[Originally posted on PopMatters]
Toren opens with a clarity of purpose but a mystery of place that I haven’t experienced in a game since Shadow of the Colossus. Like Ico, Vagrant Story or, more recently, Journey and Dark Souls, it tells a complex story with space, light, and movement. Like Dreamfall and The Legend of Zelda, it establishes a complex mythology in the background to prop up a fantastical, dreamlike setting in the foreground. I open with all of this not because Toren is derivative but instead to get the familiar reference points out of the way so that I can focus on its own identity instead.
The first of what I hope to be many games by Sword Tales, Toren tells the story of the Moonchild, a girl created to restore the moon to the sky and life to the earth by destroying the tower bearing the game’s name. To do so, the Moonchild must acquire a sword and slay a dragon keeping the tower in place. As far as mythic-based videogames go, it sounds boilerplate. But beneath the straightforward plot is some of the most inventive and efficient design that I’ve seen in a game. Though the world is dead, the bright colours and soft edges make it tranquil and beautiful, even a little sad. The Moonchild herself, begins her journey as an infant and flits between time periods as a pre-teen and as an adult, gracefully oscillating from super-human hero to vulnerable prey to circumstance. Without uttering a word, the triumphant lift of a sword in one scene can transform her instantly following moments when she was dragging her feet forward, beleaguered but determined. The Moonchild is an incredibly expressive avatar and just moving forward in the game captures a vast range of emotion and meaning.
Purists might be unimpressed with Toren because it lacks the multi-million dollar polish expected of major retail games. Although suffering from a few technical issues like crashing and some choppy animation, I actually hope that Toren keeps these issues throughout its patches. Its lack of polish benefits it by pointing to its videogamey artificiality. It is a game that is poetic in the mode of magical realism and its distance from high graphical fidelity emphasizes the meaning of its space and its few moving characters. Toren stresses the importance of aesthetic choice over bleeding edge graphics engines. Technical effects decay as they become obsolete, but I expect the gorgeous landscapes and meditative hallways of Toren will stay with me for years.
The space, of course, only holds significance because of what the player must do within it. There’s very little combat to speak of, and what combat there is could be interpreted as not combat at all. The Moonchild spends a little over half the game unarmed with most of that time spent trying and just failing to reach her sword. When she does finally grab it, the narrative satisfaction of pulling it free from its sheath has the same effect as Arthur freeing Excalibur or Link claiming the Master Sword; a sense of heroism is earned after long periods of uncertainty. When she clutches the sword, the power dynamic between the dragon and the few minions serving it reverses. She now holds all the power and can defeat them with a few swings. This is less combat and more a tool to use in solving the game’s many puzzles.
Throughout Toren, several simple block and platform puzzles stand in the Moonchild’s way. None of these are particularly difficult, but they’re functional and, like the puzzles in Papo Y Yo exist to stress the interests of the narrative, not to stump the player. Several of the puzzles take place in the Moonchild’s mind as she meditates before her mentor and seeks enlightenment. The settings represented during these moments are among the most majestic in the game, ranging from vast deserts, roaring infernos, to heaven itself. While in these dreamscapes, the Moonchild need not just solve puzzles and avoid enemies, but also trace symbols with trails of salt. This is mechanically easy, but it imbues the game with these quiet, prayer like moments of stillness that make the world feel more authentic than other games that feature whole encyclopedias dedicated to their lore. Like the Moonchild, whose appearance and costuming keeps changing to symbolize the meaning of the game’s events, these areas of meditation are intensely expressive and endlessly interesting.
Finally, there are a plethora of fascinating tics within Toren that really need to be experienced unspoiled. To speak generally, the game plays with one’s expectations of mythology, with the concept of death in videogames, with the feeling of being watched. Any one of the game’s experiments would make Toren stand out, but the inclusion of them all makes it one of the most exceptionally well-crafted and deeply meaningful experiences that I’ve had with a game in a long time. Although just two hours, every one of its minute complexities clicks right into place, making it feel complete.
Toren is truly excellent. Games like it only come around every few years and stay for much longer. It’s the kind of game that I’m excited to play and to talk about. It does everything that games are supposed to be excellent at while also providing all the things that games need most right now. It looks stunning, it sounds incredible, and every moment of play is filled with importance.