Croteam. A company that has given us a series inspired by Robotron 2084, Doom, and Duke Nukem 3D over the past decade. They’ve branched out, and given us a first person puzzle game. The Talos Principle has had a lot of praise heaped upon it since its release at the tail end of last year. Yet many people still haven’t heard of the game, let alone played it. Is it worth the critical acclaim? Yes. Is it as grand as claimed? Not entirely, but once you play it, it’s easy to see why it is so highly regarded.
PROS: Engaging story. Crafty puzzles. Some clever writing.
CONS: Begins to drag near the end. Subject matter won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
EASTER EGGS: Many, many, MANY Easter Eggs.
The Talos Principle is a big surprise considering the sorts of games Croteam has made. But it is not an action game. Instead, the game follows the path of Valve’s Portal, and the Namco published Deadcore. Very much like those games you’ll be solving logic puzzles in first person. The game tries to follow a similar path too. Easing you into each mechanic, at least until the half way point. You’ll find some puzzles involve moving boxes onto levers to open doors. Or bridging lines of light with crystal connectors to open doors, or turn on another contraption. By the last leg of puzzles, you’ll even have to use security cameras, that use an in-game playback of your actions to solve puzzles. These, along with others can be very difficult to finish.
Sometimes the game likes to mess with you, by adding doors, switches or items you don’t need to use at all whatsoever. Other times it isn’t always obvious what to do, which is fine. But sometimes you’ll have a puzzle that is VERY particular about how it needs to be solved. Moments like these can take you a good hour or more to figure out, and even then might require a level of dexterity you need practice to reach.
When you first start the game you’re cast into an initial puzzle that not only tries to ease you into the mechanics, but the story as well. Talos Principle is about an Artificial Intelligence construct who is in a simulation. As that construct you’ll hear a voice from a being called Elohim. He guides you through the first half of the game, telling you to solve these logic puzzles before you can reach the highest level of consciousness. But once you begin exploring these levels you begin tor realize not is all what it seems. Throughout the game are audio logs from a woman who talks a lot about philosophical, theological, scientific topics, and theories. You also begin to find these very old IBM XT styled computer terminals. Many of these have similarly themed documents, along with emails, blog entries, articles, and so forth. Eventually these terminals begin to even debate these topics with you, and you’ll eventually discover that this is much more than a simulation. This part of the review might let off a couple of minor spoilers. So if you don’t want the story leaked out to you, skip ahead a couple of paragraphs.
It turns out the human race is wiped extinct from a cataclysmic event, and that the entire world you explore is an attempt to put all of the species’ knowledge into one machine. The one glaring flaw in this is that it is never explained exactly how logic puzzles do this, but the rest of what you are given is pretty captivating. What is really nice is the game doesn’t get too pretentious, or authoritative about anything. There are certainly allegorical elements to the story, and one might be able to infer some of the writer’s viewpoint. But at the same time it doesn’t beat you over the head screaming “This is how it is.” For the most part it throws things out there, and doesn’t try to change your mind. Rather it throws out a lot of different viewpoints, and lets you digest them. It certainly takes some influence from other works of fiction. I was reminded of stories like Dark City, and Do Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner, among others.
While the story isn’t the most original one, it is a nice take on the idea of worlds within worlds, and the aftermath of the apocalypse. It also lends itself well to the actual gameplay, as everything in the game is centered around puzzles. So even the story bringing up the big philosophical questions of life can be seen as yet another puzzle. The puzzles themselves do follow a structure. When you complete the first puzzle you’ll find your rewards for solving puzzles are pieces out of Tetris the game calls Sigils. The goal is to earn enough of these sigils to open a barrier with them which takes you into the next leg of your journey. Eventually you’ll find yourself in a hub world. The hub world leads to 8 worlds. Each with so many sigils locked behind puzzles. Defeat enough of these, and you can use the sigils to solve a puzzle, and escape.
But your escape leads you to yet another hub world. Which has other hub worlds. One of which is a giant tower, while another leads to an underground church hub level. A third takes you to a hub level based on ancient Egypt. Which shouldn’t surprise you as much of Serious Sam’s stages went with that theme. The voice of Elohim warns you not to go into the tower which leads to the fact the game has a number of endings. If you can beat all of the puzzles you can either get a good or bad ending depending on which exit you take. There is one in the tower, and of course one in the church hub.
But there is also a third finish which is tied to one of the most grueling, and difficult aspects of the game. Star sigils. Each hub world has a number of super secret sigils shaped like stars in its puzzle stages. If you can manage to collect all of them, you then have access to more secret puzzles, that upon defeat lead you to a third super secret ending. The Talos Principle has almost too much content as a result. Even those who want the base level experience, and the least satisfying finish can put many, many hours into it. The last leg of normal puzzles can be very challenging, and have a negative side effect of dragging on.
The game does have a hint system, but it’s obfuscated by more puzzles. Throughout the game you’ll find QR codes, much like the ones on products you scan with a cell phone. In this you can find shrines where you can place one, and the game will answer you with a hint. On the stipulation you’ve found these super secret hub worlds, and solved enough puzzles in them to awaken a helper. The helper also answers you with a cryptic hint as to beating any given level. Moreover, you only get so many hints before your answered with “Figure it out on your own”.
Of course being a game by Croteam this is powered by the Serious engine. The Talos Principle looks beautiful. Skyboxes look amazing, the game makes excellent use of its color palette, and the lighting effects never feel overdone. The bloom effects are beautiful, the lighting flares are used at just the right moments. Shadows, and shades are used to great effect here. Going along with those pretty graphics, are some excellent voice work, and background music. When you listen to a very well acted voice sample, the wistful, and somber music amplifies the emotion in the performance. The soundtrack fits the imagery constantly. Even the cathedral hub’s Gregorian styled hymnal music echoes the overall vibe of its setting. There’s a serenity to all of it, that can even be eerie at times.
Thankfully, the game controls very well most of the time. Occasionally you might find the line of sight a connector displays isn’t accurate when you place it down. Sometimes you might slip off of a surface even though you should have stopped on it. But these instances don’t happen nearly often enough to ruin anything. Although you may become a little frustrated when they do happen. Generally though, everything works the way it is supposed to. Brisk, and usually spot on. Which is good because, toward the end you’ll run into a number of puzzles that require precision, and timing.
Overall, Talos Principle is really good. It has some nice puzzles. It has an engaging story arc. It’s really hampered by going on a little bit too long. Which is a strange criticism as these days everyone asks for more, and more content in their games. Nevertheless, the long length will drag on for some. If you’re one of them you’ll have to take a couple of days away from it here, and there to avoid burning out on it. There are also a lot of Easter eggs for anybody who loves finding secrets in their video games. If Croteam ever follows up with a sequel, one can only hope a little bit more puzzle variety is included to keep things from becoming monotonous at the end. But don’t let that dissuade you from trying the game out. It is still very enjoyable, has a science fiction story that is engaging, and is generally a really good game. Just make sure you don’t try to power through it in a weekend.
Final Score: 8 out of 10