It’s not every day that you hear about a game that was funded by the government, but that’s just the origin story of the recently released indie title Toren on the PC and PS4. Yep, the Brazilian government wants to support the growing game development community, so they decided to shell out the cash for indie developer Swordtales to bring their vision to life. So, was this a smart investment, or should this game have been left on the cutting room floor? The answer is complicated.
I suppose that’s why we do reviews like this. Games are an art form, and art is never black and white. Well, it is sometimes, but figuratively speaking it’s never simple. There’s a lot that goes into a painting, let alone a game that people toiled over for countless hours. This is doubly so in the case of a game that is willfully trying to be cryptic. Mystery, intrigue, and a tale as old as time. Does it work here? Let’s find out.
Image via Softpedia
A Story That Doesn’t Mind Leaving You in The Dark
The setup of Toren is very promising. You begin as a young girl on the top of a tower fighting a mythical dragon. The battle doesn’t go so well and you suddenly find yourself playing as a toddler at the bottom of the tower where the opening scene took place. The world itself seems barren outside the tower. Honestly, the toddler is the only real human being you see. Her name is Moonchild, and you control her from the moment she walks, to the final moments of the game when she’s a young woman.
The story is cryptic to say the least. Nuggets of information are fed to you in bite-sized pieces. Usually in the form of two to four lines. When you die (and you will), there are flashes of Moonchild sitting before her mentor/guardian. He usually says something equally cryptic about the struggle of your quest.
The goal of the game is to climb the tower, but the story goes much deeper than that. There’s a problem with how it’s delivered though. There are statues that you come across which transport you into dreams that reveal almost all of the major story elements. Many of them are in the main path, but a good chunk of them can be easily missed if you’re not looking.
The game is only about two hours long, but the first time I finished it I was left feeling like I hadn’t seen the whole thing. It wasn’t any choice of my own though, I felt like it had been kept from me. I was confused, and frankly a little annoyed. It’s one thing to offer additional tidbits for completionists, but these dream sequences are over half of the game’s story, so to make them anything but required is a choice I don’t agree with.
It’s like getting a hot dog, but the condiments are hidden from you. Sure, you got the core experience, but the rest of what makes it a hot dog is hidden from your view. A second playthrough with the help of a guide allowed me to see what I had missed, but at the end of the day, the game’s ultimate story feels unfinished. There’s even a line at the end that suggests an alternate ending or a sequel, and it kind of undermines your whole journey that you can’t change it. It’s an ending that felt a little flat, even when I was able to see the whole story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad story by any means, but everything I saw prior to playing it had me thinking of other great adventures set in similar worlds like ICO and Shadow of The Colossus to name a few.
Despite pulling inspiration from these games’ visuals, the story left me feeling a little empty.
Gameplay That Feels Unfinished
The gameplay of Toren is fairly simple. You walk around, jump, climb, and swing a sword. For puzzles, you usually have a sack of salt that you use to interact with symbols on the ground. There are a few other types of environmental situations where you’ll push and pull objects, or plunge your sword into the ground to withstand intense winds.
It’s only a few different things, and they repeat throughout the game with only a few exceptions to the formula. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem, if the game was more polished. I know this is an indie title, but the floaty controls could have been fixed with a little more time.
The unresponsive jumping led me to more than a few frustrating deaths, and the combat is almost non-existent. Moonchild flails her sword around without a care in the world. Luckily, enemy encounters are few and far between. It’s just frustrating to be in a game where you feel like your controller inputs are suggestions instead of direct controls.
There are some real gems in here, some of the puzzles are genuinely unique, but the controls keep everything from feeling responsive and exciting.
An Art Style With Potential
If you look at the promotional art for the game, you see a colorful style with a distinct look. The actual game on the other hand isn’t quite as beautiful. I would have liked to see something similar to the UbiArt engine that Child of Light uses, but instead they went for a realistic look that unfortunately isn’t backed up with the right optimization.
There’s no brightness setting for starters, and the textures are blurry. I’m not one to bash a game’s graphics, but in this case the art style is lost in the muddy textures. In addition, the game suffers from incredibly rough screen tearing that is constantly distracting from the events on screen. Again, this could have been fixed with vertical sync to keep the picture from distorting.
The frame rate is also all over the place. I really wanted Toren to be an indie gem, and it really could have been if there was just a little more polish.
Some Final Thoughts
I applaud what Swordtales was able to accomplish as a start up Brazilian game studio. They created a truly unique world and offered us a small glimpse into it. The final package though is rough around the edges, and the story tries to hide some of its best elements from you, which wasn’t the best idea in my opinion. That being said, it’s only $10 for this intriguing two hour journey.
I love indie games because they’re willing to try something new. Sometimes it works, sometimes it falls flat, and sometimes it gives you a glimpse of what could have been. Toren is one of the last ones. It is an all too brief glimpse into a world that has so much to offer, but the picture it paints is too blurry to be a masterpiece.
For most people, this game will be a little too unpolished or too cryptic in its storytelling. For me, I’m glad I took the plunge, if only to support this new studio. My advice is to take the plunge if you’re interested, and definitely keep an eye out for future projects from Swordtales. With a little more time and a larger budget, they could really create something special in the future.
Final Score: 6.5/10
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date: 5/28/15