Even with my 1 per week review schedule there are still some games that manage to slip by. My little notepad with games I’ve flagged to review lists no less than 30 titles which I didn’t manage to get to in their year of release, some of them which received wide critical praise. Every so often though I get a chance to go back through that list and pick one lucky title to play through. On a whim I installed The Talos Principle before a recent trip down to the coast, figuring I might have a couple hours spare to see what everyone was talking about. Now, 18 hours of solid game time later, I’m incredibly glad I did as The Talos Principle really isn’t the kind of game you’d expect from the same development team behind the mindless shooter Serious Sam.
You awake to find yourself in what looks like a courtyard of a ruined castle. A disembodied voice booms, announcing itself as ELOHIM: your creator, protector and guide through this world. Should you do your tasks diligently, he says, you will be granted eternal life alongside him. The trials he has set out before you are curious ones and the various terminals dotted around the landscape contain data that seem to speak of a world beyond this one. ELOHIM only has one restriction which he has placed upon you: the grey tower that extends into the sky must not be climbed. Will you be his diligent servant and attain eternal life? Or will you defy your god and seek out what truth lies atop the tower?
The Talos Principle certainly has a nice aesthetic to it, even if the environments are somewhat barren of detail upon closer inspection. The various worlds you’ll be solving puzzles in are certainly something of a contrast to the mechanics that reside in them. The worlds often being somewhat decayed, like they’d been there for centuries, whilst the puzzle mechanics are things straight up sci-fi. You’ll probably be spending the better part of 3~4 hours in each section (more if you’re going for stars) and so they do start to feel a touch monotonous after a little while. However you don’t need to 100% complete a section to get to the next one so you can always mix it up a bit if you’re seeking more variety.
From a raw mechanics perspective The Talos Principle is a puzzler, requiring you to collect various “sigils” which are trapped behind gates or located somewhere inaccessible until the puzzle is solved. In the beginning you only have one tool at your disposal however each section comes with additional mechanics to ramp up the challenge. The Talos Principle is also not hard and fast when it comes to solutions either, allowing you to make use of some emergent game play in order to solve a puzzle in unintended ways. Many of the mechanics that you’ll learn early on, like the fact that 2 jammers can be taken pretty much anywhere, will come into play again and again. How you learn these tricks though can be an exercise in frustration as they seem incredibly obvious once you’ve figured them out.
However the “game” part of the Talos Principle is really just a medium for the much larger part of the game: it’s story. Whilst I won’t dive into details yet (I’ll save that for the spoiler section below) suffice to say that the game’s expertly crafted story, which is woven into nearly all aspects of the game, is what will keep driving you forward. Indeed if The Talos Principle was just the mechanics described above it’d be another puzzler in the vast sea of that genre however it’s the story which elevates it far beyond that. There are few games in which I’ve worked so hard in order to unlock all the endings and apart from one of them I’m very glad I did.
The puzzles are mostly rewarding exercises in figuring out how to exploit all the mechanics you have at your disposal in order to open the requisite gates. The beginning puzzles for each new mechanic start off easy so you can get a feel for them without a mountain of frustration. However they quickly ramp up to the point where you have to constantly question your approach to solving them. So many times I would be attempting to solve the puzzle in the way I thought it should be solved before realising that was what was stopping me from solving it. The Talos Principle is also probably one of the most devious and deceptive games I’ve ever played in that respect, playing upon the player’s assumptions in order to make the puzzles far more challenging than they really are.
That’s probably one of the most genius aspects of The Talos Principle as just as you think you’ve got them figured out they’ll throw another curve ball at you. When you figure out some puzzles actually involve other puzzles it feels revelatory, until you realise that knowing that can send you down so many wrong paths it’s not funny. Indeed you can never quite know when knowledge granted to you is going to be a blessing or a curse. Considering the game’s underlying philosophical theme, which forces you to question the very reality you find yourself in, that seems quite fitting. Even if I sometimes cursed them for leading me astray.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW
I liked that, early on, you’re given a pretty good sense of what the world is and what led to its creation. Of course the nuances of the world are much harder to figure out like who ELOHIM is, who that mystery voice is in the terminals and just why exactly you’ve come to be in this world. Discovering all those facts, intertwined with various bits of philosophy and legend, give you clues towards what the ultimate truth is. For me the puzzles were simply a means to the end, hoping to find the next tidbit of information that could lead me to a better understanding of the world I now found myself in. The philosophy parts felt like a bit of a cheap shot sometimes, the voice in the terminals needling you on any inconsistency (although doing the same to it was incredibly satisfying), but it does make for some good thought provoking discussion. Still since this is a video game there is obviously one “correct” answer when, in reality, that very concept is something that should be up for debate too.
Of the three different endings my favourite was by far the transcendence one as that feels like the fulfilment of your original purpose which now leaves you to define your own. The first and easiest ending definitely felt unsatisfactory, at least from the point of view of an outside observer. I have to admit I judged the gray sigil ending incorrectly, figuring it would have you taking over as ELOHIM, but knowing what I know now becoming one of his messengers seems like the a fate that no one should choose. Perhaps this is something that’s explored in a bit more depth in the story DLC, something which I unfortunately haven’t had the time to play. Still overall The Talos Principle does an exceptional job in telling its story, even if 2 of the endings felt a little lacklustre.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
The Talos Principle is an absolute gem of a game, expertly weaving a deep and enthralling story into a mechanically complex and rewarding puzzler. The core game is a great example of a physics based puzzler, taking inspiration from many similar titles but creating its own unique experience. Behind this though is a story which has you questioning nearly all aspects of existence, from what it means to be a person through to whether or not you can really empirically prove anything. For a game which I had only thought would get a few hours of my time The Talos Principle did an amazing job of sucking me in and ensuring I could not leave until I had completed its every challenge. For that I commend it and sincerly regret not getting to it sooner.
The Talos Principle is available on PC right now for $9.99 ($49.99 usually). Total play time was 18 hours with 68% of the achievements unlocked.