NEED TO KNOW
What is it? Third-person art-platformer
Play it on Dual-core CPU, 4GB RAM, Nvidia GTX 500 series GPU, Windows 7 or newer
Copy protection Steam
Expect to pay $10 / £7
Release date Out now
Publisher Versus Evil
Oh, how I wanted to like Toren. A mystical tale of a child's journey, writ magically upon a climb up a great, crumbling tower, to do battle with the world-sundering dragon at the top? That, as they say, is my huckleberry. And it is wonderful at times, and so very beautiful, and the story it tells is captivating. While that goes a long way, it's not enough on its own, and there are too many flaws that keep Toren from nailing its ambition.
The most obvious problem is the camera, which is clearly designed to frame the action in cinematic splendor. But Toren too often trades practicality for visual sweep, and while that sometimes resulted in impressive perspectives of the Moonchild, as she purposefully strode this way or that, it also meant it was sometimes impossible for me to see what she was actually striding toward—and, more specifically, what ledge she was about to fall off of. Believe me, when it comes to climbing a tower filled with broken staircases and terraces, that's a problem.
Lack of control
The developer's recommendation that a controller be used to play should not be taken lightly. I powered through Toren with a mouse and keyboard, then tried it with the controller, and the difference was night and day. But neither is perfect; in several instances I found myself suddenly steering the Moonchild in an unintended direction, because the camera angle had suddenly changed. In one particular area, the view shifted 180 degrees immediately after she passed through a doorway, and because I was too slow to react, she turned around and marched through it again in the opposite direction. Indulging a bit of fleeting cruelty, I just kept pressing forward, trapping the Moonchild in a ridiculous doorway back-and-forth, as though she'd been caught between two teleport traps in some other game. The ‘dream sequences’ can be frustrating for the same reason, and even silly: I had to trace patterns on the ground with a magical sand, but even though Toren is fairly forgiving about the required degree of precision, I still sometimes felt like a monkey copying a Picasso by throwing poop at the wall.
Taken together, the camera and the controls make navigating Toren a hassle, and that's a shame because on the whole, it doesn't fall into the trap of locking its raison d'être behind punishing gameplay that's out of the reach of thumb-clunkers like me. There are no crazy stunt-jump sequences or obtuse puzzles; once or twice I was unsure about which direction to go, but again, that was more a matter of not being able to see my environment very well than because the situation was genuinely confusing.
Most of my time was spent wandering through relatively small, linear areas, punctuated by bits of easy jumping and occasional spots of climbing walls or hiding behind objects to avoid strong winds—the bare minimum required to keep me engaged while I followed Toren's tale, in other words. Normally that would be fine, because games like this are meant to be finished, and I quite often enjoy minimally interactive experiences like, say, Dear Esther or Kentucky Route Zero. But when I feel like a game is making things harder than they should be—especially when those things are clearly not supposed to be hard—it's frustrating.
I loved Toren's overall aesthetic. It's filled with bizarre, colorful environments lifted straight off the covers of softcover fantasy novels from the 1970s, and I stopped several times to enjoy the sights (and grab some screens) while I played. But it sometimes suffered from up-close viewing. The characters are relatively primitive, with stiff animations and flat expressions, and there are small clipping errors all over the place, as hands and feet slide into or through supposedly solid objects. They're minor problems, certainly not enough to ruin its overall beauty, but still an ever-present reminder that I wasn't playing a highly-polished production. There were moments that were absolutely sublime, though. One early-game sequence, seen through a telescope, was a breathtaking bit of visual poetry, and perfectly executed.
Toren isn't a very long game, but even so it took me longer than it probably should have—as in, to the very end of the game—to get a grip on the story it was telling. But unlike so many other games, it wasn't a letdown once I did. The final battle was overly repetitive and drawn-out, but the payoff was worthwhile: touching, tragic, and illuminating. And that made me sadder that the game itself wasn't better. Toren could have been a memorable interactive fable, but the frustrating camera and controls undermine the story, leaving it a good idea, but lacking as a whole experience.