Puzzle adventures have always been a genre that holds a special place in my heart. From the simplicity of the original ‘Escape the Room’ style Flash games to the much more elaborate worlds of Myst, Toki Tori 2, and the Professor Layton series, the combination of exploration coupled with the mental challenge of puzzles has always captivated and enthralled me. I had been particularly looking forward to Jonathan Blow’s The Witness for years as the next real game that could create that same sense of excitement and discovery within a beautiful new world, ripe to be challenged. But with minimal attention paid to the world of non-console-bound video games, I was truly surprised to discover Tom Jubert’s and Jonas Kyratzes’s philosophical puzzle adventure – The Talos Principle: Deluxe Edition headed to the PS4. In obtaining a review copy, I have been scouring the many lands and numerous puzzles that make up The Talos Principle. How has the adventure fared so far? Let's dig in so I can tell you.
As a common enough trope in many great puzzle games (a la Myst), you find you have awoken in the middle of nowhere, with no memory of who you are or how you got there. Thankfully, we are greeted by the omnipresent voice of Elohim, the creator and keeper of this world we find ourselves in. We are greeted as the robotic creation and child of Elohim and bid to explore his gardens and prove our worth and intellectual might by finding Tetris-shaped pieces called Sigils. In the collecting of these Sigils as the reward for solving the puzzles of this land, we demonstrate our faith in Elohim and the pursuit of his promise of eternal life.
Upon further exploration, the garden that we had originally awoken in and had been exploring is revealed to be one of seven areas, located within a larger cathedral-like hall. At one end of this hub-like area are two items, locked behind panels that require specific shapes of yellow Sigils to unlock. At the other end lies an elevator, also locked behind a panel requiring green Sigils to progress further.
With the collection of enough colored Sigils, a ‘fit all the pieces’ style of puzzle, and a brief elevator ride to the surface, we are shown to be within a world of not one, but three large bunker-like halls, each with its own theme and many areas to explore. Elohim welcomes us in our progress, saying that all of these lands are for us to tend to in the spirit of Free Will and Elohim’s divine mercy. The only commandment we are given is to avoid the Tower, an endless structure ascending to the heavens, as it will surely bring about our death…
But not all is necessarily as it seems. Throughout the adventure from the very start, you are made aware of basic computer commands and prompts being dotted into Elohim’s speech, drawing attention to the fact that you are an Artificially Intelligent being, and the reality that we are experiencing may not be the true reality of the world.
Additionally, throughout each area and with a bit of exploration, you are likely to encounter one or two computer terminals. The computers are the primitive sort you would have found in the 1990’s, but they respond to basic programming prompts selectable through multiple choice. The computers were once linked to the world’s largest information database, storing millions and millions of gigabytes of information, but the system had since been corrupted. Each computer is able to retrieve 3-4 locally available (though somewhat corrupted) files that help you to slowly piece together the reality of your situation and how your world truly came to be.
In addition to the local hard drive files, you are able to communicate with the Milton Library Assistant to gain access to the database when it happens to be available. The dialogue with the MLA requires you to have a user account in order to access the database, and the only way to get an account is to prove that you are human. And proving that you are human by defining an abstract concept such as ‘consciousness’ to a machine, even coming from a sophisticated AI such as yourself, is no small feat.
Eventually, when finally granted access, you find that you are able to plainly converse with the MLA to try and explore the archives. Though for a just being a computer, the system seems to have its own distinct (and somewhat cheeky) personality. While you don’t know if the system is truly trying to help you or not, the MLA is more than happy to challenge the commandments of Elohim and maintains its curiosity in slightly nudging you into exploring the Tower. It’s up to the player which avenue to pursue as you progress through the game.
Additionally, more of the story elements are told through QR codes you can find scattered through the many areas, especially if you explore all the corners of each area. Each one is registered to a unique individual bearing their own screen name. Some of the messages appear to be predecessors to us tasked with the same journey of overcoming all the challenges of Elohim’s garden, though it’s purposefully unclear if the codes appear from others going through the same trials at the same time, or if they’re only from the past predecessors who have tried and failed to attain eternal life. Some hold truer to the faith while others seem to question things a bit more. The conversations and messages discovered help to shed light on the trials and frame the world we’re in, though often, as with the computer’s data files, it leaves more questions than answers, forcing you to further explore and draw your own conclusions.
The puzzles themselves, the very meat of the game, are very engaging from the get-go. Each puzzle is set aside as its own small, contained labyrinth within each area. You can clearly see the start of each puzzle zone as they’re marked with signs pointing to active puzzles and each zone is marked with a purple force field at its entry. Upon entering each zone, you’re presented with the name of the puzzle, the icons of the type of items used in that puzzle, and the color and shape of the Sigil that you are seeking. The puzzle’s names can be particularly helpful, as they can give a small clue as to how to solve it.
In the beginner puzzles, you’re tasked with solving the mystery of pressure switches, blue force field doors, and a peculiar device called a Jammer, which interferes with and powers down any electrically driven entities within the puzzle. The Jammer becomes particularly useful as you encounter the Sentinels of the puzzles. One Sentinel is a free-floating orb that acts as a bomb, and the other is a wall-mounted machine gun. Both Sentinels emits red lasers to show their scanning areas that you’re not to enter, or you’ll be shot / blown-up. Additionally, both Sentinels emit faster and faster beeping patterns the closer you get to them, so you’ll definitely know when you’re too close. In the event that the Sentinels are able to get you, the program (time) is quickly rewound, and you are able to start the puzzle anew, with all mechanical limbs intact! Thankfully the Jammers power down these Sentinels in their tracks, as well as allow passage through the blue force field doors. The trick is getting the Jammers and all the other gear with you all the way to the end to claim the Sigil. Once the Sigil is claimed, a shortcut back to the entrance of the zone is revealed, so you’re never cornered at the end. Additionally, further into the game you can unlock additional items such as the Connector (opens doors via connecting colored lasers to switches), the Box (adds an element of different elevations), and the Fan (levitates items / impedes progress / launches items over walls) to name a few. Each of these items allows for even more complex puzzles and item combinations as the game progresses.
Another positive feature to the game is that the puzzles have a very steady yet satisfying ramp. As the game starts out in area 1, there are only green Sigils, with a couple yellow Sigils mixed in. As you continue to explore, each of the areas has a good mix of green (easy), yellow (medium), and red (hard difficulty) Sigils. While each color of Sigil does have its own unique purpose in progressing the game, the game ramp is very visible. With the earliest of red sigils, you are actively encouraged to continue on and return to explore and try again at a later time. There is even a hint system built in for the hardest of red sigils, but it requires awakening a Messenger of Elohim to attain the clue. More often than not, you can solve even the hardest red Sigil puzzles without any help, which is good as there are only three messengers and therefore three clues in the entire game of 150+ puzzles.
Lastly, for the especially diligent puzzle solver, there are one or two hidden stars within each area, both inside and outside of the puzzle zones. Often times, these stars are hard to locate, and even harder to get to. They usually require a level of out-of-the-box thinking, often combining elements from multiple puzzle zones over long distances to open the doors. For those that are crafty enough to collect all 10 per each hub, these stars can be used to open a secret eighth area, where you can collect the super rare silver Sigils. These silver Sigils are what are required to unlock the final floor of the Tower, and are therefore there as the ultimate reward of the truly dedicated completionist. But who’s to say what’s really up there?
One of the best features of The Talos Principle is the scenery of the world itself; the sprawling landscapes are absolutely stunning and add so much to the immersion of the game. The parts of the world, from the three halls to each of their respective areas to the overworld itself, are all very strikingly different. The first hall bases its design around the Greek style of architecture, as each area is filled with the ruins of crumbling pillars, statues, and mortared walls around the luscious and maze-like gardens. The second hall focuses on the stylings of Egypt, with sandy deserts and crumbling pyramids and sandstone walls, while the third hall focuses more on the stylings of castles and forests of Northern Europe. The overworld itself is set in an industrialized setting, showing the halls to merely be bunkers dotted on a frozen wasteland, with the cold metal of the elevator shaft of the tower looming over them all. What is great about all of these themes is that they tie perfectly into the narrative of the story and cause the player to question the reality set before us. The themes themselves also continue to stay fresh between the seven areas of each hall, as each is presented in a different way, keeping exploration new and interesting. Within the first hall (Greek), one area could be fashioned after the inside of a Roman Coliseum, while the next puts you atop a plateau, overlooking a vast forest, and yet the next one sets you on an island, with other islands clearly visible but just beyond reach.
One of the most breathtaking elements of the visual presentation, besides being in gorgeous HD on the PlayStation 4, is the sheer scale of some of the surrounding areas. In the distance of the overworld lies a breathtaking mountain range with an eternal sunrise, whose view only improves the higher you climb the tower (or so we’re told via QR Code). Within the desert regions lie humongous Egyptian pyramids, some of which you can actually travel to and attempt to climb.
With such vast worlds to explore and huge landmarks in the distance to draw in the avid explorer, why stick around for the puzzles at all? As the prevailing theme of the game continues to reinforce even through exploration, not everything is quite as it seems. If you venture too far outside the main area of each zone, the world will start to glitch out, and if you still proceed onward, you are rewound to the start of the area, just as if you had died in one of the puzzles. No matter how hard you try, there doesn’t appear to be any way to escape the domain of Elohim.
One last visual cue that adds to the immersion yet unease of the reality of the game is that throughout your travels, occasional portions of the landscape will fizzle and glitch out. When in certain areas it becomes extremely noticeable, Elohim will boom out from the heavens to repair the landscape, stating when completed that the corrupted data has been restored.
Beyond just the visuals and game interactions, the music of The Talos Principle brings the whole package together. From the haunting chords and Latin text of the deep bass singers of the menu screen, you’re given a very isolated, yet cerebral feeling of the game, like that of a temple or place of knowledge. Within the individual worlds, the music turns much lighter, with ethereal notes and many instruments making for a fantastic score and backdrop for puzzle solving. While none are so memorable that you’ll hum them long after you’re done, the tunes perfectly convey the feeling of isolation, exploration, and mystery that pervades every corner of the world.
Final Conclusion: Best Puzzle Adventure in Years
As it turns out, The Talos Principle is the game I had been waiting for all along. Not only did the game by and far exceed my expectations, but is a very strong contender for the best game I have played in years! To put it plainly, The Talos Principle is an amazing game and is well worth the money. I’ve put many, many hours into this game already, and I’m lucky if I’m even 2/3 of the way through the game. I know that this game has me hooked, and the perfectionist in me won’t be quitting until I find every last star and Sigil to discover what really resides at the top of the Tower.
In addition to the main story, this Deluxe Edition also comes with a free expansion to the game outside of the main story but still in the same world. The expansion, entitled ‘Road to Gehenna,’ contains even more puzzles for the experienced player, set in a new part of the world of Elohim.
The Talos Principle: Deluxe Edition is available today, in stores and digitally for the PS4 for $49.99.