PAX Prime 2014: The Talos Principle is Portal in Medieval Times

Out of everything I played at PAX Prime 2014, nothing broke my brain quite like The Talos Principle. A member of the terribly named group of “Indie-AAA” titles on the horizon, this philosophical puzzler finds a way to ease players into some downright mind-bending challenges. Good puzzle games encourage experimentation and allow players to have a large number of “Ah-ha” moments, something Croteam’s new title does in spades. While its seemingly powerful narrative can get a bit heavy-handed at times, it’s clear that The Talos Principle has the chance to be one of the strongest puzzle-based games arriving in the next twelve months.

Best described as Medieval Portal with a deeper narrative, The Talos Principle is able to provide a challenge for veteran and rookie puzzle-solvers alike. Players are dropped into a stunning forest near the entrance to a grand castle before being tasked to obtain sigils by a voice booming from the heavens. Sigils, which are shaped like various Tetris blocks, are obtained solving various puzzles inside of arenas marked by their difficulty. Every puzzle has a one or more tricks that emerge once the player fools around with the various objects in the environment. Perhaps one has to figure out a way to get through three energy gates using only two energy jammers. One might have to open doors by directing lasers towards color-coordinated gates without having them cross each other. Every puzzle is like a game of chess; the move that seals a victory may not be immediately obvious, but some clever maneuvering will wind up revealing the final solution. Even though the Portal comparison is easy to make, there are shades of The Swapper‘s brilliant experimentation-based puzzles, as well.

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Arguably the coolest aspect of The Talos Principle is the ability to conplete an extremely challenging task in order to gain an advantage in the stage one finds himself or herself in. In the one stage, I had the opportunity to complete a Tetris-like puzzle, in which I was tasked with using a number of blocks to fill in an empty rectangle. This mechanic gives players a real sense of opportunity, as there can often be a way to get “unstuck” through the completion of a separate task. This puzzle was completely optional, and I eventually decided it was better for me to simply complete the level without the advantage. It’s not hard to envision some awesome trophy challenges arising from this creative gameplay addition.

The Talos Principle is unmistakably beautiful, so much so that it seems that it couldn’t have been made by a small team. This is a title that is visually superior to a number of realism-based games currently available on current-generation systems (read: Murdered: Soul Suspect and Sniper Elite III). In order to take full advantage of its limited resources, Croteam traveled around the globe, snapping photographs of various environmental aspects. Because The Talos Principle is a first-person game, players are able to fully immerse themselves in its gorgeous environments. For a title so heavily dependent on its level of immersion, the high visual quality does nothing but add to its gripping nature. As inherently ignorant as the term “Indie-AAA” is, it’s fair to say that The Talos Principle can hold its own in a debate over graphical prowess.

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My biggest concern with The Talos Principle, if it can even be called that, is that its narrative might be a bit too complex to understand. Granted, games with highly mysterious story elements tend to make for a strange demo experience, since giving away the grand secrets that tie everything together would be a major faux pas. Still, I couldn’t help but be confused as to exactly what was going on. Who was I? Why was this voice commanding me? Why did I have to solve these puzzles? Where exactly am I? The gameplay and visuals were strong enough to where I wasn’t concerned that The Talos Principle would turn out to be a bad experience, but I was left with a number of pressing questions. The good news here is that The Talos Principle is being written in part with a member of The Swapper‘s writing team, Tom Jubert. Those with any experience with The Swapper know just how talented Jubert is at crafting a mysterious narrative, so it’s fair to chalk up my confusion to having only spent a limited amount of time with Croteam’s new project.

It’s hard not to be impressed with what Croteam has created in The Talos Principle. The team behind the Serious Sam franchise seems to have a title with some genuine potential on its hands. One can only hope that extended time spent playing will result in answers to some of the more pressing narrative questions, which is likely considering the minds behind this apparently deep story. One thing is for certain, though: those looking for an exciting and challenging puzzle experience should not let The Talos Principle fall by the wayside.