chatter that doesn’t add up to anything.
This is a shame because the basic plot is actually pretty neat, and if it had just been presented in a series of simple, understated beats without all the clutter of nonsense text it would have been pretty great, I think.
Putting aside the rubbish world building, the dragging controls and the infrequent but very irritating bugs, the puzzle gameplay is a really mixed bag. Most of the best bits are contained in optional (and very easily missed!) dream sequences. I don’t want to spoil these but there were a couple of instances where I laughed aloud with the sheer pleasure of figuring out and then overcoming a challenge.
The main playthrough is sadly lacking in these moments. It’s almost as if Swordtales was afraid of the player getting stuck on a puzzle, which, granted, is a perfectly valid approach. But it leads to situations like an early puzzle where you must press a sequence of three symbols in the correct order. The sequence is in the sky above, if you look, but if you miss that, as I did, you can solve it by walking over the symbols from right to left. Yep. The sequence is 3, 2, 1. I am an elite hacker.
The main path is so flatly unchallenging that one of the most mystifying things about Toren is not “who built this tower?” or “why is this dragon such a pain in my arse?” but “why is this even here?” There are a couple of optional pieces of equipment you can find which are supposed to have a function, but actually don’t, so you can just ignore them if you like, with no consequences at all. There’s a boss encounter where the arena is littered with movable statues, but you don’t actually need to move them. They do nothing. Why are they there? (I would love to know if they have anything to do with the bug where you can kill the boss by facing away from it in the next screen over and flapping your sword.)
Look, I’m pretty glad I played Toren. I’ve told you my annoyances with it, but I also had a good – if very brief – time. Is it something I suggest you spend money on? Eh. Ehhhhhh. I hope someone does, though, because I really want to see what Swordtales does next time.
Toren is available now on PC and PS4.