GAME REVIEW: The Talos Principle

written by David Steffen

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The Talos Principle is an FPS-style puzzle game with a philosophical science fictional storyline, developed by Croteam in December 2014.

The game begins as you, a new being, wake up into existence with the disembodied voice of a god-like being that known as Elohim.  Elohim sets you on a series of puzzles in different segments of Elohim’s temples to prove your devotion, to earn yourself eternal life.  As you go, you find messages left by previous pilgrims who have gone on the same quest before.

20160921223229_1There are signs that this world is artificial (such as segments of wall fuzzing out, and that the messages from other pilgrims are in the form of QR codes).  From time to time you find consoles that are supposed to be connected to the internet, but the net connection is down–you can still see fragments of locally stored files.  You try to restore your internet access by working through the Milton Library Assistant which seems to be a little odd.

The puzzles in the game are focused on finding puzzle pieces that are locked behind barriers so that you have to make it past closed gates or hostile security elements (like mines or gatling guns).

An example of a couple of the items used in puzzle elements throughout the game that I thought were particularly interesting:

  1.  Disruptor:  A tripod-based device that can be pointed at some other kind of device to disable it.  This includes electronic gates, so that you can pass through, mines or guns so that you can pass by them without harm.  It has its limitations, such as only being able to disrupt one device at a time, and can only actively disrupt something while the tripod is planted (so, for instance, you can’t carry a disruptor through a gate that is being held open by the disruptor, because picking up the disruptor turns it off).  And you have to have a line of sight.
  2. 20161013223625_1Connector: A tripod-based device that can transmit an energy beam from a source to an arbitrary number of receivers.  These can be used to open certain kinds of gates or power other devices.  And you have to have a line of sight.

As the game goes on, the main obstacle is the puzzles themselves, but a large part of the game is also the theological/philosophical side of the story.  Elohim’s instructions discourage exploration, claiming he knows what’s best for you (he is your god after all, or claims to be).  But does he know what’s best for you?  What is going on in the outside world?  When the Milton Library assistant tries to determine if you are human… are you human?  Should you pass the test at all?

20160922090120_1Visuals
Nothing particularly flashy by today’s standards.  The look is relatively simple, but functional.

Audio
Quite liked the voice-acting, which mostly was two voices–the voice of Elohim speaking to you directly, and stored recordings from one of the researchers.

Challenge
It had what I would consider a reasonable level of challenge.  Many of the puzzles I could solve with just a bit of experimentation.  There were some major head-scratchers that took me quite a bit of time to work through, but I did solve every one without using a walkthrough, so that to me was a very satisfying level.  Only a small portion of the game had a time limit, so you generally will have all the time you need to fiddle with all the elements of a puzzle to figure out how you want to approach it and to do some trial-and-error.

Story
Good story.  Had a sort of golden age SF feel to it, while also having an interesting puzzle element that was sortof unrelated, and also having the conversational puzzles of dealing with the Milton Library Program.

Session Time
Mostly pretty short.  The game auto-saves whenever you enter a puzzle area, solve a puzzle, or when you pass from certain areas, so you can shut the game off at any time without worrying about losing progress.  The only exception is that some puzzles are complicated enough that it takes some time to set them up to be solved, and if you shut off in the midst of that you’ll lose your progress–and there’s a segment near the end of the game that you have to complete all at once, but that’s unusual.

Replayability
There’s certainly some replayability.  There are collectible stars that you can find in certain puzzles if you explore beyond the strictly necessary areas.  These stars can then be used to access locked areas of the game (I don’t actually know what’s in them, as I haven’t taken the time to go try to track all of them down, I tried for a bit but found it tedious since there’s no way to tell exactly where to look I spent a lot of time wandering and not accomplishing anything, which when you’ve only got small windows of playtime gets old fast.

Originality
Reasonably original.  The set of items used to solve puzzles was an interesting set, especially the focusing crystals.  What really made the game interesting though was as a whole, with the god-like figure of Elohim constantly pushing and prodding, and the Milton Library Assistant acting as a counterpoint to Elohim’s supposed wisdom.

Playtime
It took me about 20 hours according to Steam?  I spent a disproportionate amount of time on a few puzzles, determined to solve them without help.  And I spent some time looking for stars before giving up.

Overall
Enjoyable puzzle game which also has a branching conversation element in the talks with the Milton Library Assistant.  Golden age SF feel to the main plot as you try to figure out what’s going on, how much you can trust various players in the system, and so on.  For me it was the perfect level of challenge, enough so that it took some effort, but not so hard to be unsolvable.$40 on Steam.

GAME REVIEW: The Magic Circle

written by David Steffen

magiccircleThe Magic Circle is a first person puzzle/action game released by Question in July 2015.

Ishmael (Ish for short) Gilder is a celebrity in the gaming world, the designer of a wildly popular game twenty years ago, a text-based adventure.  The fans have been pining for the first person fantasy sequel that Ish has been developing… for the last twenty years. Ish dithers over every little choice, never making firm decisions on anything, and so the game continues to linger in “development hell”.  Not even so much as a color scheme, so the game in development is still in monochrome.  He has become too emotionally attached to the game so that any actual game could never possibly live up to his expectations, and his ego has become so inflated he thinks of himself as the Starfather god figure from the fantasy world.
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20160831060139_1You are the protagonist of that game.  But Ish is so indecisive, he won’t even allow the protagonist to have a weapon.  So, you can’t possibly win an action fantasy game like that.  Can you?

But soon you start to hear a voice that isn’t part of the game.  A voice that is aware of Ish’s indecisive nature and the embarrassingly incomplete state of the game.  And he knows how to help you.  He knows where the cracks in the game are, to let you manipulate the environment to your advantage.  You can harness energy from cracks in the program, and you can use that to generate glitches to trap enemy creatures.  Once you’ve trapped a creature you can manipulate its attributes–its method of movement, its attack type, its passive attributes, its alliances.  You can strip them away from one creature and attach them to another creature–make flying wolf, or a biting mushroom, or a flamethrowing rat.

20160527065246_1The mysterious voice has a vendetta against the Sky Bastards, which is what he calls the programmers (because they manifest in the game as floating polygonal eyes with rotating wait logo for irises, and he wants to use you to get revenge against them.

The game is clearly broken in many ways and you can approach each obstacle from various approaches.  You can make an army of creatures to follow you around everywhere, or you can make one creature your tank, or you can experiment with different attributes to find a different way.

As the game goes on, there are completely different kind of gameplay focuses in each one–but I don’t want to spoil the fun to work through them yourself.

Visuals 
Fun graphics.  Overly simple because much of the game is monochrome, (though that’s justified by story!).  They did a good job making it look like a half-finished game.  Besides the main fantasy quest game there is also some other segments of an unrelated game you end up, which has a fun but dated look.

Audio
Nice music, which is a nice plot element as well when it occasionally gets messed with because it’s not actually finished.  The voice acting is really really good, especially Ish, who is constantly complaining about game design details, and you can find collectible dev audio notes.

Challenge
The challenge level is reasonable, and the game is flexible enough in strategy that you can adjust the difficulty by picking a different approach to the game.

Story
Fun metastory.  The story of the game within the game is kindof all over the place, but of course that’s much of the entertainment.  The “real world” story is consistently entertaining, and meshes with the in-game story as the real-world actions impact the game world.

Session Time
Mostly, very very short, because you can save at most any point during playtime, so it’s easy to put down.  It… can be pretty slow to load, so might not be worth booting up if you know it’ll only be a few minutes of time to play.  There are a couple of longer story sequences, which aren’t easy to escape out of, so if you happen to catch one of those at an inconvenient time, then it can be a little aggravating.

Playability
Easy to pick up.  The only thing that took me a little bit of time to understand is that traits that you extract/give
Easy to get the controls down, challenging to master the game.  The level of challenge escalates well as the game progresses.

Replayability
Definitely some potential for replayability, to get all the collectibles, to try to figure out a different approach to different obstacles.

Originality
Much originality!  The FPS format is familiar, of course, but the metaformat where you’re in a game-in-development, where the slipshod state of the game is in itself an obstacle, where the point of the game is to get the game-in-the-game into some kind of releasable format, that all felt new.

Playtime
About 5 hours to finish according to Steam, on one straightforward playthrough.  I didn’t take a lot of time to try to seek out every collectible, and there were some areas and abilities that I didn’t fully explore (i.e. the groupthink ability).

Overall
Fun metastory for a game, fun play, nice and flexible gameplay, great humor element as the creator continually sabotages his own creation, and a good human story too as the various real-life people act against each other.  A lot of fun, well worth a playthrough.  $20 on Steam.