Short stories are one of my favorite mediums; they deliver a concise, thought-provoking narrative that bursts forth and captures the reader's imagination almost immediately. It's not necessarily about the characters or the situations they find themselves entangled in, but rather the context and meaning the reader gleans from the story. Playing Toren is like reading a superb short story -- it takes the best aspects of them and demands a response from the player. However, Toren is a contradiction. It's a game that's beautiful and ugly, imaginative and derivative, but it has something that many games seem to lack: heart.
I was listening to the sharp crackling of the fire, the wind whistling eerily through a small crevice, and a droning ambient wash of instruments pulsing through my headset. I was only ten minutes into Toren and I found myself simply sitting back, closing my eyes, and letting the amazing sound direction transport me into the world that developer Swordtales has created. And to compliment the fantastic sound design, Toren's environmental design is outstanding as well. The tower itself is beautifully rendered along with the flora and fauna that inhabit said tower. I specifically say environmental design because the character design is somewhat... lacking. I don't want to knock the character design too hard, but there are a few times, especially with the child version of Moonchild, where she looks like a mannequin who has become sentient, and it’s jarring to see her plastic face juxtaposed with the delightfully realized world she inhabits.
In various interviews with the Brazilian-based developers at Swordtales, they have mentioned that their main inspirations for Toren were Ico and Shadow of the Colossus by Team Ico. Even if you weren't aware of these interviews, I can safely say that anyone who's played a Team Ico game will almost immediately see the similarities. In fact, one of the early fights in Toren is basically a carbon copy of the final boss fight in Ico. I don't necessarily consider this a fault though, as Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are two of my favorite games. Toren captures that sense of grandeur and wonderment that Team Ico game’s elicit, but I couldn't help feeling like I was playing the equivalent of the cover band version of Ico. Don't get me wrong, Toren is its own game, but sometimes it feels so eerily similar to Ico or Shadow of the Colossus, that I almost wished I was playing one of those games instead. However, Toren sets itself apart with a subtle, yet brilliant story.
A good short story utilizes subtlety and ambiguity. It's the reader’s job to pick apart the layers of the narrative to find the story’s pulsing heart at the center. Toren's story is told through minimal dialogue, ample amounts of religious symbolism, and nuanced visuals. At its core, Toren is a tale of maturation. Our protagonist starts as a child and quickly ages as she ascends the tower. The tower is billed as a sort of Tower of Babel metaphor and the Tree of Life at the middle is almost a direct comparison to the Tree of Life from the Kabbalah, right down to the individual Sephirot that unlock as you ascend the tower. It's also a game that seems to be about the nature of futility. Still, there are pangs of hope and optimism that run throughout its story, and it's this dichotomous nature that makes the game so compelling. There are a lot of themes going on in Toren, and they might mean something completely different to someone else playing the game. I love that. A good story will elicit different responses in different people, and Toren has this aspect nailed.
The cracks in Toren's shimmering veneer start to show when it comes to the technical side of things. I experienced a few minor frame rate drops that were sparse but noticeable and two crashes over my three to four hours of play. They weren't prevalent enough to keep me from enjoying the game, but they were noticeable enough that the spell the game had on me was broken on a few occasions. Also, it bears mentioning that the actual act of swinging your sword at the few enemies that you encounter leaves something to be desired. Enemies are actually extremely sparse in Toren, but when you're tasked with killing these small blobs of darkness, the fighting is just as stilted and expressionless as Moonchilds wooden face. Thankfully, these segments are few, as the majority of the game is spent with the notion of progression, not frustration, as its driving force.
The actual gameplay will have you tackling rudimentary puzzles and leaping over short expanses. Neither of these aspects really shine on their own, but they push the player forward in creative ways. For instance, over its three to four hour length, I found myself in a desert, a coral encased ocean, and a wind-ravaged plateau. The only problem is that those areas I just described are hidden behind small, missable shrines that dot the tower, and that’s a shame, since these areas also provide some backstory and context to the narrative. You will also encounter various fights with the game’s main antagonist, the dragon. These sections stand out as they blend the puzzle, combat, and platforming portions together into a satisfying cocktail that challenges the player to remember everything they've learned up until that point.
Toren is an experience. I couldn't help but get absorbed into the world even when some of the technical flaws tried to rip me out. It's also a game of contrasts. One of the more poignant sections in the game involves a deer. I won't go into details, but this portion stuck with me for a while. It was a scene in stark opposition to the magnificent scenery and sounds that Toren normally bombards you with. However, this scene was beautiful and affecting in its own way. This is one of Toren's greatest strengths; it can go from calm serenity to dark unease in a matter of minutes. It's a thought provoking game with a lot of heart, and it left me excited to see what Swordtales decides to put out next.