Toren is an action adventure game, from developer Swordtales, about a little girl (Moonchild) who must ascend a mysterious tower, face a dragon, and discover herself. The premise is simple yet intriguing, the visuals are beautiful and the gameplay is what it is, but the obscure story and janky controls make Toren a bastion of wasted potential.
First and foremost this is not a bad game, more than anything it simply feels undercooked. Even though the concept of ascending a tower is a fairly linear one, there was a lot more to be explored here than ended up in the final 2-3 hour experience.
The tower itself is interesting but the developer did it an injustice, given that there is really very little exploring to be done, nevermind secret areas and things you would normally expect from such a game. There was a ton of potential for environmental story-telling that, outside of a few telescopes a la The Unfinished Swan, were not at all present. And the random story elements (that turned out to be really quite important) always seemed trivial, largely because they are told in a whimsical, fantasy way that makes it seem like poetic ramblings, as opposed to important story beats.
So the tower is a surprisingly linear place. As the game begins you exit an area fairly low down on the tower, climb a ladder, then you can go left to enter the tower and really begin your journey, or go left and interact with an altar, which works as a checkpoint. Naturally I assumed this would be one of many checkpoints but I was wrong, it's the only one. And it doesn't make much sense for it to even be there, because once you pass a certain point in the game Moonchild simply wakes up in new locations. So you miss a jump, plummet to your death, then wake up in a room a few minutes back. That inital altar becomes irrelevant and it doesn't play a role in the story.
Style? Yes. Substance? Mmmmm.
However, it's not all bad. The game has some admirable qualities and, as mentioned, is more an instance of wasted potential than a bad game. The visuals are really nice at times, albeit perpetually unpolished and jagged. The most glaring visual flaw I noticed was when Moonchild is older and wearing a white dress; as you walk there is a small horizontal gap in her dress and you can see right through to the world in front of her. And despite all of that, there's some definite charm to the aesthetic. The game really shines when it uses elemental effects, i.e. wind, sunlight, lightning, etc. This coupled with the foreboding atmosphere makes it a memorable, albeit short, experience.
After an hour or so, the visual style of the game became less quirky and artsy, and more amateur and sore on your eyes. It honestly looks kinda like a game that never left the pre-alpha stage. Had they had more time/resources/money maybe Swordtales could have made the art style that bit better and polished. That could have really helped the game.
The game is reminiscent of ICO in the way it plays. That was the comparison I kept coming to in the first hour. It's all about exploration, with a kid, in a surreal-looking world. However the comparison disappeared the more I played. It doesn't control in a standard way, which can be a real pain, especially because you have no real control of the camera and sometimes Moonchild will blend in with the tree in the centre of the tower, making it hard to see her and gauge jumps.
Then there's the sword. About a third into the game you get a small sword which you have to use to knock the dragon out of your way. This works ok but, like everything else, feels fairly underused. When you first encounter the dragon it is fittingly imposing and scary, mostly because of how young and frail you appear. Then you quickly have a mini battle with it and are painfully reminded it's a video game. The dragon has two attacks, which it alternates between, and never moves from the spot it lands on. This is far from the dragon fights you've had in Skyrim or The Witcher.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is when it teleports you to other worlds. occasionally you interact with objects that cause you to be transported to a new location, which helps you grow and train. The best of these other worlds is the first, an underwater area where you jump from platform to platform with moon-gravity motions. It's fun and exciting, something the game sadly fails to build upon.
There are more of these dreamlands in the game but none as interesting. However they do always imbue a nice change of pace and aesthetic. They're also the most interesting story beats because you get to see Moonchild do some things that ultimately prepare her for her battle with the dragon. Had this been a bigger game, it could have been amazing to see her grow and mature with significantly more time - in less than 2 hours you see Moonchild go from baby to (presumed) teenager. That's why I keep harping on about wasted potential, because I truly believe there was an amazing premise here.
Toren looks like a PS2 game, and yet the visuals are arguably its best feature. The controls are very simple and the areas small and linear, and yet both still manage to be awkward and annoying. A few sections were borderline infuriating, due to wonky controls and a complete lack of light. The story was interesting but confusing, and where it ultimately ended up was far from what I expected - in a "meh" way.
It says a lot for the bright spots of this game that, despite everything I've mentioned, I still enjoyed playing it. Toren is a ridiculously flawed game but one that I wanted to see through to the end. The game clocks in at around 2 hours but should have been longer - given that the tenet of the experience is a journey/exploration of a mysterious tower.
I've said it several times already but I'll say it once more: Toren is a bastion of wasted potential.