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The Talos Principle (PlayStation 4) artwork

The Talos Principle (PlayStation 4) review

"A surprisingly intense and intelligent puzzle game from an unexpected developer."

The Talos Principle is the exact type of mid-career zig-zag you might expect from a developer in need of a break from forging outlandish murder boxes. The developer in this instance is Croteam, makers of the Serious Sam series that has been going in some form since 2001. I won’t claim to be an expert on those games - I’ve only ever played one game in the franchise, and I don’t even remember the name of it - but I do know one thing about them: You shoot a lot of dudes. Sometimes those dudes have no head. Sometimes they’re gargantuan demons from beyond the void. Sometimes, the action is framed as a 2D sidescroller instead of a first-person shooter. Either way, hella bullets. Considering the thematic repetition of Croteam’s main attraction, it would be understandable to think that cartoon violence is the only thing that held much interest for the developers. Including spin-off titles from other developers and VR experiments, there are twenty Serious Sam games available to purchase. That’s a lot of headless demons. It was time for something new. After finishing The Talos Principle, an excellent reframing of what Croteam is capable of, I was left wondering, among other things, what took them so long to expand their horizons.

I’ve never wondered what it would look like if they made Tetris creepy, but The Talos Principle provides an able answer. The gameplay rhythms will be familiar to anyone who has played Portal or any other first-person puzzle game. Your task is to obtain a free-floating unlicensed Tetromino perpetually spinning in place at the end of each level, typically guarded by a bright, blue barrier that you have to shut off in some fashion, usually with a laser or placing something on a pressure plate connected to the forcefield. You have several tools at your disposal, and you've seen them all before: power switches, lasers that unlock color-coded doors, hexahedrons (not blocks - there is an achievement/trophy that specifically calls them out as not blocks), propulsive fans to push you across a level or make you levitate, and a recording device that clones your movements. The internal logic between all of these devices is completely unspoken - there are no tutorials to hold your hand - but communicated intuitively enough that finding the path forward is rarely difficult to suss out. There will still be times when you get stuck on a puzzle - the recording tool in particular gave my dumb brain a lot of problems - but Croteam thought of a helpful workaround for such situations: the entire game is open world, so you can just skip a level and return to it later after solving any of the dozens of puzzles available to you at all times. The game doesn’t pass any judgment on how you progress through the game, or how long you take on certain levels. It actually encourages you to admit defeat at times, you get an achievement/trophy when you wave the white flag the first time. Because of this, puzzle-solving never devolves into head-bashing frustration - at least until the endgame where the visual language becomes too complex for its own good. There are 120 levels in The Talos Principle, and it turns out that’s about thirty too many. As the complexity ramps up, the gameplay swings from an enjoyable mind exercises to frustrating busy work. It’s a mistake borne of over-exuberance more than suspect design. Croteam was clearly excited, with good reason, to show off their more newfound talents, but the game would be better if it ended a couple hours earlier. The final sequence is a novel reworking of the game’s ideas, but I didn’t enjoy it much at the time because I just wanted the game to be over.

My annoyance at the game’s lifespan is because of how invested I was in seeing how this game would conclude. The Talos Principle has a story, but the game’s self-interest in its plot is dwarfed by its philosophical musings. Croteam doesn't hide this desire: The Talos Principle is named after Talos, a mechanical protector from Greek mythology. The model of your player character is somewhere between a robot and a next-generation crash test dummy. As soon as you start the game, you are welcomed by a booming voice from on high who goes by the name of Elohim, a moniker he/it shares with the Hebrew Bible version of God, the first of many references to ancient mythologies.

There are three distinct worlds where most of the puzzles are housed, each based on a different ancient civilization and packed with fragments explaining the origins of this simulation and the creation myths associated with each culture. Throughout each environment, there are computers filled with excerpts of debates and entry logs from the makers of this environment about what it means to be human, the possibility of artificial intelligence, and the meaning of life. The purpose and origin of this world is teased out through these fragments of history. It’s gratifying to consider how quickly the breadth of games has expanded to the point that this kind of subject matter is fair game. A game that incorporates the Egyptian concept of the afterlife and Stoicism could come off as arrogant or self-satisfied, but Croteam manages to stay on the right side of that line. It's like a Jon Blow game without the pomposity.

All of your answers are allegedly found in the tower, the brutalist structure looming over the hub world connecting each area. Elohim makes it very clear that he does not want you to access this building’s secrets, and because this is a piece of fiction, you quickly disregard his request. You unlock each of the six floors by completing certain puzzle levels tied to each floor. Once you find the specific pieces, you then have to put the pieces together in a certain order to earn progress. Each floor comes with more clues about the world’s origins, allows access to the next floor, begin the cycle again.

The world of The Talos Principle is a uniquely unsettling place. Each hub world, with its distinct architecture and acres of empty space, invokes the dead atmosphere of a long-abandoned amusement park. The horizon stretches on into infinity. You find notes from other users detailing their experiences, but your only interactions with another being come in the form of conversations with another user who is exactly who you think it is. Your every movement is watched by a ghost in the machine who is hiding monumental secrets from you. Pieces of the environment intentionally glitch out of focus like a cable box in search of a signal. But the main source of anxiety in this game stems from Croteam’s use of sound. The Talos Principle is an exercise in how to build tension. The uneasy stillness of this world is only interrupted by a series of deeply ominous sound cues that mix old school computer tech with sci-fi thriller tropes. You enter each puzzle area through a portal in the hub world that whirrs like the turbine of a spaceship. The sounder that plays when you finish a level might as well be ripped out of a mid-00’s flash game. There are a couple pieces of pleasant instrumentals interspersed throughout the game, but it's not enough. Any time I heard the two-tone “blink” of a nearby desktop alerting me to new information or a new conversation, I got the same dreadful feeling in my chest.

It’s not a horror game per se, but there is always a feeling that something big and terrifying and loud is waiting behind the next corner. The one time The Talos Principle delivers on this feeling, in a way that cleverly nods to the developer’s past, I literally jumped off the couch.

But that fear inevitably fades as you traverse this virtual Egyptian terrain for the twentieth time.

You could explain this away as part of the narrative. There’s something darkly funny about a game exploring humanity’s search for meaning within a chaotic existence overstaying its welcome to the point that the story is stretched beyond its means and you would just be happy for the exercise to end. But that’s probably giving Croteam too much credit.

Nevertheless, The Talos Principle is a pretty astounding game considering Croteam's track record. The puzzles are clever and intuitively designed, and the story discusses some pretty big ideas without ever succumbing to self-indulgence. There's more than enough on show here to change any perception of Croteam being a one-trick pony. They can do more than design combat arenas. A Talos Principle 2 is apparently on the way, and I’m excited to see what they could accomplish with a sequel. Get a better editor and they’ve got something special.


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Community review by sam1193 (April 30, 2018)

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