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The world is full of stories. Sometimes those tales coalesce, forming something wholly new and full of wonder. That’s the case with Toren, the first game from Brazilian indie developer Swordtales, which combines many familiar bits of folklore into a new legend built on a foundation of growth and transformation. It’s a bold and frequently beautiful adventure, despite being bogged down by unfortunate technical issues and underwhelming challenges.
The trick to talking about Toren is figuring out how much can be said without risking saying too much. The patchwork story it tells and the methods by which said story unfolds are part of the game’s charm, likely best experienced than explained. And while the game is weighted down by floaty mechanics, bothersome glitches and an extremely short runtime, I still feel that it is an experience worth having.
As a first effort, Toren is a pretty impressive feat for the team at Swordtales. The game has an extremely unique look and, when odd clipping or an uncooperative camera isn’t getting in the way, it’s frequently a beauty to look at.
You begin the game as a young girl named Moonchild. You find yourself locked in the bottom of a tower, called Toren, with the goal of climbing to the top of the tower to earn your freedom. Bits of gameplay are interspersed with short monologues that explain who you are, how you got there, where you’re going and what your true destiny is. It’s the kind of story-telling that might drive some crazy while simultaneously delighting those who don’t mind cobbling the pieces together for themselves. Your only companions, if you can call them that, are memories of a wizened mage, glimpses of a mysterious soldier, and a pesky dragon that’s set on making your ascension a bit more challenging.
You’ll have to find creative ways to progress further up the tower, relying on a simple set of mechanics that help solve each puzzle. While the puzzles themselves aren’t all that puzzling, there’s good game design at play here, using visual cues to guide the player and building on your skills one step at a time. One ability will get you past an obstacle or puzzle, for instance, and then you’ll learn a new ability. The next obstacle will require a combination of those two abilities before giving you a third. So forth and so on.
If you make a mad dash to the top of Toren, you can probably finish the game in less than two hours. That is, of course, the wrong way to approach Toren, so you’ll want to do some exploring. Along the way you’ll discover some helpful equipment and upgrades, as well as dream sequences that reveal more of the narrative. There are only a handful of enemies in the game and your combat options are limited to the swing of a sword, but it’s enough to get the job done.
Similar to games like Journey and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I’d recommend that you tackle Toren in a single sitting. Pick out a three hour block where you can simply devote yourself to unraveling the tower’s mysteries and get ready for a rare experience that serves as a nice counterbalance to gaming’s typical fare. I should also probably mention Toren’s lovely soundtrack, comprised of haunting orchestral numbers and the occasional soaring voice that suits the adventure nicely.
Unfortunately, Toren is also pretty rough around the edges. That misbehaving camera I alluded to earlier frequently resulted in Moonchild strolling in the wrong direction as the point of view swung around to give a better view of the admittedly lovely settings. Her jumping is also quite loose, meaning that many of your leaps will drift off course or pop into an unrealistic animation of Moonchild sort of hovering to a safe landing. Some of the game’s objectives are on the obtuse side, too.
There are also these scenes where you need to trace specific shapes by pouring sand onto the ground. It’s a nifty ritual that suits the world nicely, but the game’s floaty controls make such precise work into a challenge. There’s actually a gauge that fills up as you fill in portions of the lines and, as long as you keep pouring sand and hit the line every now and then, it’ll eventually top off and allow you to proceed as if to say, “well, that’s close enough.”
My biggest gripe with Toren, though, are the handful of game-ending bugs I ran into along the way. I had to reload the most recent checkpoint at least four times in my two-and-a-half hour run through the game, which is a pretty terrible average. These moments typically happened following a cutscene, just as Moonchild began to move. She’d freeze and, boom, time to reload. A couple instances actually resulted in the young lady disappearing from the screen entirely. I could hear her footsteps but, otherwise, she was gone.
Despite the negatives, I enjoyed my time with Toren. It tells a unique story in a fashion that requires a little work on the part of the player, rather than spoonfeeding them every detail. It’s colorful, serene and, while there’s violence, I wouldn’t call it a particularly violent game. Compared to the other games I’ve been playing lately, this quiet, mysterious journey was a breath of fresh air.
More than anything, Toren shows great promise for the team at Swordtales. With a bit more time and lessons learned from this first game, I’d love to see what this new studio comes up with next.
This review based on a download copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Platforms: PS4(reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Versus Evil