What do you get when you cross Serious Sam with Portal?
A well-designed, philosophical puzzle game involving jamming devices and light reflecting tripods, that’s what.
MAY TALOS GUIDE YOU
Originally releasing way back in 2014, The Talos Principle found its way onto the Switch at the back end of 2019. Croteam, who are most famous for the Serious Sam series, tried their hand at something different: a Portal-style action puzzle game starring a robot with a glimmer of humanity, searching for Tetris pieces under the guidance of some godlike entity. Whilst this voice will provide context for your purpose, a substantial part of the game’s story and philosophy is found by interacting with computer terminals. Not only do you use these to access files that flesh out the world’s history, but the computer AI will also interact with you in order to discuss your predicament and your ‘humanity’. It’s quite a compelling narrative, but limiting the crux of it to computer terminals will probably result in many people missing out on a lot. Heck, I was on the verge of skipping through the lengthy text until I realised that it was the primary storytelling method. Whilst this approach allows players to get down to the puzzling and skip the story should they so desire, I can’t help but feel that the narrative could have been implemented slightly better; stopping the puzzling to read chunks of text is hardly thrilling and breaks the pace somewhat.
I suppose this storytelling method adds to the overall subtlety inherent to The Talos Principle. Unlike Valve’s masterpiece, the storyline is purposely devoid of any humour and takes itself far more seriously. Gone too are the linear test chambers, instead replaced by a rather serene open world that allows you to explore the remnants of this civilization as you piece together the puzzles that have been curiously left behind. The hub area is huge and filled with its own puzzles and secrets that surround a huge central tower that Elohim – the voice in the sky – forbids you from ascending. Around this tower are museums that can transport you to different areas of the world, each of which contain a handful of puzzle pieces scattered around. These areas are much larger than they need to be, allowing you to explore a slightly more believable world. You don’t need to worry about getting lost though, as the game provides signposts to the puzzle areas and marks off each one you complete. It’s extremely well implemented and a nice touch to keep you progressing.
PIECING THINGS TOGETHER
The puzzles themselves are the true star of the show, with everything exquisitely designed. Like all the best puzzle games, things start out straightforward in order for you to learn the rules of the game world. You start off with simple jamming devices that you can use to open gates and stop lethal defenses as you make your way to your prize. Things gradually get more complicated as additional mechanics are implemented; light refracting crystals, cubes, robot clones – there’s a lot to mix things up, but they’re introduced infrequently enough to allow you to get to grips with your most recent toy. Croteam handle the difficulty well for the most part, with only a few random difficulty spikes over the course of the whopping 120 puzzle areas. Importantly, as with Portal, even when the puzzles are simple, the game makes you feel intelligent; but these easier puzzles train you to solve the tougher ones later. It’s a masterclass of design that many puzzle games don’t pull off well. It’s a good job too, since the hint system in the game is almost entirely worthless, meaning that you’ll probably need to stick with a puzzle chamber until the answer clicks.
As you gain your tetromino rewards, you can open up new areas by slotting them together into a puzzle lock. You’ll be collecting a lot of them throughout the course of the game as there are a ton of puzzles, as well as many secret areas to uncover. There are even four possible endings you can achieve. The developers should be applauded by the sheer amount of content on offer here; it may be pretty unusual for the genre, but it is certainly very welcome. The Deluxe addition also contains the lengthy DLC, Road to Gehenna, so you are left with one beefy package to keep you busy.
A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE
Not only is the game a marvel due to its puzzle design, but aesthetically it is also very impressive too. Croteam’s Serious Engine certainly does a lot of heavy lifting here, and the results are a joy to behold. Serious Sam 3 is a stunning game, but The Talos Principle far outshines it with the sheer beauty – glorious landscapes, snowy mountains, vast citadels, and even a desert that would feel right at home in Sam Stone’s universe. Each world is accompanied by relaxing music that is unobtrusive, yet provokes a sense of existential dread as you scour the land. The beautiful tracks help put your mind into a meditative, puzzle solving state. It may not be memorable, but it fits the game perfectly.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any issues with the game. Whilst the graphics are gorgeous, the beautiful visuals come at a price: performance. It’s mostly good, but there can be the occasional framerate dip as well as some lengthy loading times. The good news is that you can alter the options to favour performance rather than graphics; the bad news is that it doesn’t seem to make that much difference to either – at least, for me. I generally left it favouring graphics mainly because the odd frame drop in such a slow paced game doesn’t bother me, but the issues are notable when they happen. Is it enough to spoil the experience? I’d say no, but it’s worth knowing about beforehand in case you are a framerate elitist (although you probably aren’t if you are playing this on the Switch!).
A more serious issue, at least for me, were the controls. The game does offer various control layouts, but none of them are particularly ideal. One particular annoyance was having the jump assigned to the left bumper(!); it proved to be a pain as you never use it enough to get used to it. Other control options assign it to A, which is marginally better, but then the other functions are assigned to ridiculous places. There aren’t that many buttons in the game, so having it fully customisable should have been an option if they were really so set on having a stupid default layout. Hardly a dealbreaker, I know, especially as the game doesn’t exactly require split second reactions, but it was something that bugged me throughout the whole game.
Having played many excellent Portal clones throughout the years, including the wonderful Superliminal, I can honestly say that this one is my favourite of the bunch. Even though it can’t take the mantle from the two Portal games, it’s still a tremendous game that puzzle fans should adore. Heck, I’m not even much of a puzzle fan and I absolutely love it! Buy it now, or wishlist it and buy it on a sale. Either way, buy it.