There is no greater manifestation of success in life than exercise, an alluring example of earned reward through hard work and dedication. Put your body through deliberate hell to return a fitter self. Little rules to work with; go out and make yourself sweat, fatigue, and repeat. Embrace and endure physical trials to near peak physical fitness. And you love it. The hypocritical pain of exercise feels great because you know the euphoric rush of elevated heart rate will earn something. Your exercise skills and task efficiency increase, struggles validate through health benefits. That inoperable-looking machine off in the corner evolves to your favorite calorie eraser after time. Stick to your goal and you shall be rewarded.
Gaming operates in its own version of exercise, grinding. The necessary, tedious slog known in experience-based games with any instance of leveling and progression. You rough out the day-to-day, procedural tasks to build your character in order to reach new heights. To progress toward your goal. That type of addictive aspect in exercise distills in games. Free from physical torment, hypothetically speaking, games spend their time testing players in various ways to supply the rush. One side of the spectrum looks to the developing scene of game interaction functioning more as story engagement. And then we have puzzles. Challenges of the mind in the purest sense.
Whether by design of not, Croteam understands this concept. The Talos Principle exhausts the brain and rewards a high. In The Talos Principles, Croteam and dual writers of Tom Jubert (FTL, The Swapper) and Jonas Kyratzes (Infinite Ocean) accost you with philosophy and puzzles. Begin as a sentient android running the gamut of trials placed by Elohim, an (almost) all-seeing eye in the sky. Elohim, yourself, and the worlds created take on the struggle of independence and order. Although, the meandering, curious story plays second fiddle to the 100+ puzzles you must complete to roll credits.
You collect color-coded “Sigils,” or more colloquially perceived as tetrominoes to unlock new areas and items. Green unlock lettered buildings, Yellow unlock new items to use, and Red unlocks new floors in the tower. Their difficulty progress works as you would expect. Green and Yellow Sigil trials act as primers of concepts and trinkets. Red Sigil trials exist as the most inventive of the bunch, needing several minutes of planning and various applications of items. Early on, your progression limits to the sequence of numbered levels. Go from one to two to three and so on. Once the more usable items unlock, the freedom to jump among portals without restriction exists.
In addition, the various tetrominoes don’t just act like your completion carrot, they function as keys. You compile the pieces and arrange them in a neat “fill-the-space” puzzle, rotating and shifting pieces to fit everything in a specific placement; simple puzzles. Mounted turrets, floating bombs, and transparent barriers. Not much you can do with just those three, but with every item introduction there is new purpose and wrinkle to the formula. You’ll soon realize new tricks you can pull, new and needed solutions. The introduction of the recording device opens up bountiful amounts of plans of attack to a scary degree. To clone items within a time-frame to solve the puzzle sounds nauseating. Though Croteam restrains puzzles from going to absurd lengths. In hindsight, you can be able to complete it again in a breeze because puzzles are more like riddles. Once you solve it, the solution can’t escape your thought once it appears again.
Croteam wants The Talos Principle to be a test of the mind not reflexes. Certainly, the most exciting aspect of The Talos Principle looks to its ease of access of its puzzles. The finicky, human touch drops for an automatic handhold. Boxes (hexahedrons) provide a jump prompt for an error-free leap. Connectors link energy sources with door-opening energy receivers and lights up their connections when in feasible range. A subtle, stronger emphasis on how to solve, free from the annoyances of awkward item placement and frustrating first-person fumbles such as platforming. The Talos Principle deals less with timing and more on planning. Rare will you be in a situation where travel to the goal requires speed and clock management. Rather, an attentive eye. Though, in trials pushing you against a hidden clock, you won’t forget them.
Environments look lovely for what they are, dazzling projections of Castle-esque structures, greenery, and stone. Speaking of, Croteam still can’t etch out their obsession with Egyptian architecture. Pyramids, sand, temples, non-descript pharaohs, even in The Talos Principle, you can’t escape their love of Serious Sam. In fact, Croteam pulls an early prank in one particular moment to people familiar with their work. Hairs erected, eyes widen, you could not tell if you should laugh at the little Easter Egg or question your protagonist’s security.
A bit of a concerning reaction to have in what boils down to a simple puzzle game. Though The Talos Principle gives off this looming lull known to other first-person puzzle games (Gone Home, Portal). You’re never in danger you can’t see, though through years of conditioning we expect a scare, a threat, a horrific happening. The Talos Principle emits an eerie impression by its emptiness and overbearing curator of Elohim; An AI constantly talking to you, restricting you within his computerized Eden in scowling speech. Almost Portal-esque in the sense you’re an emotionless and speechless vessel directed by a disembodied voice with ambiguous intentions and venture toward forbidden areas leading to the real intrigue.
That said, The Talos Principle may bore. Don’t approach The Talos Principle for entertainment and chuckles. Subject matter within The Talos Principle deals with technology, mankind, and thought-provoking platitudes. Through the QR code messages, through audio logs, through the quizzical world you solve puzzles in. The universe you live in remains oddly low-tech and novel. DOS computers and painted QR code communications are inescapable. Both not pertinent, but hands a greater sense of the humanity left behind.
Audio logs build off that idea with one of the last humans of Alex and her many audio digressions on what makes us human. Often a vehicle of philosophy and logic, though one instance displayed the most of her humanity. Alex sobs over her deceased friend and attempts to rationalize their death with cold-hearted logic. So stuck in a place full of “for the greater good” motivation, Alex powers on toward her work. Not until you dropped a few hours in do you hit conflict and intrigue with the tower. At that point, you’re already sold on the mystery.
The Talos Principle pleases few. Croteam devised a game painful to play, heaves demoralizing puzzles, presents itself rather timidly, and yet you can’t get enough by the end. Your skills and knowledge builds, patience hardens, and empowers your drive tenfold. Preliminary trials prep, but lack the creative sting and mental stimulation later puzzles offers. That urge to push on and complete stands tall. For it, The Talos Principle should be recognized as a wonderful puzzler we should come to expect to engage us.
Robert Beach is a writer for Front Towards Gamer.