To say that Brazilian developer Swordtales shows flashes of creative brilliance in their new game Toren would be a vast understatement. As a title whose ambition far outreaches its execution, Toren represents the prototypical indie game, in the sense that the limitations of experience and a lack of focus ultimately weigh it down. The game is a bunch of smart ideas, or even proof of concept gameplay ideas, boiled down into a 2-hour experience that’s neither memorable nor impressive.
At its core, Toren is the story of Moonchild, a mysterious girl – the chosen one, if you will – whose sole task seems to be vanquishing a menacing dragon. It’s not entirely clear who Moonchild is or her significance when it comes to taking down the dragon, but that seems to be the way Toren likes it. The game chooses to use poetic language to tell its story, with an approach that favors vague soliloquys over tangible narrative bits. It’s a storytelling conceit that, in principle, is clever, but provides little for the player to grab onto. It’s as if the game’s story wants to be obtuse on purpose, in that impenetrable art project kind of way.
The visuals also feel like an extension of that approach, with an art style that’s a little crude and somewhat painterly. On the one hand, the game’s look is that of an unfinished, or even rough, game, but that may be a design decision more than anything else. Whatever the case may be, though, it’s hard to call Toren a good-looking game. Truthfully, it’s visuals feel a few steps away from what was clearly artistically distinct, but that chasm leaves too many questions about the quality of the graphics.
Gameplay is similarly basic, with some light traversal and platforming, mixed in with a few puzzles and minimal combat. Essentially, players are trying to scale a large tower (or Toren) to try to get to the dragon. And along the way they will jump into these dreamscapes, wherein Moonchild gains strength as a character while solving a self-contained puzzle. In most cases, these “levels” center on a single gameplay mechanic, like wind blowing back the character if she’s not holding on or using torches to illuminate a pathway.
However, the execution of these mechanics is shoddy at best, and feels more like a proof of concept than anything else. It is almost as if Swordtales is testing specific gameplay ideas within their game, but not finding ways to make that gameplay compelling. Sure, those mechanics work (at least sometimes) but not in a way that makes playing Toren fun.
And even if the game’s basic mechanics may have been tolerable, the finicky controls, troublesome static camera, and frequent bugs take away from that. The cardinal sin of a fixed camera does Toren players no favors, forcing them into awkward perspectives and blocking their view in some pretty heinous ways. That may have been easier to deal with if the controls weren’t stiff and floaty, which in the end makes Moonchild hard to maneuver, especially in any type of platforming. And then there are the moments where the game simply looks unfinished, as its collision fails to trigger or Moonchild slips through the floor. A game that ships with a few rough edges is one thing, but when it’s part of a laundry list of problems the entertainment value is all but lost.
Lack of fun aside, every mechanic feels as if it is a one-off, and is never used effectively or enough for players to get some sense of the full conceit. There is a general sense that the game is building on itself, but only as a glorified tech demo. Toren wants to prove that it can do these specific things, but it’s extremely basic. There’s not a single mechanic in the game that’s either original or creative; most of the actual gameplay is really rudimentary.
That’s Toren’s biggest struggle in the end: it’s inability to build off of what are largely some very basic concepts. The story, the visuals, and most importantly the gameplay all feel like the first step in a long process towards developing a fully realized game. However, rather than continue to iterate on ideas like wind pushing the player back, using heat to create light and melt ice, or even just basic traversal, the game shipped as is. It’s hard to fault a developer who clearly has ideas and talent, but when they deliver a game this clunky there’s little choice. Toren is not worth gamers’ time.
Toren is available now for PC. Game Rant was provided a PC code for this review.