The Talos Principle is an atmospheric puzzle game with a philosophical sci-fi story. While the game essentially consists of solving a sequence of puzzles, it seems to establish storytelling and exploration as its primary intention.
Narrative preferences will definitely play a role in whether or not you enjoy this game. To me, it was an intriguing experience with unique storytelling and very nice atmosphere. The puzzle gameplay was reasonably satisfying and was very tightly designed, albeit a little disconnected from the game’s story and themes.
The Talos Principle sets out to be two things: a story/exploration game and a puzzle game. So how does it do on these two fronts?
The puzzle aspect is easier to talk about, so I’ll start there. The puzzle gameplay generally consists of straightforward physics puzzles. Each puzzle is separated into its own contained space. In this way, it very much follows the Portal formula, although with less death-defying acrobatics. You’ll find yourself positioning objects to open doors, redirecting lasers, and so on. Many of the most successful puzzle games take a single concept and explore it thoroughly. They add new mechanics that create depth without drastically changing the core puzzle mechanic. Good examples include Braid (time manipulation), Portal (portals, obviously), or Crush (a PSP game that let you collapse the 3d level into a flat plane). Compared to these, the Talos Principle feels lacking because it uses a jumble of different mechanics without exploring them all that deeply.
That said, the puzzle gameplay is still pretty solid. The puzzles are very carefully designed, and the solutions are often clever. The mechanics are pretty tight and it gracefully sidesteps the issues that physics-based puzzlers often have (Should I be able to make this jump? Is this supposed to have landed somewhere else?). A few of the puzzles have odd, subversive solutions but they’re in the minority.
Even so, evaluated as simply a puzzle game, The Talos Principle lacks focus. It draws from a bunch of puzzle mechanics that have been explored in other games and doesn’t dig all that deeply into them. If you like puzzle games but you’re not interested in the game’s story, this one will probably fall flat for you.
The story and exploration, however, are the more unique part of this game. The story is delivered through a series of computer terminals that you find between puzzles. They contain old emails, documents, and bits of ancient myths or philosophical writings. Through these, one slowly learns the game’s backstory. It’s hard to explain much without giving anything away, but the these files explore themes of artificial intelligence, religion, and the meaning of humanity. Lot’s of philosophical stuff, to be sure. Some of the snippets you read may come off as over-the-top pontificating, but I rarely found that to be the case. The story is also driven by a booming voice from the sky who serves as the god of the game’s world. The voice tells you what to do and where to go, asking you to solve these puzzles as “trials” to overcome before you can achieve enlightenment. As you progress through the game, you will choose the degree to which you obey his wishes.
The atmosphere and environments are very nicely realized. The hub areas between puzzle rooms are built with love and attention to detail, and riddled with little easter eggs that shed light on the story or award hard-to-find collectibles. The music is very pretty and polished, and while it could certainly be accused of being melodramatic or overly serious, I found it to be a nice compliment to the game’s themes and environments.
The Talos Principle is a game primarily about its story and environments. While the puzzle gameplay is awkwardly integrated into the game’s story, it’s at least moderately strong and serves as a nice pacing device for the bits of backstory you collect as the game progresses. If you like a bit of philosophical musing and good storytelling and you don’t mind reading a page or two of text between sets of puzzles, then you’ll probably find it to be a rewarding experience.
Overall Impression: An interesting game that tells a cool story. If you like philosophical games with an edge of mystery and you don’t mind puzzle mechanics, it’s worth your time.