System(s): PC (Also on PS4)
Release Date: May 11, 2015
Publisher (Developer): Versus Evil (Swordtales)
ESRB Rating: Teen for Violence and Blood
There are many games I’ve reviewed that have been rather easy to cover. They fit well enough into established genres that I can compare and contrast to a variety of different titles. Then there are those that don’t fit quite as well into an established genre. They may have some similarities, but they don’t have the same focus, themes, or feel to them. Since they’re not trying to do the same thing as other games, it becomes difficult to really classify them. After all, if the focus isn’t the platforming, even though it contains platforming, is it fair to complain if the platforming is easy?
Toren, as you have probably already surmised, is one of those games that’s hard to define.
Toren starts out with a cutscene of an old guy with a shield getting ripped into by a dragon. Then it allows you to take control of some woman with a sword. It prompts you to walk across the platform towards the dragon, and this is where you learn the very basic controls. As you approach, it occasionally unleashes some kind of breath weapon, which appears to be blocked by your sword. Upon reaching the monster, you attack, your sword breaks, and then the dragon turns you to stone, but not before you drop a scroll of some kind. The scroll lands at the bottom of a tower and becomes a baby.
No, it doesn’t really make sense and yes, it does seem a little pretentious. But, unlike In Verbis Vertus, it didn’t feel pretentious to me. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but for the most part, the game gave me the feeling that it really did have an answer for things, and that the answer would be forthcoming in a way that allowed me to experience the story and the setting, as opposed to a way that forced me to search for obtuse clues in an attempt to hopefully progress through the game. And indeed, it took very little time before Toren began to lay out the game’s premise.
It may seem like a cop out, but I honestly feel as though I can’t really tell you the details of the story of Toren. This is not because it’s complicated. In many ways, it’s fairly simple. The reason I can’t tell you is because, much like any other tribal myth, the story is something you must begin to understand for yourself and come to your own opinions on what it means. However, I can give you a general summary. The story is about the Moon, who grows in understanding of humanity, and how there came to be the Moon, in order to balance out the Sun and thus bring balance to humanity. In order to do this, she must climb the tower, grow from a child to an adult as she does so, and defeat a dragon.
Toren does an incredibly good job of giving you information in such a way that you truly feel the story unfold. There’s no point in the game where you have to search endlessly for the tiniest clue, hoping against hope that the clue will finally let you move on to the next bit of the game. Instead, the game moves you along at a slow, but steady pace. It gives you each piece of the story in such a way as to allow you to digest it before giving you the next piece. And, when it does give you the stories in clues instead of plain language, these are still obvious enough that you’re not feeling as if the game is laughing at you for not getting it. Besides which, at no point do you need to somehow interpret the story in a specific way in order to figure out how to progress.
The gameplay of Toren most closely aligns with a puzzle game. However, the puzzles are fairly simple and straight forward, because the game isn’t really about testing your skill or cleverness. There are essentially two kinds and neither one requires much in the way of cleverness. One involves filling a pattern on the ground with salt, and all it requires is walking the pattern while holding down a button. The other is “figure out what to stand next to while pushing the activate button.” That’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight. There are some marginally more complex puzzles later in the game, involving torches and figuring out how to get from one torch to another without your flame going out, and one area has you trying to fill a shape with salt when the area is nearly pitch black.
However, the puzzles aren’t the thing in Toren. Or rather, the complexity of the puzzles aren’t the thing. Instead, these are are designed to feed the feeling of myth and story. When you’re pushing on things, or pulling on them, or lighting torches, it’s not because the game is challenging you to figure out how to progress. It’s because the game is telling you about how the Moon discovered some aspect of humanity, or some aspect of herself, as she progressed up the tower to defeat the evil dragon and bring balance to the world.
Toren does have combat, but calling it combat is almost inappropriate. You get a sword at around the mid-point of the game, but you’ll almost never need to use it. Instead, you get the sword because it’s another aspect of the Moon’s journey. When you do use it, it’s rarely direct combat. One of my favorite examples of this is the first time you have to battle the dragon, right after getting the sword. The sword protects you from the dragon’s breath attack, which will turn you to stone, but will fly from your hands after hitting the dragon three times, forcing you to go grab it while hiding behind statues to avoid getting hit with the breath attack. As I played through this part, I could practically hear the voice of an old, wizened story teller. “The Moon, valiant as she was, attacked the dragon. But as valiant as her heart may have been, she was young, and had not yet gained the strength or skill to maintain her grip. The sword flew from her hand, forcing her to keep heart and rely on her cleverness.” Even Toren‘s final battle is more about the myth than the challenge.
Adding to that is the art style and the music, both of which are absolutely gorgeous. The art style is much like a painting, which only adds to the traditional folklore feel. The music added just the right amount of feeling and emotion to each and every scene. Plain and simple, Toren is a masterpiece of story telling.
Actually scoring a game like Toren is incredibly difficult. If I were to grade it poorly, explaining that the gameplay was simplistic, the overall game was short, and the controls are a touch awkward, I wouldn’t be wrong. All of those things are true. The keyboard controls are functionally unusable, and even with a controller Moonchild never quite moves the way you expect her to move when you move the joystick.
At the same time, I would also be incredibly wrong for grading Toren based on those things, because those things aren’t the point. It’s not a game that’s trying to challenge your leet skillz. It’s not trying to be a multi-hour epic. And while there is platforming of a sort, there’s nothing in the game that requires the split second, hair trigger motion that would demand smooth, fluid controls.
At the end of the day, I choose to grade Toren based on what it’s trying to be, an art piece. It’s the sort of game you hold up when attempting to argue that video games are high art. It’s a game that imparts certain feelings, certain emotions, and forces you to consider things in ways you may not have considered them before. And at $9.99, it’s a game that should be in your library right now.
A review copy was provided for this review.