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The Talos Principle

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Croteam
Release Date: Dec. 11, 2014

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'The Talos Principle'

by Brian Dumlao on Jan. 28, 2015 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game in the tradition of philosophical science fiction, written by Tom Jubert (FTL, The Swapper) and Jonas Kyratzes (The Sea Will Claim Everything).

Croteam is known for the Serious Sam series. While the developer has worked on other games in the past, mainly of the soccer variety, it gained its fame with a straightforward shooter that starred a parody of the Duke Nukem character. The Serious Sam franchise garnered acclaim with its strong action and the technically impressive game engine, which was made from scratch by a relatively tiny team of developers. The Talos Principle proves Croteam can also create big, smart, thought-provoking puzzle games.

The game starts off in an open-air structure that appears inspired by Greek architecture, though it's in a state of decay. There's no tutorial to guide you, but you have the freedom to wander around and discover things on your own. At first, you discover two energy gate types: one lets you pass while leaving items behind, and one stops you in your tracks. Mobile sentries speed toward you and explode if you stay in their proximity for too long, and turrets spray you with machine gun fire if you're in their line of sight. You discover the portable jammer, a device that looks like a camera on a tripod but acts as an EMP to turrets and energy gates and freezes mobile sentries in their tracks.

The goal of each puzzle section is to obtain a tetromino, which can be used to solve a smaller puzzle and open a gate to a new area, creating a nice but expected cycle of progression for the rest of the game.  Even without any other tools, you have a nice assortment of introductory puzzles to wade through, from very simple to deceptively difficult. The puzzles teach you about the jammers and obstacles. For example, jammers can be used at any distance and can be teamed with another jammer, so you can freeze an enemy and alternately move the jammers to a new location. However, they can't be used when an iron gate is blocking them. The sentry mines bounce back and forth against walls and gates, but they also blow up when threatened by a turret.

In this introductory set of puzzles, the game already demonstrates some nice features that help make it more accessible to those who aren't steeped in the genre. Though you have some restrictions in the form of locked areas, you can approach the puzzles in any order. If you reach a baffling puzzle, you can move on to a different one and return to the troublesome stage when you want to complete it. There are also markers everywhere to make the backtracking process easier, so you know which pieces are where and whether you've already collected them. Travel between areas isn't hindered by load screens, and deaths come with instant rewinds to the beginning of the level, so you're not forced to jump through menus or load screens.

Get past the initial set of puzzles, and you'll discover that your world has multiple areas filled with puzzles, and all are connected to a large hub area. The hub areas are connected to an even larger hub area that contains even more puzzles. On top of that, each of the differently themed hub areas has a set of secret objectives and puzzles to discover, making the game rather long when you compare it to similar puzzle platformers. Along with these new levels come new tools to unlock, so you aren't just exhausting the abilities of the jammer at every opportunity. Laser relays, fans and blocks are just some of the new tools at your disposal, and the later puzzles provide plenty of opportunities to manipulate those items.

The puzzles introduced later in the game offer a variety of ways to use the newfound tools. Before long, you'll use jammers to open doors, reflector stands to bounce lasers to open another door, and fans to make blocks float to a higher elevation so your recorded clone can manipulate them. The game isn't bound to a finicky physics system, so guaranteed puzzle solutions won't fail because the physics decided to go awry. The good thing about these new tools is that each puzzle gives you exactly what you need to solve it, so you aren't juggling various objects that might be unnecessary for the puzzle. They also retain the balance in the jammer-only puzzles, where none are outright easy but aren't impossibly hard, either.

If The Talos Principle were nothing more than a series of increasingly difficult but clever puzzles, then it would be considered a solid game, but what elevates it is the story. You awaken as a robot when a voice identifying himself as Elohim welcomes you into the virtual world. He gives you free rein over it and asks you to solve the puzzles so you can be elevated to his status. However, he gives you one restriction: you aren't supposed to enter the tower reaching into the sky. As you traverse the world, you happen upon computer terminals and Milton, an AI system that tries to make you question Elohim's intentions and encourages you to climb the forbidden tower. As you solve puzzle after puzzle, you're thrust into a tug of war between these two forces.

It doesn't say so outright, but one could make the argument that the plot is a sort of religious allegory. Elohim is the Hebrew word for "god," and some of the actions make him out to be the Old Testament version of God. The world then becomes representative of Paradise, a notion that's strengthened when you're given free rein over it, and the tower is representative of either the forbidden apple or the Tower of Babel, both of which came with punishments. QR codes in the game act like prayers and scriptures; you can read about other androids asking for help on a puzzle while others say the goodness of Elohim allowed them to find the answers for themselves.

Milton, on the other hand, is possibly named after the poet John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, a poem about the fall of man. He's not exactly asking you to do evil things, but his personality quizzes and other questions get you to question your actions and Elohim's. Milton's words make you believe in your own power while discrediting Elohim's authority, needling you to go into the forbidden tower and unlock your potential.

The constant battle for your thoughts is a great basis for the plot, and the use of a robot to stand in for human beings gives the debate enough of a disconnect so it can remain powerful while being impersonal. What the game doesn't do, thankfully, is make up your mind for you on these matters. There are different outcomes to match your decisions, but none is considered better or worse. Each of the endings can be interpreted differently, but the nature of each leaves things up to interpretation in terms of whether the situations are actually good — or not.

Philosophical debates aside, there's more to the story. The terminals that let you interact with Milton also house corrupted e-mails and other written texts that outline debates about history and human beliefs in addition to the events that lead to the creation of this virtual world. There are also holographic androids that came before you, and audio logs outline the process of the world's creation. Combined with the main story's debate, the extra material paints a vivid picture of what's going on and makes for a richer tale, even if the extra material is completely optional.

All of the cranial-stimulating elements are wrapped up in a very appealing graphical package. Unlike most puzzle games, every puzzle is set in beautifully rendered environments. The sand spires and tombs of Egypt, the lush greenery amidst Greek ruins, and rusted metal warehouses set in an ice-filled wasteland are just a few of the places you'll visit, and each looks great thanks to the team's Serious engine. Particle effects are abundant: lasers are manipulated, sparks fly once different-colored lasers collide, and torches and portals spit out binary code to the sky. There are also lots of graphical options to fiddle with on the PC version, but be warned that it can tax systems since the engine was primarily used for a shooter and not for a puzzle platformer. There are also some instances of gradual pop-up with objects in the distance, though it's far enough that it doesn't hinder gameplay.

Complementing the graphics is a suite of top-notch audio elements. There aren't too many voices featured in The Talos Principle, but they are acted rather well, with just the right kind of delivery for each situation. The lack of memorable and quotable lines doesn't hurt, and in some ways, it makes you appreciate the performances even more since it all sounds so nice. The effects work in a similar fashion by doing their job but not overwhelming the player with anything surprising or out of place. The music's use of a more mellow and introspective score does a good job of evoking calmness and emphasizing the epic nature of your quest. Simultaneously booming and serene, this is something you certainly want to listen to.

The Talos Principle can easily be called the next big puzzle game in the same vein as Portal. The story fosters some thoughtful discussion and sticks with you. The puzzles are clever and have a natural progression in difficulty, and the tools make them fun, even if none are completely new to the genre. The presentation is beautiful, and the game's overall length means you'll spend quite a bit of time on your initial playthrough. In a nutshell, you must pick up The Talos Principle.

Score: 9.0/10

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