Swortales' Toren is beautiful, but struggles to live up to the promise of its art direction and story
Wearing its Ico appreciation on its sleeve, Toren weaves a short mystical story through some lightweight adventuring.With the progress of The Last Guardian leaving many believing that Team Ico’s latest project may be vaporware at this point, there’s definitely a hole that needs filling, and Brazilian indie developers Swordtales are hopefully serving up something that should suffice.
All the key elements are here: a lone figure ascending a looming structure, beautiful art direction and a story that utilises its own folklore and language to great effect, creating that wonderful ethereal feel; at once both isolating the player, and drawing them further in.
Controlling a young girl, you face what appears on paper to be a fairly straightforward task. You'd be forgiven for thinking the set up was fairly uninspiring - get to the top of a looming tower and slay the dragon that's (as you'd expect) the source of the world's ills.
Yet, Swordtales have taken inspiration from Brazilian mythology and woven in a tapestry of characters and symbolism all their own.
The writing is cryptic and terse, and relies on the dream-like quality that keeps you enshrined in this otherworldly place, full of allegories, battles between celestial bodies and tragic figures; mankind’s arrogance to build a tower (Toren) to reach the sky, the sun’s anger and the dragon that must be defeated in order for the moon to reappear. Only a girl with the heart of mankind - the Moonchild - is fated to perform such a task.
It sounds flowery, but it’s brought to life extremely well and bears the hallmarks of being a real labour of love from a team with a vision of the story they want to tell.
Looks aren't everything
The art direction does a wonderful job of backing this up by using pastel shades and some nice subtle effects to heighten the sense of being in your own fairytale. It’s only a pity that the game’s technical prowess fails to live up to that standard, as even the most well directed cut-scene can be kneecapped by low res textures, and entering into a magical moment of tentative world exploration will always be undermined by screen tear that rips you from any momentary enrapture.
Screen tear that rips you from any momentary enrapture
Yes, it’s only a budget indie game, but it’s hard to ignore screen tear problems and juddering frame rate when they mar what should be a beautiful scene. A little more time ironing out those flaws would have been hugely beneficial. I usually praise games that utilise full analogue control, where the onus is on the player to move at their own speed, dictated by how far they push the analogue stick, but in Toren this makes it all too easy to run everywhere, and that’s when the game can start to chug along, struggling to cope with fast motion and the game's tethered camera.
If anything it seems like a game designed to be played at a slow pace. It’s short and beautiful, so burning through won’t help you appreciate anything here; the cryptic cut-scenes are reason enough to take your time, as it’s all too easy to assume it’s babble with little meaning as opposed to the carefully well laid out lore that it is. The cycle of reincarnation and recurring figures all point to the care and attention that’s been laced throughout the story elements, bringing them together in a game about struggle and rebirth.
Story vs. gameplay
The gameplay tries in small ways to mirror the narrative’s messages in a few novel ways. Should you fail to get past the dragon’s petrifying breath then you’ll be turned to stone mid-run, frozen in time as a statue; then, upon reincarnation, you’ll be able to quickly get back to the same spot, and what will be before you is your statue from your previous attempt. It’s little touches like this that tie the themes to the gameplay.
The general sense of peril is dialled down to almost zero
It’s only a pity that the general sense of peril is dialled down to almost zero, which undermines the idea of trial and error mirroring the cyclical theme. The smaller types of enemies have nowhere near the quiet and disconcerting menace of the shadow creatures from Ico.
There are only two variants actually - one goes back and forth on set lines, and is thus easy to avoid, and the others are mini facehugger-style vermin that’ll launch themselves at you should you stray too close. The latter had the potential to add a trickiness to proceedings, potentially throwing you off course as you navigate climbing platforms, but a half hearted Beardsley-esque shimmy - the type anyone with memories of the original Resident Evil should be well versed in - bamboozles them.
Designed to be completable
It’s an easy game, and it’s hard to get away from the feeling that it’s such because the creators wanted the story to be experienced more than the gameplay to be fulfilling. Puzzles don’t really warrant the use of the term, and battles are straightforward affairs of avoiding being hit by taking cover in well signposted areas, and then striking an enemy three times.
The only real moments of invention are kept within the areas of meditation, which you’ll get the option of entering when you find the markers. In the short three hours it should take you to complete your first run through, these moments are well placed to keep you interested in the gameplay element of Toren.
It’s hard to argue with such a unique vision
Being story-driven isn’t a bad thing, and at the price it’s hard to argue with such a unique vision. A second play through may be necessary, and I dare say players enthralled by the lore will find the stumbling graphics display easier to palate second time round, but Toren probably still falls somewhere between two stools: it isn’t totally ethereal enough to be considered ambient gaming, and it doesn’t offer enough actual gameplay to be the beautiful fairy tale that matches the Ico mould, which itself relies upon a sense of accomplishment.
It is, however, at its best bewitching, and for all its trips along the way it is an easy play through that should be appreciated by those who like their stories to showcase the passion behind them.
- Art direction
- Has a unique feel
Stuck in limbo
- Graphics issues
- Excessively easy
Toren PS4 ReviewToren is beautiful in inception and somewhat marred in execution, showcasing some stunning art direction and visual flourishes, but undermined by poor graphics performance. The inevitable comparisons to the classic Ico may help as much as hinder it, with raised expectations, no matter the disparity in price and origin.
Being clearly narrative driven it won’t offer a challenge, instead placing the unique blend of inspired mythology and folklore at its heart, and simply tasking players with appreciating what unfolds.
Even at a budget price it’s hard to wholly recommend something that is so short, and with its key selling point - that sense of wonder - continually wrenched from you due to technical issues; yet, as a slice of beguiling storytelling with the bravery to lay things out in a cryptic manner, it’s definitely got an audience to whom it’ll be appreciated. If you’ve read the whole of this review, that’s probably you.
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