Toren Review – Undercooked Video Game Goulash (PS4)
In Toren, a mysterious little girl leads you through a beautiful, perplexing world. She doesn’t speak, and there is only one cryptic, unhelpful character who does. I was excited for Toren after watching the trailer because of the eclectic visuals and the narrative tease involving a little girl as the main character at various points in her life from birth to coming of age. After completing the game, I was left with a question mark over my head. Why was there a dragon? What did the beginning cutscene have to do with anything? What are the dream sequences?
The story is made up of a handful of folktales and legends from various cultures such as The Tower of Babel, celestial deities, and the Tree of Life. If any of those pique your interest, don’t get too excited. Throughout the game, hardly any of them are fleshed out or explored other than surface symbolism. There is hardly any emotion tied to any inclusion of lore, aside from the beginning cutscene and the Knight, Solidor, trying to save the Moonchild throughout the entire story. There was no investment in the game bestowed upon the player. I was not given a reason to care about the little girl. This could have been partly because the narrative base you are given at the beginning is almost non-existent, consisting of a few scenes that serve to confuse instead of provide intrigue. It was like when someone says something cryptic just for attention so the listener is almost forced to inquire ‘what the heck are you talking about?’
The problem with the story is the smooshed-together conglomerate of folktales. This doesn’t work as a storytelling device unless you explore one tale fully on it’s own, or many tales in turn, one after the other, serving as mini trials or learning experiences. It does not work unless you set up each tale as it’s own meaningful piece of a complete, bigger-picture puzzle. Toren does no do that. It sprinkles a little of this here and a little of that there, with no regard to how it all fits into one game, one experience, and one narrative.
All of this might be overlooked if not for the clunky gameplay. It’s liveable, but it’s also laughable for this day and age. It feels like a PS2 game with a higher resolution and more assets. The jump mechanic is floaty and bizarre-looking. The walking is stiff. The combat lacks any kind of impact. The collision detection doesn’t line up with the geometry in the world and makes the awkward platforming even more of a chore. Some puzzles did leave me somewhat pleasantly surprised, but they always had head-scratching elements — they ended to soon, seemed too random, or too simple. The entire game just didn’t feel fully-realized, like many beginnings of good ideas were thrown together and deemed as good enough to publish.
While the interesting art style is probably the best feature of the game, one huge poor choice in game design hit my eyeballs almost right off the bat — a weird subtle blurring or vibrating of the screen that happens every five seconds or so. It really was uncomfortable to sit through. I can suggest many different unique effects to choose from that do NOT induce small eye-seizures, if this was indeed a conscious design choice. And if it wasn’t, then wow. That’s a seriously disruptive glitch. Another visual glitch was extreme screen tearing that happens a lot at the beginning and then again at various parts where I’m assuming the game engine was having issues rendering the scene. With no enticing story to hold your attention, these low quality graphics and glitches have much more weight.
A Chore, Not a Joy
Toren’s frustratingly clunky mechanics and confusing, lackluster story, coupled with a horrible checkpoint system, make this game a chore to play rather than a beautiful indie game experience about cool folklore. Missing that last platform in an already bizarre dream sequence puts you back to the very beginning of an already slow and boring level. Pressing attack at the wrong time can randomly make you fail with no warning, and you again have to traverse the entire level to reach the point at which you died before. Other minor annoyances like no options menu, unhelpful chapter select, and a very short length overall really add up.
Toren felt like it was just trying to check things off of a “how to make a video game” checklist. Monsters? Check. Armor? Check. Jump button? Check. Scrolls? Check. A dragon? Check. Platforming? Check. Varied environments? Check. I could go on, but I’ll spare you. Each of these things were only half thought out and glued together haphazardly. No thought was given to creating an enjoyable experience that uses all elements of a video game to form something incredible. There’s a good game hiding deep down inside Toren, but it missed the mark in almost all ways and failed to fully realize any of its ideas, leaving it as much less of an experience than it should have been.
Toren review copy provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.