Creating a game is an exercise in compromise. On the one hand you have your vision for what you want the game to be, whether it be a sweeping epic or a simple puzzle game, on the other you have the amount of resources at your disposal. These are often at odds with each other and the resultant product will likely not be the full embodiment of the original vision. This is fine, however, as the white whale of perfection has killed so many titles, many before they saw the light of day. Toren, the first game from the nascent Swortales, is a game that has remnants of a greater vision scattered through it which the spectre of compromise laid off to one side.
You are the moonchild, born of the night and destined to climb the Toren in search of your purpose. The sun never sets in this world, basking it in an endless sunshine. This is the will of the dragon who, for reasons unknown to you, refuses to allow the sun to set. As you climb the Toren your guide, a mysterious figure who appears to be long dead, reveals to you the secrets of this world and why you are doomed to repeat this cycle again and again until your true purpose is discovered. It is then up to you to discover the real history of this world and your part to play in its future.
Toren isn’t exactly cutting edge when it comes to graphics with the vast majority of the assets feeling like they’re a generation behind current trends. Part of this is due to the Unity engine, which has a definite stylization characteristic to it if you don’t wrangle the engine appropriately, but other things like the stiff (most likely hand cranked) animations lead more towards this coming from the studio’s inexperience. On a tablet or other portable device such graphics aren’t out of the ordinary however Toren is currently only available on PC and PlayStation 4, platforms both capable of much more than what Toren offers. On the flip side the soundtrack that backs Toren is absolutely amazing which makes me think that they paid far more attention to that than anything else. Such is the battle of compromise.
In broad strokes Toren would be called a 3D puzzle platformer as it has characteristics of both, although there are some hints of greater aspirations for this game hidden throughout half finished mechanics. To start off with you’ll be exploring and stumbling across different puzzle elements which is mostly just setting the scene for the later reveals. Later on the platforming element is introduced which starts off simply and does introduce some rather interesting elements. Finally there’s some semblance of a combat system although it’s extremely simplistic, basically only serving as another aspect to the other puzzle mechanics. All in all it’s got the makings of a much larger game that hit with the cold hard reality of deadlines and deliverables but still manages to cobble together a fairly decent game experience out of it.
The puzzles are incredibly simple, mostly just requiring you to find something and put it somewhere else. The platforming is very similar as your objective is, most of the time, clearly visible with an easy path to reach it. Toren makes the mistake of having a fixed camera for everything which means the platforming sections are an exercise in frustration most of the time as you try to figure out how your controls should be reacting given the current camera angle. This also flows onto some of the puzzles which require you to cover an emblem on the ground in salt, something that’s rather difficult to pull off when your character doesn’t react in the way you’d expect them to. Suffice to say I think it’s a passable experience although there’s definitely a lot of room for improvement in terms of mechanics and their execution.
The experience is heavily marred by its numerous technical issues, not least of which stem from the horrendous control scheme. I did the right thing at the start and plugged my controller in, as I was told to however that, for some reason, resulted in the camera always pointing upwards so I couldn’t actually see my character. Switching to keyboard and mouse made that issue go away but the default keyboard layout is nonsensical and it’s obvious that the controller was programmed first and the keyboard controls shoe horned in afterwards. Couple this with the extremely basic hit detection (which powers nearly every interaction in the game) and Toren feels like it’s lacking a certain amount of polish required to take the experience to the next level.
Whilst I’m speculating heavily here I’m quite sure that the majority of these issues stem from Toren having much greater aspirations than its final incarnation has. For example there’s a kind of inventory system in there and you’ll pick up a few items along the way. However it’s not like you have to go out of your way to find these items and they’re given to you know what to do with them. The “chainmail” for example protects you from small monsters but you get it before you even see your first monster, let alone know they can do damage to you. It feels like Toren was meant to be more of a RPG than an exploration game however it was never able to reach this goal due to the constraints they faced in implementing it. This is somewhat reflected in Toren’s short length as well, although that’s not a negative in my book.
The story is, to be blunt, frustratingly vague at the beginning although it does manage to redeem itself over the course of its 2 hour play time. It might not be original, nor very emotionally engaging, however it does manage to set everything up well enough that the final pay off is somewhat satisfying. Developing the story further however would likely require a much longer playtime, which would require even more work to accomplish, so given the bounds Toren works within it does manage to achieve an impressive amount. If you’re a story first gamer though you might not get that much out of Toren as you would say a more story focused title.
Toren is a game that’s scarred by its ambition, attempting to reach for much greater heights than it finally ended up achieving. Whilst the final product is most certainly playable, and for small sections quite enjoyable, its below par graphics, simplistic mechanics and frankly horrendous control scheme mar the better aspects of it significantly. The soundtrack is by far the stand out component of Toren although I can’t help but feel that the game would be that much stronger if some of the effort dedicated to crafting that was directed at the game play and story development. For a studio that’s never released a game before it’s a good first attempt however I hope they take the lessons learned from Toren and apply them to their future titles as there’s every opportunity for them to make a great experience if they do.
Toren is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $9.99 and $14.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 75% of the achievements unlocked.
The engineer in me loves looking for efficiencies. So when after the first 1.0 version of Lobaco was good enough for me to call it “done” (in the sense that the feature set for it was frozen) I started thinking about the best way in which to tackle the mobile platform which I believe will be the key in achieving the goals I set out for it. I had pretty much resigned myself to go for the iPhone first as it seems to be the best place to target for early adopter types and figured the Android version could come once Lobaco gained some traction. Still the lure of being able to develop the application once and deploy it across multiple handsets in one go made the engineer in me jump up and down with delight, leaving me little choice but to explore my options.
Long time readers will know that my most recent attempt at cross platform development came the way of Sencha and 2 weeks misplaced effort in trying to get it to work. The library itself is quite comprehensive and does a good job of emulating many of the native functions that you’d expect to see on a native iPhone application. However the problem is that performance wise it’s a total dog and would require me to undergo yet another few weeks in building a fundamental base in order to achieve the same level of productivity that I had just gained with the iPhone. Whilst I’ll still have to undergo a similar amount of effort in order to learn how to program for Android I know that the eventual application that comes out of the end of that process will be much better and worth the time invested in it.
However this wasn’t my first foray into the world of cross platform development. Way back in the beginning, long before I actually got a Macbook and Xcode, I started doing preliminary research into cross platform libraries. After getting thoroughly confused with a few code examples in Objective-C a friend suggested that I have a look at the MonoTouch framework which would allow me to leverage my existing C# skills on the iPhone. The problem there wasn’t so much the language as the paradigm I was operating under and whilst using C# might’ve helped to ease me into it without a fundamental understanding of how things work on the iPhone I would’ve gone through just as much trouble in order to use that framework, without the benefits of coding natively. Not to mention being out $100 for the pleasure and still having to buy a Mac device in order to be able to use it.
The problem I find with many cross platform technologies is that they have the unfortunate problem of making compromises when it comes to conflicts between platforms. Sencha, for all its goodness, has decided to look like an iPhone application. This is great, on the iPhone, but for any other device it’s going to be a drastic shift away from the experience the user is expecting. Even cross platform libraries that generate native code will still suffer from destructive compromises because of the different ways in which the major smartphone OSs go about their tasks. Thus you either constrain yourself with limited functionality or you have to cater for those special usage type scenarios, negating the power of the framework you’re using. Cross platform libraries are fantastic in some use cases, but their applicability is really quite limited.
If you’re looking to target multiple platforms I still believe it’s best to go for the native option, even if the development investment will be much higher. Realistically choosing a single platform to begin with isn’t a bad idea with both Android and iPhone (although Android is probably your best bet) being quite viable to test if the market will respond well to an idea. If your idea has legs then you can take the time to invest in some of the other platforms, delivering a much better end user experience. Cross platform technologies might work for some ideas but unless you’re doing nothing above the rudimentary you’re much better served by going native.