Publisher: Versus Evil
Platform: PC (Steam)
Review Copy Provided By: Versus Evil
Release Date: May 12, 2015
The mental or moral complexity of a game can range from Call of Duty shallow to BioShock: Infinite deep, and each side of the spectrum is fine in its own regard. You don’t play a round of capture the flag to reflect on Nietzsche, and you don’t search out symbolism when all you’re looking to do is vent a week’s worth of stress. Toren, a game backed by the Brazilian government (for all that’s worth), falls along the deeper end of the takeaway spectrum, and what it lacks in gameplay it more than makes up for with beautiful environments and a runtime that knows when to stop.
Girl + Tower + Dragon = Trope-Breaking
While players could assume that the combined elements of a single woman, a decrepit tower, and a menacing dragon automatically take the shape of Nintendo’s next Mario reboot, Toren abuses such notions and opts to deliver something fresher. The player’s character, Moonchild, must climb to the top of the Toren Tower and defeat the evil dragon in order to bring the darkness of night to the ever-sunny world. With the backing of some dusty wizard fellow and a knight straight from a fairy tale, Moonchild must grow through several stages of life, explore her darkest dreams, and sacrifice herself to begin anew as she makes her way up Toren’s dizzying heights.
Sample Platter Mechanics
Toren’s actual length amounts to about the time it takes to run a full load of laundry through the wash. This structural decision comes off as rather bold because the actual sparseness of gameplay means that players must focus their attention solely on the storyline. Thus, a lot rides on Toren’s ability to captivate its audience, but it honestly does a decent job of pulling it off. Moonchild’s accelerated growth throughout the story ran smoothly with the game’s clipped length, and any more or less would have felt too substantially overbearing or meager, respectively.
What this also means is that there isn’t too much in the way of actual gameplay. There are puzzle and platformer elements, and even the vaguest hints of combat, but each of these mechanics only appear long enough for a mere teaser. Bracing yourself against gales of wind or hiding from the dragon’s insta-kill attack using tactically-arranged statues is fun, if not unchallenging, but there’s just not enough of it to go around. The combat is laughable, as you’re only permitted to swing your sword if you’re already knuckle deep in the dragon’s nostrils, and the puzzles never reach a difficulty beyond drawing a straight line or walking without falling off the bridge. Toren prides itself on its story and message, but I fear this was done in spite of feeding the gameplay any attention beyond the bare necessities.
Magic School Bus Approach
While it may not win any awards for thrilling combat or clever puzzles, Toren surely deserves some credit in the visuals department. Barring some of the dream sequences, level design is rarely more complex than going up (it is a tower, after all), but the detail and texture of each room or dream world is absolutely gorgeous. From a volcanic wasteland to the ocean’s brightly colored depths, the game takes players on a visually captivating journey that fails to repeat itself with blithe copy-paste.
Like the storyline itself, the levels of Toren are all rather short, but the game balances the handful of cramped rooms in the towers interior with several expansive environments. In tying with the game’s theme of young girl in a big, dangerous world, some of the camera angles in Toren really take joy in making the player feel small. Climbing a ladder that would have amounted to a twenty-story rise or sinking half a mile down to the ocean floor really puts players in the perspective of someone too small for the world around them, and it amps up the immersive qualities of the game’s story.
A Deeper Meaning
As mentioned above, a major marketing blurb for the game was the self-ascribed, deep level of symbolism (or symbology, for all you Boondock Saints fans), and while I graduated with something other than a liberal arts degree in semiotics, the more blatant visual icons were actually tastefully done for the most part. Birth, death, and rebirth in a pool of blood draw attention to life’s frailty, while the broken tower and dragon antagonist point towards man’s overreaching tendencies and inherent hubris. I’m all for a philosophically compelling storyline, and while Toren does a wonderful job if slipping in some gripping visuals, it does threaten to come across as a wee bit pretentious. A truly meaningful story with loftier intellectual elements shouldn’t have to remind you that they’re there; it should already be apparent to the players that something far grander is taking place beneath the pretty set pieces.
It’s safe to say that Toren’s overall theme is centered on Moonchild’s coming of age, and while this proves wholesome from a surface view, several smaller bits of the game’s philosophy actually gave me pause. For instance, one dream level forced players to slaughter an animal at an altar because sacrificing the weak apparently makes room for the strong. I’m all for a little bit of murder in my games, but justifying what really boils down to suggestive genocide seems like a step in the despot direction. It almost reminded me of that one kid in school who just finished reading his first chapter of Machiavelli and felt like being edgy during open discussion.
You can check out a bit of gameplay above (advance apologies for the wonky green screen) and some screenshots below!
Toren delivers an impactful storyline in a reasonably short span of time. Blatant imagery and suggestive symbolism are all the more enhanced by the game’s beautifully crafted and highly variable worlds, and the overall sense of overcoming helplessness by climbing higher into the tower really adds to the game’s takeaway message of spiritual growth and maturity. The actual gameplay proves rather lackluster, with shorthand combat and overly simplistic puzzles, and the game occasionally teeters on the verge of sounding pretentious, but the overall experience is well worth the negligible amount of time.