I think, therefore I am.
Certain genres are so heavily associated with specific games that I don’t envy anyone trying to develop in the same space. Such is the case with first person puzzle games, where the simplest way to explain a game is by comparing it to Portal, the de facto standard. Most games vary mechanics and setting (although some less than others), in an effort to carve out an identity. The Talos Principle does those things, but spends less time worrying about similar mechanics and instead focuses on providing a much different narrative experience. That focus pays off, and even when taking puzzles out of the equation the game made me think much more than any other in recent memory.
Mechanically, the game is very solid, but nothing especially groundbreaking in terms of its execution. There are hub worlds separated into smaller areas, each populated by a number of puzzles. Puzzles each have their own tools available and standard rules are in effect, meaning objects can’t be removed from a puzzle area for use elsewhere. The majority of puzzle solving relates to manipulating objects, such as using a jammer to disarm a turret gun or a reflector to connect a laser beam with its intended target.
The puzzles are well designed, and while the early ones are fairly straightforward, as the game progresses they require more thought and creative use of elements to complete. As a rule The Talos Principle doesn’t explain very much outside of how to interact with objects; it was up to me to experiment and see how things worked. More than once the solution involved using something in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious, and I learned early on that objects could serve multiple functions.
The point of the puzzles is to collect sigils, which can themselves be used to solve puzzles in the hub world. Those puzzles will unlock additional objects required for completing later puzzles and new areas to explore. What pieces are required to complete a set of sigils is clearly marked, and hub areas have signs indicating what sigils can be found there, and also note ones that have already been found. It provides a specific progression aspect, but with everything well marked I never felt like I was stuck hunting for a particular piece.
The world of The Talos Principle is vast, and I visited locations reminiscent of ancient Roman gardens and the pyramids of Egypt. Along the way it became clear that this world was created for my character, who was intended to solve the puzzles within for a specific purpose. The why of that is the fundamental narrative question the game poses, which includes some very interesting questions about what it means to be human, and where the line between man and machine blurs if true artificial intelligence exists.
The size of the different areas certainly gives a sense of grand scale, but at times that works against the game. For example, a huge area could have only four or five puzzles, which means a lot of time spent getting from one place to another. Fortunately I was able to run, but it didn’t totally mitigate the empty feeling I got at times. Drawing the very large environments also has a technical impact, and there was a lot of texture pop-in as I explored. In some cases I could stand in front of a wall and step backwards and forwards, and watch the low-res shadow from a tree be drawn over with a high res version. It never affected my enjoyment of the game, but it was prevalent throughout.
The sound is a definite winner. Music in the hub areas and menus is grand and epic, and within puzzle areas scales back to a nice, more subtle style that settles nicely into the background. Characters, both with and without a voice add to the experience and really make the game what it is. The only complaint I had with the gameplay is minor; death during a puzzle resets everything, which isn’t a big deal most of the time but can be annoying during some of the more intricate puzzles that require lots of steps.
As a straight puzzle game The Talos Principle is very solid, but the setting and narrative really elevate it into something special. It reminded me a lot of how I felt when I was finding all of the glyphs in Assassin’s Creed II – I enjoyed the main game, but I wanted to go the extra mile and dig deeper to understand everything I could. It makes for an excellent package, and it’s one that puzzle fans and anyone else looking to give their brain a workout should definitely check out.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.