Review: Toren (PC)

coverToren
Publisher: Versus Evil
Developer: Swordtales
Genre: Adventure Platformer
Release Date: 05/11/2015

Toren is a hard game to nail down. It has some platforming elements, especially in the way the camera defaults, but it never feels like a platformer, as its gameplay is very basic. The puzzles feel right at home in a platformer, but they’re a bit simple compared to other games that identify as puzzle titles. Then there are a few RPG elements to it, as well including equipment and feeling like you’re leveling up as you open up more of the backstory, some of which is entirely optional to beating the game. The biggest problem is there are some issues in the game that hamper it enough to make me delve into my laptop to make sure that wasn’t the problem. Let’s take a look.

The story revolves around your character, a girl that your mentor, the only speaking character in the game (who looks like the classic image of a wizard), has dubbed you as the Moonchild. The Moonchild has been cursed to be born over and over again, because of the folly of man to try and build a tower to reach the sun. They were all cursed and she bears the brunt of it, forced to come back from death time and again in order to scale the tower and learn from the wizard through lessons she should remember all over again, aging with the tree she planted and picking up weapons and other gear as she goes, so that the Moonchild can eventually slay the dragon that flies around the tower, trying to snuff out every attempt to move forward.

01You know as much as the current incarnation of the Moonchild does as you start, as you take your first foray into the game in a futile assault against the dragon, where you end up being reborn, take your first steps as a newborn and quickly age through different flashbacks to an earlier time in your own life. It’s an interesting way to tell the story, and highly dependent on the player piecing it all together through the flashbacks, which can be a shame if you miss a piece or two, as you won’t have the complete picture when you finish, even though it’s still dependent on you to figure it all out. There are some interesting ideas spawned from all sorts of creation myths, as well as folk tales about man’s arrogance. It’s an interesting mix, especially with how they decided to implement these teachings in the flashbacks, as well as puzzle missions meant to move the story along and bring you into the next part of the tower with the tools you might need to survive.

The game recommends you play with a controller instead of the mouse and keyboard, and I have to admit that it’s good advice. The keyboard and mouse are doable, but this works much, much better with a controller, especially an Xbox controller, which was my choice. There aren’t many controls and the camera is fairly automatic, but it felt right on the 360 controller, where the keyboard just didn’t. Your left analog stick moves you around while the right one lets you look a bit with the camera, but it’s very limited. This is more of a fixed camera style game. You do have a separate button on the controller for jumping, another to interact and lastly, one to look in the direction of your next objective or an important next step in getting through the tower.

02Toren revolves around moving from one puzzle area to the next while moving up the tower and, hopefully, not falling to your death or getting turned into a statue by the dragon. You do pick up a sword to use on it, but one hit isn’t going to do much, so you often have to move back for cover or go back and retrieve the sword. Most of the puzzles involve timing certain actions, walking specific paths, or knocking over or moving something to get around. It feels very platform-ish in execution, but is also pretty simplistic. It feels almost like the first Legend of Zelda on the NES in a lot of ways, only no health bars or anything like that.

There are triggers you can activate that take you into a dream world where you can learn more about yourself and the past, and these feel very much like a platformer as you spend a lot of time avoiding getting hit and trying to time your moves. One of the more interesting of these puts you in a sort of purgatory where you can’t see the floor you’re walking on except when lightning lights up the screen, giving you precious few seconds to see where you’re going or to find the runes you’re trying to activate. That one was probably the most challenging because of the way they laid it out, but it can also be frustrating, as the wait time between the light flashes was insanely long.

03I like the gameplay and structure of the story that moves things along, and the game has a very striking art style to it. It’s a shame that, while the art style is fantastic, there are so many graphics issues hanging all over the place to ruin the experience. When the game looks great, it looks amazing. When it falls apart though, it does it spectacularly. There are clipping issues all over the place. You’ll see it in the Moonchild and the environment. The environment has textures that range from great to looking extremely low-res right next to each other. Then there’s the semi-fixed camera. It really likes to fight you and not line up where it’d be the most beneficial to the player, and the limited movement helps some, but it can be a struggle when you’re trying to stay alive against the dragon or looking for that next platform to leap to. The art style is amazing for the game and I really do love it, it’s just that this really needed another pass over to really make it something special. As it is, for every good thing the visuals do, they smack you with two or three things that kill the experience.

Since your character doesn’t speak, the only speaking role belongs to your mentor; I didn’t recognize the language at all, but it’s subtitled, thankfully, and the voice-over never really seems to be anything more than a kind of mysterious filler. The dragon noises and the other effects are pretty good, but I have to say I really liked the music that goes along with the game. It fits, and definitely set a lot of the tone and feeling throughout my time playing the game.

04Now, being that there are different sections you can miss and equipment you might not pick up because of that, there’s a good reason to replay it. There are achievements tied to those, so that’s a good reason if you’re into hunting those. Overall though, other than replaying it for the experience, there isn’t much to bring you back to it if you weren’t thrilled or all that engaged with the game. It is pretty short, something you can run through in just a few hours, kind of like running through a Telltale Games episode of The Walking Dead. The puzzles are pretty easy, with one or two offering a mild exception, if only because of their set-up. This is priced more than a Walking Dead episode though, and that has me waffling a bit on this, because the game doesn’t feel polished. I’d be more okay with the pricing and the amount of content if everything worked, but with the issues, this is harder to recommend for that end of things.

I’ve seen this compared a bit to Ico, and I have to admit, even though I own the two-pack with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus I have yet to play it, so I can’t really comment there. I will say, while the unique art style and lack of a user interface might strike up comparisons, this feels like something very original, just not all that fleshed out. Sure, it pulls inspiration from a bunch of sources, but it feels very much like its own thing and that is very refreshing in a sea of sequels for both films and games this summer. It’s pretty easy to get sucked in, and the few times I blew through it, I did so in one sitting. It’s very easy to get lost in this game’s world for the short two hours it takes to move through it. With dwindling time and attention spans, as well as a unique look and style, it’s easy to see the appeal, but it does feel a bit clunky in some respects that will definitely put people off.

05Unfortunately, the coding here doesn’t feel optimized at all. So on top of lots of clipping, low res textures and other animation glitches, you’re going to get some severe slow-down in portions of the game, which is a bit ridiculous when you have a fixed camera through most of the game controlling what and how much is on screen. I’d hit lots of graphic slowdowns which actually slowed the game to a crawl, where I was getting such a bad frame-rate that I could watch each individual animation in the Moonchild as I ascended the tower. This isn’t because my laptop is old either; I can run Tomb Raider with everything cranked and have fewer game hiccups than I did with this game. That’s with me going in and changing up the settings. The worst part is that these don’t all happen at the same time, so there’s some kind of glitch or memory leak that just devours all my system resources for far too long for a game this size.

Short Attention Span Summary
As a short and sweet game, Toren can be a fun ride. The length to cost ratio is a bit off, but you can go back to it if you missed things. I like that it doesn’t spoon feed you the story and you have to figure out a lot of the timings and steps to the various puzzles and traps throughout the tower. There are some graphic issues and game optimization needs that really need to be fixed before the game really lives up to its potential but it’s an interesting story with a great blend of myths to really deliver something I haven’t really played before. So with the problems its a little hard to recommend, but if you think you can handle them and overlook them, this really is a fun title and something different to sink a few short hours into.

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