The Talos Principle

I didn’t know anything about The Talos Principle until last week.  I hadn’t even heard of it, and it was with only mild interest that I checked out the game’s Steam store page.  Within a minute though, I noticed a magic word that immediately caught my attention.  That word wasn't "Puzzle", "Indie", or "Adventure.  That word was “Croteam”.  When I saw that the developer who gave us the Serious Sam series was boldly branching out into a different genre with a new idea, I was hooked instantly.  Since that time, I put well over fifteen hours into this superb title, which is unlike anything that Croteam has ever done.  The developer that gave us one of the best mindless first person shooters of all time has now given us one of the best puzzle games of all time.  I could rave for hours about the game’s terrific puzzle design, its beautiful scenery, or its clever integration of philosophy into its story and design.  The best service that I can do for you, however, is to simply tell you that The Talos Principle is my runaway choice for Game of the Year for 2014, and if you have any interest in puzzle or adventure games, you must play it.

When describing this game, comparisons between The Talos Principle and Valve’s Portal are inevitable.  There are discrete trials that are like Portal’s test chambers.  There are hazards, force fields, weighted cubes, and even a disembodied voice that occasionally gives you feedback on your progress.  It is how The Talos Principle combines all of these elements, its atmosphere, and its writing that makes it so memorable and unique.  The game provides a brilliant puzzling experience like Portal, but in a series of breathtaking, serene environments reminiscent of the Myst series.  It features a lot of large open areas, some of which are stunningly beautiful.  It is also a largely nonlinear game in which dozens of puzzles may be available for you to solve at any time.

In terms of mechanics, The Talos Principle is relatively easy to describe.  You play as some sort of android, exploring various worlds and solving a series of navigational puzzles.  The reward for each trial is a sigil, a little Tetris-shaped puzzle piece.  When you find enough sigils, you piece them together to unlock a new area to explore or a new ability.  The core gameplay consists of some mechanics that you may have seen before, like redirecting light beams to activate nodes, using boxes to weigh down switches or reach high places, and using a recorder to create a double of yourself.  There are also portable “jammer” devices that you can place on the ground to disable drones and force fields.  Some of these mechanics may seem familiar on the surface, but they possess versatility that makes them superior to their counterparts in other games.  The game’s ability to throw a variety of challenges at you becomes apparent quickly, shattering the notion that The Talos Principle isn’t a fresh or innovative gameplay experience.

The Talos Principle has many strong points, but probably none more significant than the fact that its puzzles are designed very, very well.  It nails the nuts and bolts of game design perfectly.  Like all great puzzle games, it feels like a game that was subjected to endless playtesting.  Mechanics are gradually layered in, and the puzzles become more difficult and complex as you progress through the game.  Like a Valve game, The Talos Principle teaches you its basic mechanics with easy puzzles.  Then, it teaches you tricks that you can pull off using those mechanics in more complex puzzles.  Finally, it challenges you to use everything that you have learned by taking the training wheels off for the game’s most difficult puzzles.  The game fully utilizes its tricks to wring an astonishing number of puzzles out of a relatively small number of mechanics.  Its Steam store page boasts that it has over 120 puzzles, and although I wasn’t counting, 120 sounds about right.  None of them are bad, and none of them feel like filler that was added to the game to pad its length.  For its $40 price tag, The Talos Principle offers a volume of quality content that is virtually unheard of nowadays.

The later stages of the game are challenging, without being frustrating.  It never requires you to solve a puzzle by stumbling onto a game mechanic that you have yet to discover.  Visual clues, like the placement of certain items in the environment, frequently provide subtle hints.  The title for each puzzle also sometimes acts as a clue.  The hard puzzles are appropriately hard, but The Talos Principle is one of those games where the glorious “aha” moment always seems to arrive just when you are ready to give up and look somewhere for a hint.  Speaking of hints, it also has one of the more interesting hint systems in recent memory.  During your adventure, you may discover up to three “Messengers” –characters who will show up, on request, to give you a hint or a suggestion for solving the game’s hardest puzzles.  Each messenger can only be used once, which means that you will have to use them sparingly.  The system is a perfect way to keep the player progressing through the game without robbing the player of the satisfaction of completing it.

There is a very heavy “Garden of Eden” theme at work in the game, and, as such, the game is appropriately gorgeous and its music is appropriately soothing.  The hub areas outside of each test chamber are vast and expansive.  There are some secrets to find in them, but you may find yourself exploring them just to view all the sights.  From a technological standpoint, The Talos Principle has everything that you would want out of a modern video game, like crisp textures and impressive special effects.  It also has everything that you would want from an aesthetic standpoint, like long view distances and attractive, colorful assets (the long view distances also come into play during some of the game’s puzzles).  It is a feast for the eyes and, as you will discover, the visuals mesh very well with the game’s themes.  If The Talos Principle is guilty of anything when it comes to graphics, it may be that there isn’t enough variety to the environments.  In addition, most of the exploring that you do off the beaten path isn’t very productive, other than when you can grab the occasional very hard to get secret item.

As if having 100+ great puzzles and wonderful sights and sounds weren’t enough, The Talos Principle provides one of the more interesting story and setting combinations in recent gaming.  It is a highly intellectual affair that conveys all of its ideas without ever coming across as smug or pretentious.  From the moment the game begins, it bombards you with philosophy and references to the mythology of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and The Old Testament of the Bible.   It also provides some commentary on our modern world, and even a little bit of Bioshock style meta-commentary on video gaming.  The story is as challenging an experience as the gameplay.    It is one of those games where the first thing that you want to do when you finish it is find a friend who played the game so that you can talk about it.  Don’t be surprised if you space out at work or in school the day after you finish the game because you are busy pondering what you experienced.  To say any more about the story would be to do you a great disservice, because The Talos Principle is a game for which you are going to want to avoid spoilers like the plague.  Every discovery is an exciting one.   You want to go into the game knowing as little as possible about it.

Like many games nowadays, The Talos Principle will eventually be available on a variety of platforms (a PS4 version is scheduled for early next year).  There is no sense in waiting for these other versions, however.  You can tell just by looking at it that The Talos Principle was designed with the PC as its lead platform.  The game’s sharp, highly detailed textures and small text size are great examples of traits that you generally never find in a PC port of a console game.  In addition, there are some puzzles in the game that require you to see far away objects and notice some small details.  While I have little doubt that the inevitable console versions of this game will be enjoyable, this experience is one that you want to have close to your screen, playing with a mouse and keyboard.

I was initially drawn to this game because of the developer’s pedigree, and what I found was a game that surpassed my expectations in a manner that no game has done in years.  In The Talos Principle, Croteam has created a masterpiece – one that shouldn’t be dismissed as being a Portal clone or just another art game.  The one dominant trait that this game shares with Portal is that it's incredibly fun.  And, unlike a lot of games, its mechanics aren’t just barebones vehicles for telling a story.  They would make for a great game even if it had no story.  The game prospers not only from immense creativity, but from a devotion to the unsexy fundamentals of great game design.  That devotion pays off with a long, unforgettable experience that almost never fails to engage you and has virtually no weak points.  It's a game that constantly entices you to see what the next puzzle or story bit has to offer.  In that regard, it rarely disappoints, and the experience stays with you long after you finish it.