Publisher: Versus Evil
Rating: T for Teen
Lately, video game developers have been under fire for what they decide to include or not include in their projects. For example, Ubisoft was criticized for choosing not to include a female protagonist in its latest release, Assassin’s Creed Unity. Bioware is also a victim of social media outcry, whether it be for the sexual content in their games or the much publicized roasting they got over the conclusion of Mass Effect 3.
Social media can be a very good communication medium but it can also be damaging to all parties involved. The reason I bring this up is because Toren features a female protagonist. In fact, on its official steam page, “Female Protagonist” is a tag in which you can click and see other games that also feature a lead heroine. I believe that Swordtales chose to build their game around a female protagonist because it adds to Toren‘s story and overall feel of the game, exponentially. I believe this is the only reason a piece of art should include or not include things—only if it adds to the piece and makes sense, not because of social media backlash or current trends.
All was right in a mystical land until mankind rebelled and built a tower to the sky called Toren, which caused the Sun to curse the lands and never leave its position in the sky. Only a small girl named Moonchild can climb Toren and save humanity from its ancestor’s failures.
While the plot may non-specific, Toren’s writing is still strong. This is due to the harmonious narrative that engages you throughout the entire game. Toren is chock-full with symbolism and metaphorical dialogue of almost biblical proportion. Here are a couple quotes from the game to illustrate my thoughts: “This contract of knowledge is written on our skin in blood; In darkness, beneath the well,” and “As much as it hurts, you must put your wishes aside. Who knows what harm they will bring?” A similar thought can be derived from Psalms 51:5 (KJV) which says: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Furthermore, 1 John 3:20 (KJV) says “For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” The narrative clearly alludes to the Bible, however it really is up to the player how they wish to receive the emotionally impactful messages.
Spiritual Content: The theme of the game is more spiritual than biblical with dragons and character figures rather than human beings.
Language/Crude Humor: NONE
Sexual Content: NONE
Drug/Alcohol Use: NONE
Other Negative Themes: Murder
Positive Content: Allusions to the bible through statements that are similar to verses.
Right off the bat, Toren suggests that you use a controller to have the best experience and that makes sense because I would never play a Zelda type adventure game by using a mouse and keyboard. The control scheme is very familiar to past games with the analog sticks being used for moving and slight camera manipulation. The X button is to interact with objects and characters; and the A button is used for jumping. The Y button has an interesting and unique function because when you press it, it will turn the camera towards the next point of interest, which helps if you are feeling lost and don’t know where to go. Conversely, sometimes pressing Y gives you a zoomed-out camera that lets you see the whole level, which can help for showing around specific, tight areas.
To sufficiently relay the inspiration of Toren’s design, consider the following medley of games: Ico, Journey, and Zelda. Toren is through and through an adventure game, with combat as its secondary focus. It is as if Swordtales played Ico and thought “A little bit of Zelda would help augment this game’s intuitive and immersive tone,” and as such, you get the occasional weapon and item that helps you along the way. If you aren’t climbing a fairly sized construct, you’re traversing an ethereal, blooming terrain, or fighting/avoiding outlandish enemies. When you do face enemies, they are mystical, no-faced creatures that are unlike regular enemies that you would see in other video games, and this fits within the game as they aren’t really dangerous, but serve most like obstacles to watch for. A few exceptions to this are the few boss fights and encounters you will have with an evil dragon that seems to be a part of the Sun’s curse towards mankind. When you aren’t fighting the dragon, you are avoiding his fire attacks that turn parts of the land to stone. When you can’t attack the dragon, you feel scared, but when the time comes that you can attack the dragon, you feel powerful.
Along your journey in the world of Toren, you also have the ability to meditate and enter your dreams to learn more about yourself and progress further along the story. Each dream has an explicit theme to them that helps the player understand its meaning, like “Emotion,” or “Justice.” Not only do the meditation sequences vary the gameplay, they also enhance the plot as you directly place yourself into the shoes of Moonchild and grow with her. These dream levels are much more soulful and symbolic rather than conventional, like being in an environment of water, but having a more earth-like gravity and platforming activities.
Toren features a semi-fixed camera that represents just how finely tuned and directed the short-but-sweet playthrough really is. You can slightly move the camera around, but it stays in fixed positions and movements that are effective in relaying the appropriate emotions to the player, like a Resident Evil game have done. The selective camera creates “scenes” similar to what you would find in a movie, and it works beyond measure. The player ends up seeing the beautiful three-dimensional world in the exact way the developer wants them to, possibly evoking the appropriate emotional response from them. The cutscenes show as stop motion storyboards, but they felt lazy and didn’t work as much as the rest of the game did.
The world in Toren is a beautiful, dark, mystical land that yields varying, but appropriate environments. You can go from a castle with a tree growing in the middle of it, to a desert with miles of sand all around, and finally to an underwater world with aquatic plants swaying with you in the seemingly weightless space. Each setting feels different and fresh as you work your way through the mystical lands and your own personal dreamlands. The underlying score is captivating, with soothing, warm sounding instruments and techno synthesizers. Swordtales used Novastrike Soundscape for their score, a company that wants to create content “inspired by the current Japanese media style of composition, while merging it with the well-known western symphonic style.” Less importance is placed on dialogue as your character mostly just exclaims, much like you would hear in a Zelda game. Toren relies more on having you entranced in its mystic lands and emotional narrative rather than somewhat obtrusive voices.
Toren combines the best parts of past masterpiece games like: the presentation of Ico, the adventure of Journey, the gameplay of Zelda, and the allegory of Myst. If you are interested in any of those experiences, you will find much pleasure in Toren. You will be directed through a beautiful narrative and linear movie-like scenes throughout your full, two hour playthrough. You will also be asked questions about yourself that a video game has never ventured to before.
The Bottom Line
Toren is a short but satisfying video game that plays like a movie. Imagine the emotion and style of Ico, mixed with the presentation and progression of Journey, and you get a good idea of what Toren feels like.