“We are a species of problem solvers,” runs a line from Croteam’s dizzying indie puzzler, The Talos Principle, a game that tests our problem solving abilities to the limit. Although taking a certain amount of inspiration from the classic Portal, with its environmental problems and enigmatic storyline, The Talos Principle‘s visuals and ingenious design give it an eerie sci-fi feel that is all its own.
It’s easy to feel a little nonplussed by it all, at least at first. Dropped straight into its quasi-classical world – all crumbling Greek statues and doric columns – with no explanation as to where you are or what you’re meant to be doing, you’re left to wander around and figure things out more-or-less for yourself. Where Portal was full of claustrophobic interiors, The Talos Principle‘s boundaries are initially less obvious, until the rules of the game begin to coalesce slowly in your mind, like a Polaroid photograph.
Your goal is to explore the first-person world and find a series of Sigils – little blocks that look exactly like the tetronimos out of the classic Tetris. That isn’t the only reference to games of the past, either; patrolling certain areas, and potentially blocking your path, is an army of spherical drones. Floating a foot off the ground and making siren noises like the ghosts out of Pac-Man, they’re capable of killing you with a single touch.
In order to avoid those drones – and other threats the game has in store for you – there are a few tools at your disposal. Initially, there’s the Jammer – an item that looks like a surveyor’s theodolite, or maybe a camera on a tripod. You can pick this up and deposit it just about anywhere, and depending on where you aim it, the jammer can shut down force fields, turn off those pesky warbling drones, or prevent an automated cannon from riddling you with holes.
Guiding you through the game is the booming, disembodied voice of someone who calls himself Elohim – a godlike entity who, we soon suspect, isn’t quite who he seems. The way The Talos Principle tells its story through its environment is superbly done: no sooner have you oriented yourself in this weird world of ancient Greek architecture and futuristic mecha, than more mysteries reveal themselves to you. There are random 8-bit computers, which can be hacked to glean more information about where you are and what’s going on. When you first approach one of these terminals, you notice your fingers are robotic…
The ingenuity of the story extends to the puzzles. Although the world is a bewildering one at first, you soon realise that what you’re dealing with is a series of (fairly) open landscapes where the puzzles are dotted around in discrete, walled areas. What at first seems like an unfriendly game transforms into a perfectly logical one: as you take a teleporter into each open area, you’ll spot little signs, pointing out where you’ll find the puzzles. As you complete them, a little cross appears on each sign to stop you running back over the same ground.
Each set of puzzles introduces a new mechanic. There are weighted boxes that can be dropped on pressure-sensitive buttons. There are things called Connectors, which bounce lasers around coloured receivers on the walls. By creating a continuous loop of laser light, you can switch off the force fields that block your path to the next Sigil.
As you’ve probably gathered, some of The Talos Principle‘s puzzles are incredibly difficult – some infuriatingly so. But it’s a testament to the strength of its design that, after careful consideration, the solution eventually comes clear. (The time-honoured tactic of taking a break and returning to a puzzle after a few hours also seems to work.)
Visually, The Talos Principle isn’t what you’d call cutting-edge, but it’s very pretty given its indie status. And more importantly, its graphics and sound generate an absorbing, vaguely spooky atmosphere rather than going for processor-straining realism. Once the puzzles have you in their grip, you barely notice the odd low-res texture.
(One thing I will say, however, is that there were moments in The Talos Principle that left me slightly nauseous. This isn’t something I usually suffer from, even in fast-paced action games, but the process of rapidly looking around with the mouse, suddenly dying, and then being put back to the start of a puzzle with a kind of VHS tape rewind effect made me feel slightly giddy after a while. I might be the only person on the planet to suffer from this, but I thought I should mention it.)
There are plenty of elements in The Talos Principle you may have seen before in other puzzle games, but the way Croteam have put them together is quite unique. Occasionally confusing, sometimes frustrating (especially when a conundrum leaves you scowling in confusion for hours), The Talos Principle is nevertheless an absorbing puzzler with some great storytelling ideas. And with over a hundred puzzles to solve, it’s sure to have players scratching their heads for some time to come.
The Talos Principle is available now from Steam.
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