An American God in Gehenna.
Puzzles are one of humanity’s favorite things. We’ve always had them; when people don’t have problems that need solving, they create their own. Things to decode, images to assemble, machines to create and perfect; however you specify problem-solving, it’s an important part of what makes us human.
Interestingly enough, puzzles and humanity are the two very concepts that the various workings of The Talos Principle revolve around. Have you ever wanted to solve puzzles in an ancient Greek Colosseum or Egyptian city, while considering the writings of philosophers of the past and future? Shoot some beams of light into the correct holes, solve a Tetris puzzle, and read about some ancient gods? Have you ever wondered how the Portal games might have gone if GlaDOS had been well-versed in the history of religion, and was working on a thesis about the follies of man? Welcome to The Talos Principle, where the human spirit and equally-human puzzle-solving drive meet, hand in hand.
The Talos Principle is a first-person puzzle game, a genre which I’m going to go right ahead and say needs more love in this day and age. There’s something about the first-person perspective that really lends itself to both level design and immersive puzzle-solving. It’s one thing to be faced with a task, and quite another to be surrounded by it, after all. But I digress.
In The Talos Principle, players take on the role of an AI freshly-spawned in a world of Greek architecture and vibrant nature. Contacted by Elohim, a commanding voice in the sky who pronounces himself to be God, players discover that they, like so many others before them, have been tasked with solving the great puzzles of his world, spread across 3 lands. Solving puzzles will lead to unlocking items that have to exist in order to make many puzzles work, so the game’s levels get gradually more complex over time.
Early puzzles are simple and straightforward. There are obstacles, such as stationary turrets and floating bombs that move along a path and explode if the player gets too close. Most of these puzzles revolve around the jammer, an item that players can find and use to immobilize deadly threats and open light screens. As things progress and get gradually more complex, other items are introduced, such as hexahedrons (more commonly known as boxes), jet propulsion panels, and connectors that link beams of light to their receivers. Each puzzle is marked as containing one or more of these items, so players will already have some idea of how to think when they enter. Unfortunately, one of the game’s flaws is a lack of clarity when it comes to figuring some of this out. Elohim isn’t around to yell at you from the clouds all the time, after all; just when he feels like reminding you that he’s cool.
The goal of each puzzle is to collect one of Elohim’s sigils. These sigils are floating Tetris-style block shapes that act as more than just collectibles; they actually operate as parts of keys. The Talos Principle‘s world works like this: levels exist in small groups, scattered across little hubs. These hubs are, themselves, part of three bigger hubs; one to begin with, with the other two unlockable over the course of the game. How are these other two unlocked? Well, with the simple and effective magic of the sigils, of course. Once enough sigils are collected, they must be fit into a grid in a minigame that, on the Playstation 4 version of the game, actually makes good and useful use of the controller’s touchpad. These same mini-puzzles come up whenever it’s time to unlock a new item for use in puzzle rooms, also determined by collecting sigils.
“So,” you ask, legs crossed and fingers tented, “are the puzzles actually good?” Yes, you inquisitive reader, the puzzles are good. That said, their gradual increase in challenge takes a while. The Talos Principle is a pretty long game, with dozens upon dozens of challenges to play. The player will be unlocking items gradually over the first several hours, meaning that these items appear in previously-impossible test rooms, leading to a lot of tutorial-grade puzzles that begin to outstay their welcome as the game acclimates you with your new stuff. What the game does to counterbalance this, though, is give the player relatively free reign when it comes to choosing what challenges to tackle next. The challenging and mind-bending do exist in The Talos Principle; they just make their time getting ready for the party. When they do, though, the challenge is fierce, and the reward tastes all the more sweet.
The Talos Principle asks a lot of the AI characters within it; their task, as it happens, is to prove that they are human, by solving the tests before them in ways only humans could, and eventually reaching enlightenment. As such, the story could easily be heavy-handed, but it actually does a manageable job at staying accessible. Each set of puzzles will be set in an area that contains a computer terminal, full of various types of information. These will range from old philosophical and scientific texts, to emails and other correspondence between members of the organization that seemingly created the game’s world, to excerpts from ancient mythologies.
It is through these terminals that a great deal of The Talos Principle‘s story is told. Through documents written by the people who have created the world in which the player resides, players will learn bits of what is going on in the real world outside, and how things became like they are both inside and out. These terminals will also light up sometimes with other messages, such as correspondence from a mysterious figure who has many questions for the player over the course of the journey. Elohim himself also has a fair amount to say, like the booming sky voice that he is. Some of the game’s writing becomes expository, and can feel a bit heavy-handed, but mostly it smells of quirky, thoughtful science fiction. That’s an okay tradeoff, surely. The world is also dotted with QR codes on walls, which will reveal messages from other “player” AI characters who have faced the same challenges. These, too, do a lot to add to the story through small snippets. The Talos Principle sticks to its unique style through the whole game, and frankly, it’s downright cool.
Also included in the Playstation 4 version of the game is the Road to Gehenna DLC, a separate adventure with more complex puzzles and a new goal. Here players assume the role of Uriel, a messenger sent by Elohim to free those among his “children” who have been cast out for crimes against him. Gehenna‘s puzzles are on-par with the very hardest of the main game, creating a higher barrier of entry. Gehenna can be played at any time, before or after completing (or even beginning) the main game, but fresh players should probably hold out until making their way through at least half of the main game’s content. Gehenna has fewer puzzles total than the main game, but their sheer size and challenge level is higher enough on average that many players will spend about as much time in both parts of the game.
Gehenna also has its own story, as the titular land in which Uriel does his saving becomes more than he expected. The prisoners waiting for salvation at the end of each puzzle are not simply idle; they have created a community, through nothing more than the computer terminals in their holding cells. If the main game is a commentary on the concepts of religion, divinity, and humanity, Gehenna is one on the nature of social networks. Both stories are deep, verbose, and thoroughly well-written.
Put down the philosophy textbooks and pick up a controller, because The Talos Principle will make you think. In fact, it will even make you do things that require more fun words than think. For example: “ponder.” “Consider.” “Deliberate.” The Talos Principle is full of all-positive first-person puzzle design, only marred by the slow pace at which it increases in difficulty. That said, easier challenges are brief enough that their ease of solving doesn’t come as too much of a frustration. The game is clever with the kinds of items it introduces, although its interface could use some better clarity when it comes to showing how to obtain them. The game is beautifully well-written in ways that we don’t see too much of anymore. It actually feels like one of those annoying companion apps nobody uses, where playing something in a game will unlock lore to read on your phone, because you just HAVE to know about the cultural practices of the bad guys you’re shooting. Here, though, what you’re reading is vital to the story, and genuinely interesting to boot.
Final verdict: 4/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Devolver Digital ; Developer: Croteam ; Players: 1; Released: October 6th, 2015 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: $49.99