LOST IN TRANSLATION?
Toren is the first game by Brazilian developer, Swordtales. This stylish platformer is also one of the first games to come out of the country’s Brazilian Cultural Incentive Law, which allows any Brazilian corporation to pay a percentage of its income tax to finance “cultural projects.” Suffice it to say that Toren takes the nurturing of that imaginative culture very seriously through its abstract and, at times, ambiguous plot. Poetry plays a large part in Swordtales’ storytelling here, and the developer’s artistic style is hard to ignore even at a glance. Still, even with such seeming care and attention to bring a video game into the realm of “high art,” could it be that the drive to build a game got a little lost?
Initially, Toren‘s plot doesn’t appear all that complex. It takes place in a world nearly devoid of humanity; quite literally, there aren’t any humans hanging about anymore. Humans built a tower (Toren) in order to attain some greater power, and in doing so, damned all people to be devoured by an evil dragon and its curse. Where did the dragon come from? I’m not really sure.
Players take on the role of Moonchild, a mere toddler in the earlier moments of the game who later becomes a graceful, powerful woman imbued with celestial powers, and destined to climb Toren in order to vanquish the evil dragon so that life may start anew. As you climb Toren, it becomes more apparent that these are not Moonchild’s first steps into its dangers. Scattered throughout the structure are petrified forms of the same girl, failed in her attempt to save the world, and thrown back into a cycle of rebirth until she might succeed.
Moonchild is likely the most elegant piece of the game. The way she interacts with the environment, and how it interacts with her feels accurate and molded with affection. She never speaks, but if you have an empathetic bone in your body, it’s easy to find yourself developing that same affection for her when you see her struggle to reach the end of her gauntlet. When a strong wind pulls her down, she tumbles away. Whenever she would trip over a ledge to nearly fall off the tower, I found myself mashing X on the DualShock 4 to quickly get her back to safety, not because I was afraid of having to start from a checkpoint (it’s never really much of a penalty), and not because I knew it would even help, though I hoped it might; I just didn’t want to see her fall. It was all I could do to save her from another terrible fate.
To top it off, we actually get to see her become a young woman by the end of the game. As Moonchild climbs Toren, she ages, changing the way she moves and attacks, and maybe most notably, changing the way she looks as she comes to understand exactly what she is in the context of this world, even if players might not exactly reach that same level of understanding.
Where the game’s storytelling efforts start to falter is in the “dream” sequences Moonchild enters to learn about the world’s past and her future. These little platforming/simple puzzle vignettes get a little heady. The whole game is narrated by Moonchild’s mentor, the mysterious Mage, but he only speaks in poetry. So, when he describes how the sun felt about the dragon and the absence of the moon, he leans toward abstraction and pretty words rather than clearly explaining what the hell is going on. As the game continues, it only gets more confusing until it just feels like you’re reading an unclear translation.
While the Mage’s monologues can be uninteresting, the visuals often feel like master strokes. Many times, I actually felt I was watching a piece of artwork in motion rather than playing a game. It was a welcome distraction from the plot, and one of only a few PS4 experiences I felt actually posed for the Share button, even if it was with the help of annoyingly static camera angles. Swordtales certainly has a future in game development if they continue to create such dynamic settings and truly stunning scenescapes.
But let’s get right down to it: how is the gameplay? Well, I will say that there’s promise for some of the mechanics Swordtales presents in Toren. Early in the game, I felt like the world was opening a little, and I would get the chance to collect different weapons, artifacts, and armor. There is a point of the game where you must make a sacrifice to attain the next level of a weapon. It’s one of the most difficult choices the game presents. That is, until you realize that it’s not a choice at all; you just need to do it to become a little stronger. And then, you go through the rest of the game and there are no more items to collect. You have them all, and you’re just going to get talked at by that Mage for a couple more hours, albeit while looking at some nice screens. Actually, I’d like to take a moment to do that now:
As mentioned before, the set camera angles tend to aim your focus at the pretty sights rather than where you’re going, which can get irritating, but the game is hardly much of a challenge. So, even if you do happen to fall off of a ledge, it’s unlikely to derive much of a visceral reaction unless you’re easily prone to fits of anger after a little girl dies and comes right back to life where you left off.
The game isn’t just simple in difficulty, though. It has a passive way of guiding players through Toren without giving verbal or textual clues. Its puzzles are easy, but they’re presented in a way where there’s not exactly an obvious solution from the start, and like I said, there’s no one telling you what to do; Moonchild is on her own. Once you get it down, it’s hardly more than using the action button in the right place, avoiding some enemies, and jumping to the next spot, but if it had a little more complexity and length, such a mechanic could be a mind-bending experience.
The game’s combat is virtually non-existent. If you’re looking for a game where you can go hacking and slashing, this one might appear to be your inexpensive answer on the surface, but it’s far from it. Once Moonchild eventually gets her sword, she’ll only use it when she’s near an enemy, of which there are far too few. You get the impression that battles with the dragon were meant to feel epic, but they end up feeling formulaic and childish when all Moonchild will do is swing the sword three times before she’s flung away or just gets tired of moving the blade around (she’ll just stop like she’s at the end of a combo – but there are no combos… unless you count pressing the same button three times).
As for the game’s performance, it got to be a bit dicey at random times. Climbing a staircase or just walking through a field in the PS4 version, I found quite a few frame-rate drops and invisible walls. None of them were game-breaking, but they did tend to ruin what otherwise might have been an immersive experience.
The Verdict: 6.6 out of 10
Toren sometimes feels like it could have been great if only it had a little more time to cook. As it stands, it shows great ideas beginning to bubble at the surface of a young developer’s collective mind. Artistically, there are scenes and settings that couldn’t look more impressive. Gameplay ideas are well-conceived, but are poorly executed in ways that make the experience feel incomplete. And the plot… it probably could have been worse if I actually knew what was going on.
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Jordan Loeffler is an Associate Editor for MONG who drives a 2006 Pontiac Vibe with Minnesota license plates even though he lives in Portland, OR. She’s seafoam green, and she drives like a wave. You can also follow him on IGN and on Twitter.