Game review: Toren for PS4

After seeing several gushing reviews for Toren and its artful poetic aspirations, I decided to give it a try on the PS4. It’s only 9.99, so even if it turned out awful, I’m not out much money. It only took a few hours to play through, and for the most part, the game wasn’t bad. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all that good, either.

From the start, I felt hampered by the camera, which at times refused to move with my character even if I’d been back and forth the same way a few times and knew what to expect. I missed an early pathway because when I attempted to duck under a certain arch, I fell through the floor and hit a glitching loop where my character would haul herself up only to fall again. Bear in mind, there was no ledge she was hanging from. She was falling though a solid floor. I restarted the checkpoint and wandered aimlessly for half an hour before sorting out that yes, the spot I’d fallen through was the right way to go, and I wandered out and found a shrine. This led me to restart once I realized I’d seen two other shrines at the beginning and had missed part of the game walking by them. (Even with the restart, I think my total playing time from start to finish was maybe four hours, tops. This will not take up a whole lot of your time.)

Let me set the glitches aside and talk about the game’s premise. Set in a dark fantasy world, the people of this world got hooked on a nameless mage’s idea to build a tower to the heavens in order to summon the moon. Why? Uh…I’m not really clear on that part. Maybe they all got drunk and it just sounded like a good idea at the time. Anywho, it’s sort of a Tower of Babel story, but instead of angering God, these people pissed off the sun. Now under an eternal daytime, the mage’s pet dragon goes nuts and kills everyone. Why? Um…maybe the dragon got a sunburn and the mage ran out of aloe.

The mage opts to send “Moonchild” to face the dragon, and she dies horribly and reincarnates in a pool of blood at the base of the tower. This puts the world in a loop, and the only way to change this fate is to ascend the tower and slay the dragon.

Right, so it’s not a bad story, if a bit…let’s say dreamlike. Dreams are a major part of the game as well, with each dream sequence unlocking another piece of the story. Moonchild starts the game as an infant, but there’s a few fast flashes to her growth into a girl of four or five. From there, she slowly develops into a young woman as she ascends the tower. So while the game may have only taken a few hours to whip through, for her, it’s a journey of many years.

The graphics are something that I’m of a mixed opinion on. Certain dream sequences and parts of the tower were lovely, and yet, others looked like they were still in a beta or alpha stage of development. One level in particular used a flat plane meant to give the illusion of reflecting the skybox on the floor, but the plane juts out a foot past the edge of the platform and looks really bad. On the other hand, there’s this one underwater dream sequence where I kept remarking “Ooh, that’s nice.” I only wish I could have moved the camera around to admire the view more. (More on that in a bit.)

I really don’t like Moonchild’s model at any age, though. Viewed at a distance, she’s…serviceable? But the thing is, in any cut-scene, she looks bad, with noticeable polygon pinching around her shoulders and mouth and with fat sausage fingers that make her hands look more like paws with really long toes. Her hair is a mess of random streaks that remind me of some of my first year attempts at 3D character modeling. There’s no risk of this kid stumbling into the uncanny valley, that’s for sure. Like I said, from a distance, none of these flaws really matter. The problem is, sometimes the camera insists on getting in real close and yeeeeesh, that’s one ugly kid.

I have to get back around to the camera controls, because they were awful. The right stick wiggles the camera around just slightly, so even if you want to look around, you can’t. There’s supposed to be a function to look at the current objective using the triangle button, but it doesn’t work at times. And like I said, at times, the camera just decides to lock in a certain angle, usually blocking your view in such a way that death is inevitable.

Then there’s the controls, which handle badly. A big part of the dream sequences is pouring salt over symbols on the ground, which can be really irritating trying to convince the character to walk in a straight, or worse, a diagonal line. Trying to cover a pentagram in salt was aggravating to say the least.

I’d be remiss to not mention the sliding statues sequence. There’s a set of three statues on sliding tracks that screams “puzzle.” The dragon is right there, breathing his black Medusa breath that can turn Moonchild to stone, and only the statues can block this. So I spent maybe half an hour sliding these damn things around, trying to see what they unlocked. Well guess what? THEY DON’T DO A GODDAMN THING. You run up, hack the dragon a few times, and it goes away. What the fuck is the point to designing something to look like a puzzle and give it absolutely no purpose for moving?

Oh speaking of which, there’s a part early in the game where Moonchild dies, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it. In fact, you later use your previous incarnation’s stone body as a stepping stool to access another level. This give me two random thoughts. The first is, it kind of sucks that I have to die in a cut-scene after I just did this stupid sequence just right to collect my sword. But eh, it’s typical indie logic. You win, but you lose.

But the other thought is, this concept would have been cooler if it wasn’t just that one body stuck like that. Like, why not have a little collection of former stone bodies wherever I died as a reminder of how much I suck? Or at the very least, reinforce the idea that this poor kid is stuck in a loop by littering the tower with her old selves. For that matter, once you die, why is it only the first reincarnation that causes a regression in growth? Shouldn’t every death start you back at the wee toddler stage?

Since I’m thinking about it, the whole concept of the tower itself is a little dodgy, because while there is a tower with a typical round design, the levels branch out into other areas that if my progress is to be believed are hung precariously off the side of this crumbling dilapidated tower. It’s bad level design, and there’s a lot of random obstacles like wind that cycles on an off at intervals until you reach a certain checkpoint. Then it just dies.

I have to say, the game had a much better idea for how to branch out from the round tower in the dream sequences. If they really wanted to up the challenge, they should have chucked in a dozen more of those and really put some brain teasers in among the platforming. But for as pretty as some sequences are, there’s nothing to them. Find the symbol, pour some salt on it, see a memory. Aside from the dragon in the waking world, there’s not that much going on in this game.

So now I need to talk about the dragon. You have to face this critter multiple times, even stabbing it through the head, only to have it fly off with your sword still stuck in his face. You wander along quite a long way before you can get the sword back, and once you pull it out, the dragon seems no worse for wear. No wound, no blood, nothing. Maybe I’m just being nitpicky, but would it have been so hard to maybe add a particle emitter and draw a gash on the skin texture to make me feel like I was doing something to my enemy?

The final fight with the dragon features a partner who is both slow and dependent upon you for survival, so instead of rushing up to the dragon, you have to hang back through several long delaying tactics waiting for Sir Dumbass to catch up. There’s also a floor puzzle, requiring running to push some blocks around, and then running back to protect this partner. Once this delaying tactic is played out, you don’t even do anything to kill the dragon. It’s played out in a cut-scene. Definitely antimclimatic.

The ending is pure indie. You save the day, and everyone is dead. The End. Welp, thank you for playing! And this is the thing that has me thinking WTF: if Sir Dumbass died ages and ages ago, how does he show up to help Moonchild in this final fight? If everyone is dead, why am I getting a trophy called Save Humanity? There’s no humanity left at this point. Moonchild goes away, leaving behind a mostly lifeless Earth. There’s maybe some birds left, possibly some fish that the dragon didn’t eat, but otherwise, nothing. Um, yay?

I know, I know. “It’s just a game, Zoe, don’t over think it.” But that’s what so many of these reviews were gushing about, like this was a really great deep thinking piece of gaming art. The problem is, it’s a school project that’s about as deep as a college student smoking pot can get. I won’t say there weren’t some sequences that I liked or thought were pretty, but for a puzzle game that’s supposed to foster deep thought, this completely fell flat for me.

Still it’s not a broken game…okay, most of the time it’s not broken. Sometimes it is broken, and it requires restarting a checkpoint to fix the glitch. But I can still finish the game with only a few random homicidal thoughts. So, I’ll give Toren three stars. I’m extremely tempted to give it 2 for the bugs and the wonky camera and controls, but I did like playing around with some of the dream sequences.

Anyway, your mileage may vary, but as an art project, I feel like this one was half-baked.