The Talos Principle review: human interest

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, Mac, Linux
Publisher Devolver Digital
Developer Croteam
Release Date Dec 11, 2014

The Talos Principle takes one part Portal, one part Myst, and one part Asimov and weaves them together.

I might have some of you right there, I know.

In many ways, The Talos Principle covers ground that other games have touched before, mixing first-person puzzle platforming within developer Croteam's Serious Sam engine with a script from Tom Jubert, the mind behind The Swapper and FTL, and co-writer Jonas Kyratzes. That combination might seem strange — Croteam has never done subtle, after all, and minimalism practically defines Jubert's previous work while Kyratzes has authored a series of smaller indie titles as well.

But Croteam has built a challenging, beautiful game that serves as a wonderful vehicle for some very serious questions about humanity, the technology we create, our responsibilities to it and its responsibilities to us. And The Talos Principle doesn't feel like a philosophy class lecture in the process.

(Eds' note: This review originally listed Tom Jubert as The Talos Principle's main writer, neglecting to include Jonas Kyratzes or mention his contribution. We regret the error.)

The Talos Principle demands skill development

talos review screen 2

The Talos Principle begins as you literally spring from nothing into existence in a world of beautiful, crumbling classical architecture. A being calling itself Elohim, claiming benevolent omnipotence, instructs you to move through the land He has provided you, to visit new levels and collect the glyphs contained within.

It's not simple, but The Talos Principle is easy to grasp from a mechanical perspective. Each glyph is hidden within a puzzle-maze, full of gates barred by energy barriers, and each successive hub world of new puzzles features its own motif. In first or third person, you'll need to pick up and place tools that become increasingly complicated and elaborate in their application in order to unlock doors in increasingly complicated and elaborate ways.

While playing the Talos Principle, I always had a sense that I was winging it, that I was just a few inches shy of cheating, though I doubt very much this was the case. But the way that The Talos Principle's puzzles are built, there's just enough leeway in their solutions to suggest an organic creativity. It smartly introduces new equipment in a sort of vacuum, then mixes together these different tools in progressively more sophisticated ways. It demands skill development, rather than brute-forcing possible solutions.

It bears mentioning: The Talos Principle is long. I expected something along the lines of a 3-4 hour puzzler, in keeping with the clear influences of game design that inspired it. I came out of the other end after something closer to 30. Obviously, this will vary depending on how quickly you solve each puzzle, but there are so many of them that at times The Talos Principle seems almost insurmountable. I wanted desperately to reach the game's ending, to see what happened and unravel its mystery, and at times that denouement felt unnecessarily delayed by another small variation in a puzzle I'd already had to figure out.

Ironically, it was only the number of puzzles that really felt like a chore. Even on a couple of the more difficult-to-solve rooms, where I spent upwards of half an hour or more banging my metaphorical head against the wall, I wasn't bothered by the struggle.

But The Talos Principle's success comes from its execution and its premise as much as the quality of its puzzles, which generally provided enough challenge to make me feel smart for solving them (but sometimes felt too dependent on over-specific positioning of tools). I won't spoil what The Talos Principle's premise or story are, because at first, it doesn't tell you. It would be easy to make comparisons to Valve's Portal games, as The Talos Principle eschews traditional narrative for a God voice, computer terminals and audio journals. But there are major tonal differences that set The Talos Principle apart.

talos review screen 2

Where Portal has always been a comedy at heart, The Talos Principal is more austere, even somber at times. There's a mystery and a secret at the heart of the game, an interesting philosophical debate in its story and even its game design on the rules of a system and what it means to be human. While I saw some of it coming, it didn't lessen the payoff.

This all sounds really, really pretentious, and you'd be forgiven for concerns of some kind of would-be pseudo-intellectualism driving the game. But there's a self-awareness throughout The Talos Principle that undercuts any potential self-seriousness. This allows for an exploration of some intense concepts without feeling like an overeager philosophy undergrad. I was always interested in what it had to talk about, especially as the very real sense of grief and tragedy running beneath became more visible.

Wrap Up:

The Talos Principle succeeded far beyond my expectations

The Talos Principle joins an unlikely pair of creative forces in a way that succeeds far beyond my expectations. It's a smart game that doesn't punish you for it, a puzzle game that allows a sense of creativity. And while it isn't the most upbeat thing out there, there's a vein of hope that runs through it — and ties it all together neatly at the end.

The Talos Principle was reviewed using a pre-release steam code provided by Devolver Digital. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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