When I heard Toren compared to the PlayStation 2 classic ICO, I was immediately intrigued. Who wouldn’t be? ICO remains one of the most beautiful, compelling, memorable titles in history. And as Fumito Ueda and Co. don’t appear to be any closer to finishing The Last Guardian, I turned to the debut title from Brazilian developer Swordtales. Unfortunately, while the concept is fantastic and I love the colorful, inventive atmosphere, the critical technical mishaps and a lack of connection with the protagonist left me feeling decidedly unfulfilled. Artsy goodness only gets you so far; without the requisite execution and identifiable feeling, everything falls short.
Within the first thirty seconds, you notice it: The disappointing lack of polish and refinement in the visual presentation. There are constant hitches in the frame rate during cut-scenes (and occasionally during gameplay), shimmering and shading issues are everywhere, and the textures are just plain bad. I’m usually not finicky about graphical miscues, especially when the art design is outstanding and the developers successfully convey their thoughts and emotions. But in this case, the amateurish quality of the technical elements is just too significant to ignore, which is unfortunate, because they have some great ideas here. There’s also lots of good variety and intriguing locales to explore; it just needed a lot more time to cook.
The sound is much better thanks to a beautiful, haunting soundtrack and a series of strange voices that add mystery and intrigue to the adventure. The balancing isn’t quite right (indicative of the aforementioned technical failing), and there are a few miscues. But as opposed to the severe graphical drawbacks, these audio shortcomings don’t ruin the overall presentation. The effects are appropriately subtle and that music continues to play into the feelings of awe and intrigue. We could’ve used a few more impact-ful effects when Moonchild is in a critical situation but otherwise, the sound keeps us involved in the fantastical quest. It’s just too bad that it can’t save the gameplay from being disjointed and unsatisfying.
As I just mentioned, you play as Moonchild, a girl who finds herself trapped in a strange tower. A vicious dragon appears to be lord of that tower, and your goal is to reach the top and defeat the dragon in battle. At the start, you’re just a little baby, and then you grow into an adolescent. Assisting you along the way is an aged magician who instructs and enlightens; he will be the voice in your head throughout. As you climb, you’ll explore lots of different environments, including undersea areas, arid desert sections, and “The Abyss,” which is a dark, nightmarish landscape that makes you feel as if you’re being watched… The variety of environments really is good and is a big highlight; at the very least, you’re always interested in seeing what comes next.
Control is straightforward but it’s not responsive or reliable. The jumping mechanic is slow and loose; it’s not terribly difficult to master but it hinders the flow of gameplay. Even general movement seems slow and tired, as if Moonchild needs to be encouraged to walk forward. Now, I remember the protagonist in ICO. He wasn’t exactly a superhero and he lacked agility, coordination, and strength. But once you grew accustomed to the unique control (more realistic and fragile as opposed to unrealistically powerful), you could rely on control consistency. Once you got it, you would no longer fight it. That’s not the case in Toren, as you’re always frowning at Moonchild’s tedious movement.
You solve a few puzzles along the way and there are a few intriguing encounters. For the most part, Swordtales keeps throwing new situations at you as you scale the tower; it’s not like you’re tackling the same kinds of obstacles. It’s also a very surreal sort of adventure, as you will even explore your memories to learn more about your destiny. Obviously, the game is designed to make you think, to put you in touch with a spiritual, touching environment. I kept wanting to enter that state of blissful solitude I typically experience with thatgamecompany’s games (i.e., Flower, Journey). But I could never reach that level of immersion and enjoyment because I kept getting jarred out of any rhythm.
The technical failings are largely responsible for that. I mean, the game flat-out broke three times in a span of two hours. The first time, Moonchild just refused to show up on the screen after I died and reloaded; the camera would move and I could hear her feet, but I couldn’t see her body. The second time, she got stuck in a piece of rock and that was it. The third time, she got stuck again, but she actually got stuck during a brief cut-scene; I saw some crazy stuff happening during the scene and after it was over, Moonchild was in really odd position. There was no freeing her, either. Toss in the poor textures and general movement issues and you’ve got an unrefined product that simply needed a lot more TLC. I know this is the studio’s first game but this is a tough industry; you need to be good, and you need to be good fast.
And hey, I’m as sensitive and artistically-minded as any critic out there. I will often give the game a slightly higher score than its technical merits deserve, provided I’m moved by the artistic presentation. And I did appreciate what Swordtales was trying to do here. That all being said, it means something if I can’t give them the benefit of the doubt; it means the production just needs too much help. I really wish I could praise the immense amount of effort put into the artistry and design, but in the interactive entertainment world, I’m forced to prioritize the “interactive” part. A beautiful painting is a beautiful painting and you can’t take anything away from it. But you can if you’re supposed to interact with it and that interaction falls well shy.
Toren is a great idea. As a lover of the arts, its focus on artistic impression and intriguing spirituality is something I’ll always support. I’m also not one to condemn the length (Journey was only a few hours long, too). However, I can’t in good conscience recommend a game that misses the mark in so many major areas. The control is loose and tired, the puzzles aren’t exactly inspired, the hitches and glitches are just unforgivable, and sometimes, there just isn’t enough going on to keep a player involved. It’s sort of like a half-baked idea that had excellent ingredients, but those ingredients weren’t quite assembled correctly and it was removed from the oven too early. And so, the result is sort of edible, but far from tasty.
The Good: Great concept and ambitious artistic design. Some really nice music and ambient effects. A lot of variety in the colorful locales. Mostly well paced.
The Bad: Graphically inconsistent and technically mediocre overall. Control is loose and unresponsive. Severe glitches that can halt gameplay. Can feel slow and tedious.
The Ugly: “It’s always ‘ugly’ when a game with a top-notch concept doesn’t deliver.”
5/14/2015 Ben Dutka