Toren marks the first release by Brazilian developer Swordtales, and is the latest of the smaller indie titles to grace the PlayStation 4. Sony's console seems like a great fit for the foray, too, as it takes a huge helping of inspiration from a PlayStation 2 classic, ICO. Of course, while drawing influence from such an iconic outing is intriguing, does it do Fumito Ueda's opus justice?
You control Moonchild, a girl trapped on a mysterious tower overseen by a villainous dragon. Your quest is to reach the top of the structure with the aid of a stoic magician, where you'll need to slaughter the menacing lizard that's perched atop it in order to earn your freedom.
Right out of the gate, the title offers several strong aspects – and the art direction is right at the forefront. You'll begin the game at the base of the abovementioned obelisk, and as you journey up it, you'll encounter dozens of different environments. These range from various antechambers to an undersea level all the way through to 'The Abyss' – a dark hellish landscape covered in leering eyes straight out of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
While the general style is strong, though, the textures are downright dreadful. To illustrate just how bad parts of the game look, we'll stress that they probably wouldn't appear out of place in a late 90s PC title, which is certainly a problem. Compounding this issue are some really awkward animations, which means that the game never really does its excellent art direction justice.
The bigger problem, though, is that the release isn't especially fun to play. The campaign consists of some excruciatingly tedious platforming challenges. The problem is that the jumping mechanic never feels natural; sometimes Moonchild will fail to even leap at all. Couple this with bland level design and awkward camera placement, and it's a shining example of a title that's better looked at than touched.
At least the music fares a lot better across the board. A cross between a Joe Hisaishi score – who's best known for contributing to various Studio Ghibli releases – and the Mass Effect music, the audio is exceptional, and perhaps better than the clunky gameplay deserves.
Speaking of which, there are a glut of technical hiccups to contend with, too. We experienced several sessions in which animations would often get stuck; in particular, we played through a ten minute spell where Moonchild's arms were wedged above her head. The frame rate's also an issue – jittering despite the lack of technical ambition on display. And screen tearing is a bothersome problem from start-to-finish, once again upsetting that excellent art direction.
To be fair, the developer's not asking a lot of money for this game – only $9.99, in fact – but that doesn't really excuse the release's various problems. With a bit more time in the oven, we can't help but feel that the whole experience could have been cleaned up significantly – but with the excellent Wolfenstein: The Old Blood retailing for a few dollars more, what should have been a great value proposition still ends up looking a little steep.
Terrible textures aside, there's a beauty to Toren's art and audio direction that's worth beholding. The problem is that outside of these assets, Swordtales' two hour adventure falls short. A plethora of technical problems and uninteresting level design win out over the positive aspects, and this experience is below par as a consequence. Listen and look at it by all means – just try to avoid actually playing it.