What is it that makes you human? Is it the blood pumping through your body? Is it your knowledge of self and awareness of you, relative to everyone else? Is it something else entirely? First-person puzzle game The Talos Principle asks these questions and more, blending brain-teasing puzzles with a thoughtful, yet subdued, story about what it means to be human.
In The Talos Principle, players traverse an environment which mixes ancient Greek aesthetics with the technology of the distant future, solving puzzles while the occasional tidbit of story drifts your way. Your guide through this world of puzzles is Elohim, a booming, detached voice who initially seems to be a supernatural deity. Thanks to great writing and a great vocal performance, Elohim’s always a treat to listen to, even when its dialogue is something as simple as advising you to take a break on a puzzle you’ve been stuck on for a while. Unlike most detached video game voices, Elohim's there to give you information and inform you of your limits, but not to order you around... for the most part. One exception to that, however, is when Elohim warns you not to enter the massive, ominous Tower, and that the day you do will be the day you die. So naturally, you'll want to get inside that Tower as soon as possible.
Within the puzzles themselves, players have to jam electronic turrets, unlock forcefields, deflect lasers, and more. If you've played other first-person puzzle games such as Portal or Quantum Conundrum, you'll feel right at home here. The Talos Principle takes a different approach to its levels, though; rather than having each stage be a winding series of multiple, intertwined challenges, here they're generally just one sharp puzzle apiece. Once you're done, you can pack up and move lickety-split to the next one. These simple, clean puzzles are straightforward, but offer increasing challenge and variation as you progress through the game, and are a real treat for anyone with a mind for logical conundrums and spatial manipulations. Plus, they can be tackled in almost any order you choose, so if there's an area you're just not wrapping your brain around at the moment, you can always come back to it later.
As you take down puzzle after puzzle you'll occasionally come across computer terminals. These computers offer all sorts of interesting background information about other characters, the world itself, and a number of complex philosophical musings about humanism which will probably have you sitting still for a moment while you ponder them over. Questions like, "If there are humans whose mental deficiencies render their capabilities to that of an animal, are they still human? If so, are animals with similar mental facilities also human?" are par for the course in The Talos Principle, and they add a wonderful bit of depth to what could have otherwise been a straightforward puzzle game. Those of you who are purely here to move blocks and complete levels, however, worry not, as these terminals are entirely optional, so you can bull rush your way from level to level without stopping to breathe should you so choose.
The Talos Principle's controls are simple and effective, utilizing basic WASD movement with lots of left-clicking, so it's easy to pick up and play regardless of your skill level. Your walk speed is a bit higher than that of most games, and your run speed would make Barry Allen jealous, so it's easy to zip around through the many wondrous landscapes between puzzles, taking as much or as little time as you want to look around. The moody soundtrack's alternating heavy tones and uplifting tunes instill the perfect sense of contemplativeness, and the future-past aesthetic of ancient Greek architecture mixed with future tech, worn-out warehouses, and arctic wastelands create a rich sense of story. The situation may not be spelled out for you, but if you pay enough attention to what's happening, you'll figure everything out.
Few games manage to be such a delightful surprise as The Talos Principle. As an indie game by a team known for the wild first-person shooter Serious Sam, not much was expected, and yet what we got was a fantastic puzzle game blended with a story and world surpassing that of most video games by being thought-provoking, well-crafted, and actually having something to say. Though many games simply contend themselves as being great time-wasters, The Talos Principles manages to be both a great game and a contemplative piece of art, and the world is a richer place for it.
This review was based on a purchased digital copy of The Talos Principle for the PC.