While I knew next to nothing about Toren when it released in mid-May, it exuded an adventurous yet artistic vibe I found alluring. Developed by Swordtales, an indie group from Brazil, the game aims to meld gameplay with a unique fantasy experience driven by human emotions. It’s an interesting attempt, but there are a number of issues that hold it back.
In spite of its simplicity, Toren is an unwieldy beast to handle. Moving around is sluggish and jumping is imprecise, frequently not responding to the input and instead allowing you to run over the edge and automatically hold on for dear life. Combat is arguably even more porous. Once again there’s a noticeable disconnect between when you issue a command and when it’s actually followed. As a result swinging your sword is incredibly loose.
There doesn’t seem to be much technical power behind Toren, which has a muddiness to its textures that suggest the game would be better suited on the PlayStation 3 (if not the PS2). It does score some points for its artistic style — one that invokes a sense of tribal mysticism — but seemingly for every strong piece of level design there’s something equally disappointing; such as the darkened abyss that only lets you see via infrequent lightning strikes.
Probably the game’s highpoint is its sound design, especially the musical score. The music does a really nice job of setting the mood and imbuing your adventure with some emotional gravitas. The narration, told completely in a made up language, is solid as well.
Toren‘s story is perhaps best classified as a dark fairy tale with inanimate objects like the moon and sun portrayed with human characteristics. In it you play as the Moonchild, a girl destined to ascend the tower and grow the Tree of Life for a showdown with an evil (?) dragon that can turn its enemies to stone with its cries. Do it and the moon will return to the sky, allowing life to flourish once again.
Told in a series of dreams that explore emotions, Toren has you grow from baby to child and on up through adulthood, experiencing reincarnation in the process. It has a cryptic, reflective way of telling its tale that works to a point, but eventually the vagueness and use of implying events rather than showing them wears a bit thin.
Whatever its shortcomings, however, the story towers over the actual gameplay. Even with a short run time — roughly two hours — the mix of awkward platforming and simplistic puzzles fails to innovate or even stay fresh. It also manages to offer the least rewarding progression system I can remember. Sure, you can acquire items that make you tougher or strengthen your sword, but there’s no reason to.
Combat is equal parts simple and awkward. That might be an issue if there were more than a small handful of enemies in the entire game, none of which pose even a moderate threat — you can literally jog slowly past pretty much everything.
About the game’s only memorable gameplay moments come when squaring off against the dragon, which you’ll do on several occasions. These fights, while hardly scintillating, at least require you to think one or two moves ahead and use some environmental puzzle solving. Had they been paired with better pacing and some more interesting filler, Toren would’ve been a greatly improved game.
Instead, you’ll be tasked with dull chores like pouring sand on symbols; and, if you’re anything like me, pacing back and forth over the same ground repeatedly trying to figure out why the game won’t read it as fully covered and trigger the next event (just wait until you’re doing it in the dark!). There are also some technical shortcomings and too much backtracking on those rare times when you’re defeated.
When I fired up Toren I’d hoped for the next Journey or Ico. Unfortunately, what I experienced didn’t come close to those games. The story is interesting enough, and the art style/soundtrack are good, but controlling Moonchild just isn’t much fun. You can see the genesis of a good idea here. It’s simply not fleshed out enough to recommend.