Toby: The Secret Mine
Microsoft Xbox OneAlso available on PC and Sony PlayStation 4
Toby lives in a quiet village when, all of a sudden, his friends are being kidnapped by bigger versions of himself albeit with red eyes. He decides to follow them in the hope of freeing his friends from their captors. So beginneth your journey in Toby: The Secret Mine which takes place over twenty-one levels all with different hazards, obstacles and puzzles for you to solve. Along the way you’ll find imprisoned members of your village who you can free and you’ll quite likely die frequently and often.
Taking clear inspiration from indie darling LIMBO, Toby: The Secret Mine (T:TSM) uses the same silhouette art style with deadly hazards creatively masked, often going unnoticed until it’s too late. It’s unfortunate that it doesn’t use a similar approach to warn the player of any impending hazard. Those of you who have played LIMBO will have tuned their ears to listen for subtle audio cues which if caught in time could save you from another death. In T:TSM you just, well, die, and often too. If you’re curious, there’s a handy counter on the main menu keeping tabs on just how many times poor Toby’s snuffed it. It’s then a case of memorising where each of the hazards are and plotting your way through the level. It’s a rather blunt approach and we found the puzzles, like the game itself, rather straightforward and hardly of a taxing nature. Perhaps the most telling thing here is that we were able to play through the game in just over a couple of hours and get all but five of the missing twenty-six villagers.
So it’s not exactly weighty in the length department and for art-focused Indie games that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it’s clearly borrowed its art direction from LIMBO, it has used it well. Each of the different environments are distinct and beautifully realised. From the eerie woods to the laser-infested factory settings in later levels, the bold and bright colours of the background offset the monochrome foreground wonderfully. The animation is tight and controls are very responsive, which in a platformer with some timing-based levels is crucial. They are also simplistic as you have one button for jump, one for object interactions and the left stick for movement - and that’s your lot. When everything’s going well T:TSM is a very fluid experience with a beautiful musical score composed by Matt Steed. Played with a set of headphones it can really catch you and envelope you into its world.
That is, however, until you come across one of the many bugs we encountered. It seems Toby has an issue with the edges of platforms which, if caught at the right point, cause him to become stuck and forces the player to restart the level. He also seems to get stuck when jumping too close to the edges of platforms above him, again getting stuck - however, in this case he can be freed with a bit of button-mashing. More annoyingly, however, was the bug we encountered during one level where a mistimed jump saw us get killed and, upon respawn, completely unable to move. After restarting the level and dying at the same point, the same bug occurred again and again until we finally cleared the area in question and the level. We also had respawns put us below the map, instantly killing us, or in one situation allowing us to roam the entire level from the bottom of the map but with no way to actually complete it. While some leeway should be given due to the fact it was essentially developed by one man, Lukas Navratil, some of these bugs were disappointing.
It’s a shame as without them T:TSM is a rather enjoyable game, not overly taxing but complicated enough to be a challenging playthrough. Some elements require a certain dexterity which probably explains why we easily died well over a hundred times. With its wonderful score it could have been a very good game, not quite surpassing LIMBO but a good enough homage to stand on its own two feet. As it is, it’s like a distant cousin which while it’s trying its best, doesn’t quite seem to get it. It’s missing those little things that made LIMBO such an intriguing, difficult, yet thoroughly worthwhile game to play. Instead with T:TSM you just plod on using poor Toby’s deaths to ascertain how to get past various obstacles. While a valid method of play. this reviewer isn’t a big fan of the die-and-repeat approach to level completion. It detracts from the level design even going so far as to, sometimes, suggest a lack of imagination. Almost every lever has to be pulled and each and every box must be pushed. If you can’t do something there was always a hidden part of the level yet to be found. As long as you keep this in mind, pretty much every puzzle seemed rather simplistic.
At no point during our playthrough were we stumped to the point where we had to put the pad down and return later. This is both a good and a bad thing: good in the sense that it’s unlikely to annoy and alienate the player, but bad because it can make playing the game rather like drudgery. Personally I always think that if you’re going to include puzzles it’s best to hit somewhere in between. They should be tough enough to make its completion feel like an event, but not so hard as to run the risk of the player putting the game down never to return.
All in all, Toby: The Secret Mine is a decent game which is held back by unfortunate bugs and a seemingly simplistic approach to its level design. This does make it a difficult game to recommend as whilst it’s not bad in its own right, comparisons to superior games such as LIMBO mean you’re likely to be disappointed if you’ve played them previously. It places itself in that unfortunate position of being a game that doesn’t do anything new nor anything better than those that have come before it. For a one-man development team it is a commendable effort and we tip our hats in that regard, but in the end it falls short in almost every department with perhaps the only exception being its score.