Wot I Think: The Talos Principle – Road To Gehenna

The Talos Principle [official site] arrived very late in 2014, such that it erroneously missed out on the Game Of The Year accolades it unquestionably deserved. It had puzzles to match the exquisite Portal 2, and a story which fascinatingly and engagingly explored the philosophy of consciousness and existence. But hurrah, it can now return to our attention some seven months later with the addition of Road To Gehenna – an extensive expansion pack with a whole new story. Here’s wot I think:

The Talos Principle saw you play as a person/robot/cyborg/figure-it-out-for-yourself tasked with recovering puzzle pieces (sigils) from a vast collection of first-person outdoor zones, by manipulating patterns of laser beams, electronic gates, powerful fans, and later time-loops and single-player co-op. Along the way you’re given conflicting interpretations of your strange, clearly artificial circumstances, with the god-like omnipotent voice of Elohim contending with the smart-ass voice of Milton on the computer terminals. And in both elements, you’re asked to think.

Alongside the puzzling chops so stunningly revealed by Serious Sam creators Croteam, writers Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes both return for story duty on this expansion, meaning – happy day – we’ve got not just more, tougher, more elaborate puzzles, but another deep and ingeniously delivered story to delve into. And if you’ve finished Talos, you’ll likely be wondering how.

Gehenna takes place parallel to the events of Talos, but elsewhere in the strange, glitchy realms. Ever wondered what happened to some of the other inhabitants who’d been leaving those QR codes? It turns out Elohim has been banishing a number of them to another part of the world, and imprisoning them within puzzles. In these last days, he’s recognised that this was a mistake, and asks you – Uriel – to free them. But do they want to be freed?

This means a new collection of challenges that pick up where Talos’s left off. Which is to say: they’re hard. Of the first group of four, you’ll find yourself pushed to make judicious and austere use of laser connectors in a way that would have felt utterly impossible without the education of the main game, and attempting to perform familiar tricks with fans, blocks, and connectors across a huge, sprawling landscape rather than a confined area.

And wow, the puzzles are good. When I say tougher, it’s in the best possible way: far more thoughtful, rather than far more fiddly. Where Talos’s challenges got a little too over-complicated at times, here it’s really focused on those glorious times of staring at the puzzle pieces you’ve got, and the board you have to place them on, and thinking and experimenting and thinking until flashes of inspiration arrive and a new possibility can be tested. At one point I ended up drawing out an attempt at a top-down version of the seemingly simple layout, in an effort to work out what possible layout of just three connectors could make a pattern complex enough to complete it.

I’ve declared out loud (jokingly, I stress), “If this works it means I’m the cleverest person in the universe,” and, “Oh my goodness, I am a GENIUS!”. As is abundantly obvious, I’m not a genius, but it’s so great to feel so very, very brilliant for those short moments. Puzzle games that can achieve that silly high are very rare, and this expansion keeps dishing it out.

This does include two more of the time-loop puzzles. Clearly tastes vary here, but I found these to be the most frustrating sections of Talos, requiring my brain to think far too far ahead of itself, and in too many directions. (I don’t think I would ever have gotten past that final tower puzzle without a guide, even if given an infinity.) Although practice means they’re slightly less daunting this time out (perhaps I’ve gone ahead of myself and helped myself solve them?), and they’re better mixed into the more entertaining aspects of linear puzzle techniques. It remains the case that I look at the puzzle entrance signs for that little triangular play symbol, and sigh with relief when it’s not there.

But why are you there? It turns out that within their prisons, each cyborg/robot (let’s say “candidate”) has a computer terminal, and their incarceration has led to an “online” community springing up amongst them. Using bulletin boards, and access to extremely limited resources of human history, a culture has formed among them – a culture that rather pointedly satirises both online communities and the pseudo-sincerity and severity limited access to information tends to create.

They have ASCII-based art exhibitions, short-story writing competitions, and amongst their discussions appear superbly observed tropes of forum life. As you solve puzzles, you gain access to more threads, and older threads update, letting you delve further into the microcosm of their shared experiences.

As a commentary on forum culture, it’s caustic and brilliant. Making literal those all-too-familiar colonies where limited information informs cast-iron opinion, it bites hard.

And because I’m an arsehole, I especially love the genuinely cruel mockery of self-congratulatory communities’ praising each other’s mediocrity. An ongoing adventure series written by one character, MAC – called The Adventures Of Jefferson Goldboom In The 9th Dimension – is on its 125th edition, and is wonderfully terrible. Genuinely horrible writing, but trying so, so hard, perfectly spoofed. “Jefferson adjusted his guitar, as he always did when deep in thought. Suddenly his face lit up with understanding. ‘Of course! When I invented and played the ninth chord to defeat the Wizard of Crime, I must have set off a harmonic vibration that expanded the dimensional continuum!” And then the others, praising it, unironically enjoying it, encouraging it. And I know I should feel bad about enjoying seeing things like this mocked, but, like I say, I’m an arsehole.

It also contains a whole bunch of short text adventures written by the inhabitants, as well as strange tests to take. The writing, even when it’s deliberately bad, is consistently brilliant.

The expansion is rather hilariously described by Croteam as four hours long. I suspect that would be four hours if you already knew all the answers. I’ve been plugging away at it for a couple of days, and still have a few to go. And I’m certainly not even close to collecting the extra difficult stars. (I’m not proud, I’m waiting for some hints to appear for that.)

It is, as you’d expect from the Serious Engine 4, ludicrously pretty, and pleasingly nippy. The four zones pick up on the themes of the former game, but pleasingly twist on them, creating more anarchic or broken interpretations of sprawling ruins or Egyptian landscapes.

This is really superb. Wonderful new puzzles, not over-complicating or trying to be a level of impossible above what came before, but still offering new challenges and new scope for the same tools. And a whole new story that lives within Talos’s original, but is communicated entirely through community discussion, and feels extremely reactive to the dialogue choices you make. It’s everything you could want an expansion to be.

Road To Gehenna is out now on Steam, for £10.

29 Comments

  1. brat-sampson says:

    Too wrapped up in other things to grab this right now, but greatly looking forward to giving it the attention it deserves down the line. I loved the first one, though will admit to a) having to check a guide a couple of times, mostly to try and avoid spending what could be hours on something that might well be impossible and b) I never got the *real* final ending in the first one. I’m assuming this expansion’s difficulty level is based around the regular good ending, rather than the secret one, because the puzzles for that made the entire rest of the game feel like a warm-up. I’d appreciate if it went Talos < Gehenna < Talos Stars < Gehenna Stars.

  2. eraserhead says:

    Reading this positive review makes me happy. I only got Talos in the last Steam Sale and was instantly hooked and couldn’t stop before I got every star and saw every ending. Not proud that I neglected wife and children but it’s so rare to have truly good writing in a video game. I just wished for more time capsules and messages towards the end. All the better to now be able to get back to it.

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    johannsebastianbach says:

    Will read this after playing – this is going to be a fun weekend!

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    basilisk says:

    Played for a couple of hours yesterday and they really pulled out all the stops this time. The puzzles are ingenious and brutal at the same time, and I’m saying that as someone who collected all the stars in the base game (and a grand total of one in Gehenna so far, despite considerable efforts). Very clever stuff, and some wonderful eureka moments to be had.

    And yes, the writing is wonderful. Less philosophical, more whimsical, consistently lovely. It’s a great DLC is what I’m saying.

  5. JonasKyratzes says:

    You know, I don’t think we’re really mocking characters like Mac. I mean, yes, his writing is terrible, but he’s rather sweet. He’s really trying. They all are. They may be ridiculous in many ways, but if I go back and look at the earliest stuff I wrote… *shudder*

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      John Walker says:

      It’s not so much Mac that I thought was being mocked, btw. It seemed it was more the rest of the community’s response.

      • JonasKyratzes says:

        I know what you mean! And on one level it’s definitely being made fun of… but perhaps not so cruelly? Imagine game critics from a thousand years down the line reading our “serious” discussions of games as art. We’re all quite ridiculous, but I’d like to think the people of Gehenna do have dignity, and their enthusiasm for art does mean something, even if it is frequently silly and/or pretentious. (On my better days I hope this is also true of the real-world internet.)

      • TJ says:

        Or maybe you’re more cruel than you think, Jonas?
        /endMilton

  6. Bladderfish says:

    Curious to see that the company most famous for ripping off Sensible Software and Duke Nukem has came up with one of the best games in years. Artistic, philosophical and enjoyable? That’s the way to do a game properly. None of this Sunset crap. None of this CoD crap.

    At least imo :)

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      John Walker says:

      The idea that Serious Sam is “ripping off” Duke Nukem is a little off. First, Duke Nukem was extremely ripped off himself, not least from Evil Dead’s Ash. And second, the two games are very dissimilar. And come on, Football Glory was TWENTY ONE YEARS ago!

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        Phasma Felis says:

        Yeah, there’s nothing of Duke in Sam except that they’re both tongue-in-cheek Action Tough Guys. Gamewise, Sam’s most direct inspiration is Doom II, with its huge arenas and vast hordes of monsters, which had vanished in favor of smaller numbers of tougher baddies until Sam came along.

  7. Rumpelstilskin says:

    I quite liked Talos, but I can’t say it was omg-GOTY-brilliant. The puzzles were often too much about bruteforce over-complication rather than lateral-thinking ingenuity (which, according to the review, they addressed this time), and the story turned out to be an extremely long-winded way of saying that yeah, consciousness can in fact arise from a machine, without even trying to explain what it is and how this works.

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      basilisk says:

      Have you tried doing the star puzzles? Most of the truly out-of-the-box stuff was reserved for those, and they are generally quite brilliant. There’s at least one that I remember as being almost the definition of lateral thinking; perfectly logical and sane, just way out of the left field. (Though a handful of the stars were really just well-hidden, which didn’t seem quite fair considering how enormous the levels are.)

      Gehenna seems to me to be more focused on those puzzles where all the bits and pieces are there in front of you and you just stare at them and think, this can’t be right, until it clicks and the solution turns out to be relatively trivial. There still are some of those bruteforce-type puzzles (you need to get this connector over these three forcefields, somehow), but having completed two of the mini-worlds out of four, I’d say they’re in the minority.

      • Rumpelstilskin says:

        Yes I did all puzzles, stars included (I did use hints for some stars, but only to find the locations of hidden ones, not for the actual solutions). I did have a wow that’s unexpected moment.. once, but then it repeated the same “think outside the box” trick in most other star puzzles.

    • Ferno says:

      I’m interested in what you mean by brute-force overcomplication? I rather enjoyed the puzzles, though found the difficulty split a bit odd with 90% of the levels being all too easy with a few intricate ones. There are quite a few that follow different base tracks such as recycling equipment through doors or shifting alignment angles of overlapping lasers which are less lateral thinking and more mental mapping but plenty of other star obtaining ones which require you to work with equipment from other levels or figure out how to remove equipment one from level and into another and use equipment in new ways. I also don’t really see the former type of puzzles as any lesser than the latter, just different styles.

      The star puzzles, in particular in section C were quite a delight, were the devs were clearly just having fun (the NEXUS puzzle wasn’t really a puzzle so much as a progression but gave a humorous result. There are few puzzle games I’ve enjoyed so much to 100% them as I did with this one.

      Managing difficulty is always going to be tough for puzzles games as some mechanics just seem to click for some people and not for others. I’m generally pretty decent at puzzle games but have seen my sister (who is by no means less intelligent than me) struggle with base concepts in portal. It’s a very fascinating to see how some people understand directly the concepts/mechanics and some don’t.

      • Rumpelstilskin says:

        By over-complication I mean that it asks you to assemble too many actions/pieces together without being particularly inventive at any stage (sometimes it is inventive; just not often enough IMO). Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize a puzzle game for using its core mechanic, since that’s what it’s supposed to do after all. I guess I just wish I had more “epiphany” moments instead of “hard labour” ones.

  8. Monggerel says:

    As someone who found Portal overwhelmingly difficult and only finished it by looking up solutions online I think this game is right up my alley!

    Anything more complex than “use hammer on other hammer because when all you got is a hammer you also dont have any nails you just have hammers so thats what everything looks like to you because right to the vanishing point of all your possible perspectives the only thing you are capable of observing is hammer and this makes one wonder if oneself would thus also be perceived as fundementally hammer and how does one deal with the existential hammer of etcetera thus my overtly roundabout explanation of why I’m really bad at anything more complex than hammer but also anything exactly as complex as hammer and this metaphor got so far away it ran around hammerspace and hit my toes ow”.

    …yeah, I haven’t slept in a while.

    But ! I really did always want to check out the Talos Principle.
    Just not play it.

  9. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    The Talos Principle: Road to Gehenna: AKA Android Hell

    It remains the case that I look at the puzzle entrance signs for that little triangular play symbol, and sigh with relief when it’s not there.

    Yeah, me too. What I dread most about the record/playback puzzles is the time spent just sitting around doing nothing while recording to ensure I have enough time to complete the next bit when I play back :-/

    So I’m glad they went light on the recording puzzles this time.

    The puzzles are quite a bit more daunting this time—and this time I did what I couldn’t let myself do in the main game: set aside any puzzle that was giving me too much grief and return to it later. Definitely helps.

    • Sam says:

      Sitting quietly in the options menus is a keybinding for accelerating time, which I found made the time recording puzzles much more pleasant to play.

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        Don Reba says:

        The fast-forward button is also super-useful for moving around.

      • VelvetFistIronGlove says:

        Wish I’d seen that before! Too late for me now, but thanks! Hopefully it helps the next poor puzzle-solving android.

      • Vandelay says:

        I never knew this! That could of saved me a lot of time.

        Can’t wait to play this expansion.

    • Geebs says:

      While I agree with you, I think that the recording puzzles were generally less tedious and cleverer than most games which have used the same mechanic. They did a decent job of making it more about figuring out how the puzzles worked than executing them.

  10. Sarfrin says:

    Doubters please note, John Walker liked a thing.

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    Don Reba says:

    The original game threw heaps of trivial puzzles at the player and some very difficult star challenges. Here the puzzles feel more interesting and the difficulty more even.

  12. pillot says:

    Still listening to the absolutely stellar OST for this game. ‘heavenly clouds’ is so soothing i fall asleep while listening

    • Ferno says:

      Oh Gosh really? I loved the OST, in particular the building tension music of the tower piece (which I dearly wish was longer) but that one track near drove me mad in the guide areas. I found it insultingly, patronisingly relaxed, which in my view helped fit the virtual world theme of the game! I spent a lot of time looking for easter eggs in those areas so heard that plinky piano too much!

  13. fish99 says:

    Loved Portal and Portal 2 for the story and humour, and for that song, but they were in desperate need of some challenging puzzles.