Preview: Toren

Following on from an interview with developer Swordtales and some hands-on time with the game at Rezzed 2015, we were lucky enough to receive preview codes for mysterious adventure Toren.

Title overview

Name: Toren
Developer: Swordtales
Publisher: Versus Evil
Release date: May 2015
PEGI rating: 12
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 4
More information: Official website

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Kim says…

I first came across Toren back in September last year when the 1001Up team received an email from a publisher about an upcoming title that ‘takes the audience in a torrent of discoveries about the greatest mystery of all: the meaning of life’. An adventure game that delves into secrets and philosophical questions? It sounded like something that would be right up my street, so I reached out to Versus Evil and developer Swordtales to find out more. Our questions were kindly answered by Creative Director Alessandro Martinello who explained that it is ‘based on philosophical doctrines of the ancient world on which various religions or ways of thinking are based’.

We stopped by to see the team from Versus Evil when attending Rezzed 2015 in March and managed to spend some hands-on time with Toren, then were lucky enough to receive preview codes afterwards. A Steam thread advises that it should take between four and five hours to complete the title and I’ve so far played around ninety minutes; I have to admit that I do have some concerns around a couple of areas, but it certainly shows glimpses of promise and the start of an intriguing storyline.

You take on the role of Moonchild, a young girl destined to climb a tower known as Toren on a solitary journey to find her purpose. During our interview with Alessandro he told us: “The game is about a child learning and growing. She has contact with only the legacy that [philosophies of the ancient world] left behind. The player can choose to delve deeper into these metaphors or just enjoy a good adventure to defeat a dragon… Players themselves will discover why she is a prisoner of the tower and they will also learn about an ancient culture.”

Personally I love the concept behind the plot: being confined within a grand structure and struggling to work your way up, towards illumination (both figuratively and metaphorically-speaking) as you recover your memories. The dark tower seems full of hidden spaces and secrets just waiting to be uncovered and the ‘light touch’ with regard to the way the narrative is handled really suits the game. You’re not forced to sit through long cut-scenes or read long sections of text, meaning that players aren’t dragged out of Toren’s world and are encouraged to explore and discover.

There are a number of story elements within the game. An evil Dragon guards the tower and tries to stop Moonchild from gaining her freedom; the Sun sent a great Knight to save her in a bygone era, an image of whom can be seen through telescopes pointing towards the sky; and the Wizard, one of the builders of the structure, who communicates with Moonchild through her dreams as he no longer has a body. At the moment it seems a little disjointed but I’m looking forward to seeing how the developer pulls all of these different elements together as the title progresses.

During the gameplay I’ve experienced so far, Moonchild has grown from a baby to a young girl and to finally what appears to be a teenager. She plants a sapling in the bottom of the tower at the beginning of the game and this grows taller alongside her; new floors are opened up within the building as she ages and traverses its branches. This is a lovely metaphor for the knowledge we gain as we age that helps us to consider new possibilities, and it’s fitting to see the tree assisting the protagonist on her journey.

It’s extremely likely that the issues will be fixed in an update before tomorrow’s release otherwise this could be a complete show-stopper.

Swordtales advises on their Steam page that Toren is better played with a gamepad and I have to agree with them: I’ve tried with a keyboard and mouse but it doesn’t quite suit the game. The controls are nice and simple with the left-thumbstick controlling movement and the right moving the camera, and button presses for jumps, interactions and directed looks. Unfortunately however, there were some bugs in my version and the title would only register the ‘A’ and ‘X’ but not the ‘B’ and ‘Y’ on my Xbox controller. Only picking up two of the buttons made things pretty difficult considering that there are three actions, and I had to keep moving around the settings in order to progress. It’s extremely likely that the issues will be fixed in an update before tomorrow’s release otherwise this could be a complete show-stopper.

So far the gameplay has been pretty easy despite these control problems. Small enemies (that look like Boglin toys from the 1990s) can be evaded by running or shaking if they happen to latch onto you, and there are a few challenges thrown in also. Alessandro kindly explained that ‘the tower is a huge ‘dungeon’ with several puzzles and different forms of interaction, such as drawing pictures with salt or watching the stars’ and I’ve experienced a couple of these at this point. The first was extremely simply but that’s to be expected from the initial challenge from any game with a well-designed difficulty curve; and I had to quit during the second due to the control issues described above. I’m hoping that the level ramps up as Toren progresses and players are presented with more of a challenge.

At certain points within the game the Wizard gives Moonchild the opportunity to enter her dreams. In the section I played I found myself wandering through a desert while avoiding ghostly spirits, before launching into an oasis and having to traverse pillars underwater by jumping and floating. It’s all very surreal and I’m not entirely sure just yet what effect these dream sequences have on the story or gameplay, but I can see how they may provide a nice break from the style experienced within the tower itself.

Toren, video game, Moonchild, sword, Dragon, cliff

Telescopes can be found around the structure and as mentioned above, these show the Knight sent by the Sun to save Moonchild. Players have to move the lens around in order to view lines of poems but I can’t say just yet how these affect the title, although it seems like a way to reveal further details on backstory without being too heavy-handed. The problem I had here was that some of the text was a little difficult to read due to the font and the cracks across the lens. In addition, there’s a small lack of consistency in the way the story is presented to the player: some text that appears onscreen moves too quickly, and certain lines disappear of their own accord while others need to be dismissed with a button press.

Towards the end of my ninety-minutes with Toren I had my first real encounter with the Dragon, an evil beast whose breath petrifies everything in its path. Hitting him with my sword caused it to bounce off his hide and be flung behind me but making a run for the weapon wasn’t easy: I frequently found myself trying to turn a corner but falling off the edge of the platform due to the controls and camera direction. When Moonchild died as a result her sword appeared in various places after respawning. Sometimes it was at the bottom of the tower, at other times it was next to the Dragon, and at others it would appear on the protagonist’s back; with the way the title handles, this feels more like a bug rather than intentional design.

This leads me on to my next concern: the visuals. While they’re certainly pretty and I like the graphic direction, everything looks a little boxy and there are few rounded edges. For example, a cutscene that shows the tree planted in the bottom tower spiralling up out of a well has potential to be an impressive sight; but the branches are blocky and the leaves appear flat and without substance, so it isn’t as awe-inspiring as it could be. In some places the lighting effects are strong and feel slightly overdone, but I do understand the style choice: the shafts of light are a good metaphor for Moonchild’s struggle to uncover her memories and illuminate her past.

The issues we experienced don’t hinder gameplay, but they do damage immersion in Toren’s world.

There were a number of visual bugs within the version I played. Moonchild landed on a platform that wasn’t actually there whilst I was trying to traverse a gap and jumps sometimes feel further away than they appear to be. During the dream sequence described above I ended up going through a sand dune rather than over it, with the character reappearing on the other side once I’d found a way across. Again, it’s extremely likely that the issues will be fixed in an update before tomorrow’s release; they don’t hinder gameplay but they do damage immersion in Toren’s world.

There isn’t so much a soundtrack as ambient background music, although the Steam page page features a deluxe edition that includes one, but what’s there suits the game and doesn’t distract from the gameplay. From what I’ve played it seems as if there is no English voice-acting: I’ve only heard the Wizard speak so far and this is in what sounds like a mysterious, old tongue, with subtitles across the bottom of the screen. I like this approach and it helps add to the sense that you’re walking in the footsteps of an ancient culture.

Toren shows glimpses of promise despite the control and visual issues. It’s hard to form a solid opinion from only ninety-minutes gameplay and with a version that required some updates, but if Swordtales fixes the problems then we could have an adventure on our hands that’s something like a cross between Ico and The Legend of Zelda. Be sure to check out the official website, and head over to Steam to pre-purchase the game at a ten percent discount until its release on 12 May 2015.

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