The Talos Principle: Road to Gehenna

In five or six years when it is time to compile another “Games of the Generation” list for Darkstation, I have little doubt that The Talos Principle will rest comfortably in my Top 5. It combined philosophy, mystery, a terrific story, and highly polished puzzles into an excellent package, the likes of which gaming has rarely seen. It was an “art” game, but unlike most “art” games, it could have succeeded entirely on its gameplay if it had no story. It wrapped up that story nicely, revealing many of its mysteries in the process. It was also a very long game, providing well over 100 puzzles to solve and lots of material to read. It is for those reasons that The Talos Principle didn’t seem like a logical candidate to get a sequel or an expansion pack. Nevertheless, Croteam has given us one with The Talos Principle: Road to Gehenna.

Mechanically speaking, there is nothing wrong at all with Road to Gehanna. There is nothing that The Talos Principle did well that the expansion pack does poorly. Its puzzles are solid and satisfying. It still benefits from interesting writing, a serene atmosphere, and some beautiful scenery. Unfortunately though, the game is lacking something intangible -- the magic that made The Talos Principle such a memorable experience. There are no compelling “Who am I?” or “Why am I here?” type mysteries to solve. Your goal in this game is revealed to you immediately and it isn’t as interesting. Furthermore, The Talos Principle was so generous with its content that it exhausted every way of using the puzzle solving tools in the game. Road to Gehenna arrives with nothing left to accomplish. It is for those reasons that you should temper your expectations as you enter this game.

In Road toGehenna, you play as Uriel, one of the Messengers from the original game. Elohim commands you to travel to Gehenna, a parallel realm where he has imprisoned seventeen of his problem children. Elohim now regrets imprisoning those souls, and he wishes for you to free them from captivity. They are all stuck inside of puzzle chambers, and in order to free each one, you have to complete a Talos Principle puzzle. Each time you complete a puzzle, you gain access to a switch that you can use to open up a gate and release one of the androids to freedom.

Like The Talos Principle, Road to Gehenna also has the occasional computer terminal that you can interact with. In this game, the terminals give you access to a message board that are populated by the residents of Gehenna. On that message board, they exchange stories, artwork, text adventure games, theories, and the historical knowledge that they can glean on the outside world. Through community activities, you gain status and each time that you free a new prisoner, more message board topics unlock. Like the original game, the computer terminals are where most of the story takes place. Through your interactions with the different characters you learn much about their histories and personalities. Before long, they start to feel like real people. It is rich in philosophy and some consistent themes soon become evident. Whereas the first game dealt largely with the concept of life, this game centers more on the concept of death. To thhe game’s credit, I was invested enough in the story that I had to think long and hard about a couple of the choices that I made.

The story and dialog take some unusual directions, and not always for the better. Whereas nobody in the original game seemed to know much about the world and why it existed, everyone in Road to Gehenna appears to have access to the game’s Wikipedia page. There is frequent Fourth Wall-breaking talk about the world in the first game and its puzzles. These puzzles don’t seem to have much of a reason to exist in this game, whereas in the original game they had a legitimate story reason for being there (i.e. to provide a series of trials for developing human level intelligence). There is also frequent talk about the “Real World” and humans, which is awkward. In the first game, you didn’t even know what if there was a “Real World” and the Milton Library Assistant mocked you for thinking that there was a purpose to your existence. In Road to Gehenna on the other hand, everyone has pretty much figured it out, but they are just trapped and they can’t get there. Both the story and the world lack mystique. It also ends somewhat abruptly and disappointingly, unlike the original game, whose climactic ending provided a flood of excitement, awe, and emotions. There might be some dialog choices that affect the ending, and if you collect all of the bonus stars you may get a different ending that way too. I expect that most players, however, will get the ending that left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Fortunately though, the level design is still excellent. This series continues to provide some of the most brilliantly designed and tightly playtested puzzles that the genre has ever offered. In Road to Gehenna, they are especially challenging, with the average difficulty level at least as high as the hardest red sigil puzzles in The Talos Principle. Some of them are also mind-blowingly large, taking up huge amounts of acreage and involving vast changes in elevation. There are only seventeen of those core puzzles though, along with about fifteen bonus stars. Depending upon how well you recall your tricks in the first game, you can get to the ending of this expansion pack relatively fast (in five hours or less).

Since the core mechanics of The Talos Principle worked so well, Croteam can’t be blamed for keeping them in place. You will still solve puzzles with the reflectors, the jammers, the fans, and blocks, and the recording machines. And, if you enjoyed solving puzzles that way in The Talos Principle, then you will almost certainly still enjoy them here. It's disappointing, however, that there is nothing new in the gameplay department. There aren’t any new puzzle solving tools, nor are there any new tricks to learn with the old ones. The puzzles simply require you to recall what you've learned. With so many other characters being physically present in the game, I was hoping that the co-op gameplay that briefly showed up at the end of the first game would make reappearance. It doesn’t. In terms of art assets, there is also nothing new, with the visuals and music being the same as those of the first game. It is hard to complain about a game reusing an A+ formula, but this expansion pack could have used at least one special feature to distinguish it from the core game. A new locale or one new puzzle solving mechanic would have gone a long way toward making feel more valuable.

It is hard to judge a game like The Talos Principle:Road to Gehenna , because there is nothing that it does conspicuously wrong. Its biggest sin is that its predecessor didn’t leave any room for improvement. Nor did it give Road to Gehenna a compelling reason to exist. Compared to that predecessor, the game is disappointing for a few reasons. Between its story, its short length, and its lack of new gameplay mechanics, this expansion pack doesn’t reach the lofty heights to which The Talos Principle so gloriously soared. This game still isn’t hard to recommend though. Its gameplay is still rock solid, the level design is impressive, and the highs that you get from solving a puzzle are still there. It's still a game that succeeds at a basic level. It just doesn’t provide the unforgettable, lasting, and profound experience that made The Talos Principle such an unforgettable experience.