Physics challenges and philosophical pondering converge in this heartfelt treat.
It begins without fanfare; a list of computer commands projected against a sea of cloud. There's no cut-scene or plotting, nor the slightest indication of the brilliance to come. Instead, your robot avatar is shown a simple garden and bid seek a temple by the booming voice of a supposed god. In short order, you grasp the necessity of spatial reasoning through the first-person perspective, then the binary function of electrical jammers that disable barriers and lethal security systems. No formal tutorial is offered and none is required; like a child with a set of building blocks you learn through play.
Slowly, it escalates, layering new puzzle elements atop the old and unveiling a loose thread of narrative to pick at that hints at some long-past extinction event and grapples with the frailty of the human condition. It's soon apparent that this first-person philosophical puzzler represents quite the departure for the team responsible for the bombastic Serious Sam franchise.
The individual puzzle elements of The Talos Principle are clean and uncomplicated. Alongside its jamming devices are connectors that link laser beam power-sources to conduits in order to open doors and power a handful of electrical tools. Blocks act as weights for switches, or as steps, disruptors or floating platforms and there's a clever holographic recording device that comes into play later on. Like its tools, the puzzles avoid becoming obtuse or fussy, with Croteam instead trusting to the layering effect to provide a series of challenges whose complexity comes colour-coded and clear of clutter.
Each puzzle exists within a discreet space akin to an open air version of Portal's testing labs. Movement between them, and the three disparately-themed but geographically-connected hubs, is largely freeform - so if one set of puzzles is baking your noodle you can always move on to another. Nonetheless, you'll need to unlock all of the tools of the trade before attempting the later challenges, and this is where The Talos Principle's second tier of puzzles reveals itself.
The Tetris-style shapes rewarded for completing individual puzzle areas each form part of one of several sets. Once the parts of an entire set have been collected, either through selective hunting or idle meandering, they must be plugged into a template in order to gain access to a new area or unlock a new tool. Rather than being held in an inventory, these tools are made available within the environments themselves and so you're always clear on what's required for the job at hand and how many you have available to complete the task.
The more puzzles you complete, the more tools you have in your toolbox and the more transferable skills you pick up to apply across the 120-plus puzzles. As you master the basics, they become neatly folded into bigger, more complex solutions. Some puzzles stubbornly refuse to give way to incessant tinkering and must instead be temporarily abandoned, only to spend half a day being turned over at the back of your mind before the solution unexpectedly reveals itself whilst you're doing something else.
Almost always, your own inquisitive nature and intuition will serve you well and the solution will come. However, if you do get stuck, help is at hand, provided you're willing to jump through the hoops necessary to obtain it. In the instances where you do gnash your teeth it's at your own failure to make that final leap in logic and is soon followed by appreciative laughter as the solution to one puzzle unexpectedly presents itself while you're solving another and you're left to shake your head at both the ingenuity of the designers and your own short-lived inability to see the wood for the trees.
As a puzzler, then, The Talos Principle easily succeeds in keeping you entertained and it would be a perfectly satisfactory, if somewhat sterile, experience if that's all there was to it. Happily, it becomes so much more as you begin to pick at the edges of its narrative and slowly start to reveal snippets of a disquieting tale of a civilization lost. Writers Tom Jubert (FTL and The Swapper) and Jonas Kyratzes (The Infinite Ocean and The Sea Will Claim Everything) are on top form here, bringing to bear the humour, thoughtfulness and existentialist ponderings that have characterised their previous works in a manner that is sublime in its deftness of touch.
You slowly reconcile expectation with reality as you unravel how your robot avatar came to be wandering environments that are as desolate as they are beautiful. Early on, philosophical notions are presented as questions that you respond to via the many computer terminals scattered throughout the land. It's through these that you also come to understand more of the current world state but underpinning the sci-fi leanings is a power struggle between the apparent creator of this unearthly realm, Elohim, and an errant entity who hacks the computer terminals to whisper sweet temptation and to needle you for your obedience.
All the while a forbidden and foreboding Tower of Babel-esque structure looms above you, bidding you enter in silent invitation even as the seeming benevolent Elohim cautions that to do so will mean certain death. It's a compelling narrative that drives you deep into the tail-end of the game and feels reason enough to push on through the latter stages when the puzzles stack-up and the story slows down a notch.
The Talos Principle is a game of challenges and conundrums and philosophical wonderings, filled with logic puzzles and cerebral mysteries. Its chunky mechanical processes are underpinned by a compelling breadcrumb-trail narrative that tackles the intangible notion of humanity and consciousness. Consequently, despite playing a robot that interacts with computer terminals and takes instruction from a disembodied voice in the sky, it exudes personality and charm; its mechanical precision complementing its aesthetic qualities. For an experience bereft of human contact it boasts a very big heart indeed.