The Talos Principle Review
Reviewed on PC
Well, this takes the cake. Or rather, The Talos Principle rejects all mention of such confections despite coming very much from the same mould as Portal and Portal 2. It’s been quite some time since a dedicated first-person puzzler – especially of such calibre – reared its head above the bullet-damaged parapet of actiontastic military sequels. Placing you as a robotic construct within a supposed simulation, The Talos Principle layers puzzle on puzzle, framed by a series of philosophical questions. All of this from the team behind the Serious Sam franchise. Who would have thought it?
Looking like Sonny from I, Robot, The Talos Principle seems to share a lot of DNA with the forthcoming Jonathan Blow title The Witness. Instead of the oppressive confines of Portal’s test chambers, players must instead wander a series of open environments accessible through various hubs. Entirely non-linear, puzzles can be approached in almost any order with each rewarding completion with a sigil – a Tetromino piece used as keys in another set of 2D puzzles. These intricate locks are what first calls to mind The Witness, itself another game that places players in an environment filled with 2D and 3D tests of spatial reasoning.
The Talos Principle has clear, distinct environments, each with a visual aesthetic. Wandering an Egyptian oasis one moment and a concrete warehouse the next, the game has all the cohesive visual identity of a Serious Sam just… well, a little more serious. Handy signs dotted around each map help keep track of the puzzles completed and yet to be deciphered. Ranked in a traffic light system of red, yellow and green but approachable at will, The Talos Principle has a difficulty curve that you can control although higher-tier solutions require specialist equipment unlocked through a more structured progression.
Each challenge room plays like an open-air test chamber with laser beams that need reflecting, force fields that require deactivation and the occasional death droid or sentry gun to avoid. Explaining even one solution would ruin the joy of that lightbulb-moment epiphany, the ultimate reward in any game of logic. Luckily, a philosophical sheen has been added atop the admittedly dry mechanics at play. Centred around your appearance as a robotic avatar, combined with the heavy implication that it all takes place in a simulation (right down to glitching scenery, entirely intentional), themes of free will and consciousness ask important questions directly to you, the player. Terminals scattered throughout each world initially seem like just another way to collect text logs, albeit with some DOS-style scripting. This soon becomes intriguing with the introduction of a seemingly sentient being within the network, goading your character with personality quizzes and the offer of more knowledge. This interaction flies in the face of Elohim, a booming omnipotent voice from above, laying down rules. Rules, as any seasoned gamer knows, which are made to be broken.
The tower, an unmissable presence rising high into a tempestuous sky, can only be unlocked via red sigils – found in the most testing puzzles. Despite the open world nature of each area, it is this tower which beckons the player on, the carrot dangled just out of reach. The added incentive of a supposed authority figure specifically warning you against meddling only compounds the temptation. QR codes also emblazon walls, each featuring a message from previous occupants of the strange land, offering clues to the nature of your predicament.
Aside from the main questline lie side-puzzles – some awaken other robotic beings, rendering them available to help in particularly troublesome brainteasers, while more lateral thinking will unlock stars, opening up further rooms. It’s as if The Crystal Maze took steroids and replaced Mumsy with a bellowing God figure. It can all feel overwhelming at times, as if the end is far, far away. Thankfully, The Talos Principle moves at the pace you feel most comfortable. Puzzles can be abandoned until you feel mentally up to the task, while the DOS terminals have enough material to keep your brain ticking over higher concepts and challenging ideas. There’s even humour thrown in to ground the narrative which, without levity, would soon become pretentious and overbearing. Graphically the game isn’t mind-blowing but has a distinctive, almost sterile feel to the levels – befitting of the idea that there’s something more to proceedings. Lush, varied but never intrusive music creates an air of grandeur, understated enough to allow the brain space to think. There are a solid twenty to thirty hours to explore the game’s mysteries and with a deceptively simple style things are never quite as they seem with more than a few secrets to discover.
Croteam have launched the first salvo in what could be a new era of graphically elaborate puzzle games. Portal laid the foundations for narrative based puzzlers but the years since have been comparatively barren, save for the occasional Quantum Conundrum. It’s great to see a game that has justified confidence in both mechanics and narrative framing. It won’t be everyone’s type of game – there’s a mental reserve needed to get through without any hints – but for anyone looking for something different, this will be a great entrée before Jonathan Blow serves up the second course. The Talos Principle will make you feel confounded but in that wonderful way that precludes an epiphany. You’ll leave each session feeling genuinely smarter – and perhaps a little rebellious to boot.