Early on in The Talos Principle 2, one of your soon-to-be robot pals says to you with a completely straight face, "We're here to solve this puzzle, not to discuss philosophy." I can almost see Croteam's writing team now, chuckling inwardly to themselves as they do a big silent wink to camera from behind the robot's eyes. You're not fooling me, Croteam. I'm here to solve puzzles and discuss philosophy, and I know you are too. You can't stop talking about philosophy in this game, and frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Millenia may have passed since the events of The Talos Principle, but the problems faced by this new society of advanced robo-humans (of which you are number 1000 to be 'born' into this world) still feel all too relevant to the issues posed by the lives we're living today: what is the price of progress? Will we ignore the mistakes of the past and push the world toward irreparable destruction? And why have cats remained loyal to this new race of robo-people, cementing their status as the superior future pet, when dogs have devolved back into vicious wolves? There are some puzzles too, I guess. Those are pretty great as well.
I promise to talk about the puzzles first, you have my word. Much like the first game, The Talos Principle 2 sees you roaming around semi-open environments as you trot between distinct little puzzle enclosures, all of which are handily signposted and flagged up with big glowing numbers outside, just to doubly make sure you can see them from a distance, and you're attempting them in rough order of easy-to-difficult (though you can deviate and tackle them in any order you wish). Also like the first game, these puzzles are chuffing brilliant. Each area is themed around a new contraption of some kind, teaching you the basics of how they work before really laying it on thick with the devious head-scratchingness of it all. But it also does a brilliant job of layering up multiple conundrums simultaneously, mixing and matching different themes together into one delicious soup of puzzley goodness.
First, for example, you learn how to wield the humble RBG light shifter, combining rays of red and blue light to make green to open special coloured locks. Then you're introduced to the Quantum Tunneller - a one-use Portal gun by another name - allowing you to punch holes through special walls to reach even more cleverly hidden light locks. Before long, though, you're combining these techniques with light absorption rods, colour converters, Soma-style body-swap doubles, anti-gravity walls, teleporter pads and more. It's a wildly fun medley of tools you get to play with here, and much more gripping and inventive from the off than the somewhat drier selection of puzzle utensils presented to us in the first game. You always have what you need to solve the puzzle at hand in The Talos Principle 2, so it's mostly a process of working out how everything slots together. Some I could solve at a glance, but most took a good ponder before I arrived at the right answer - which is great, and it felt appropriately well-judged throughout. You can also spend tokens to automatically complete a puzzle if you're really stumped, but not before you hunt down rare and special 'sparks' in the world in order to use them.
There are also a handful of island-wide brain teasers to suss out between dedicated puzzle arenas as well. Alas, they won't get your synapses firing in quite the same brain-breaking way they did in The Witness, say, but they do get you thinking about your environment in such a way that they rarely feel like empty scenery filler between objectives. These, combined with the fact that each little island cluster is just a more coherent and evocative landscape to explore in the first place, all works to give The Talos Principle 2 a much stronger sense of drive and momentum. There's always something tickling away at your brain wherever you happen to be, and your eyes are constantly being drawn to investigate its nooks and crannies.
Accompanying all this cerebral kneading are the theories, questions and ideas posed by your fellow expedition companions, giving you even more to ruminate on as you fiddle with its locks and switches. This group of four other curious robo-humans make for much better and more empathetic hangs than the 'holier than thou' booms of the god-like Elohim from Talos 1 - and that's despite the fact that all they do is amble about the place 'collecting data' while you do all the hard work solving puzzles. Grouchy Melville is the pick of the lot: a droll kind of lady geezer mechanic who feels like she's wandered in from some kind of future Coronation Street. The dead-pan and aloof Alcatraz acts as the rational foil to the enthusiasm of born traveller posho Byron, whose desperate need to find your society's lost founder Athena, prompts all sorts of philosophical debates among your peers. Finally, there's the lovable and slightly hopeless Yaqut, who feels like the baby of group, and is mostly here just to have a good time piloting your helicopter.
The central moral and philosophical problems that are gently frying their circuits in The Talos Principle 2 are a right old doozy, too. You know, small stuff like: should society always be growing and evolving in the pursuit of progress and technological advancement? Or will that lead them down the same path as their dumb idiot human forefathers, who all perished in an ecological apocalypse? Maybe they should remain small, balanced and contained, at peace with the world but potentially stagnating and sealing their own fate in the process. After all, the capital g 'Goal' they'd all been working towards - the creation of 1000 new people - culminated the moment you, the player, were born. So what now? Who gets to decide what everyone's purpose is now, especially when the person who set 'The Goal' in the first place has long since disappeared and seemingly doesn't care anymore?
For example, Athena is not the same obvious God-like figure as Elohim was, but the parallels are there all the same, both in its use of Judeo-Christian ideas and and conventions, and the way it mixes together everything from Greek mythology and Roman philosophy to western poetry. The result is a carefully presented melting pot of different ideas and schools of thought on the subject, but crucially one that still gives you, the player, a degree of agency in how you navigate it. You were literally born yesterday, after all, and while your crew will have their own thoughts and feelings on the situation, the fact you're also given the space to debate and come to your own conclusions as well is very welcome indeed.
It's not all deep serious life pondering, though. While it does give you plenty to chew on over the course of its substantial 25-30 hours run-time, The Talos Principle 2 also knows how to have a bit of a laugh at its own expense. During the rare moments when you're back in your big empty Epcot-like town, for example, there are some very enjoyable NPC conversations to be found here that lighten the mood a little (including its lovably ramshackle 'museum' to everything that happened in the first game'), and I also very much enjoyed the entire monument dedicated to the developers' cats. Heck, its photo mode even has a dedicated 'pog' expression (along with three separate cat poses out of a total of 90+). It's these touches that give The Talos Principle 2 a vitality and depth of feeling that Talos 1 perhaps lacked all those years ago, because let's face it, while there are many puzzles to ponder and big questions to mull over in The Talos Principle 2, this is still ultimately a game about getting answers by cracking open a Big Hulking Toblerone with several giant lasers. Why are you doing this? Because a big scary projection of Greek bad boy Prometheus showed up to spoil your birthday party. It's all quite daft when you really think about it, but also weirdly fitting at the same time.
All of which is to say that there's a lot to love in The Talos Principle 2, even aside from its excellent puzzles, philosophical questions, and really quite gorgeous scenery. Despite the cold hard trappings of your mechanical body and its vast, brutalist architecture, there are deep wells of warmth and weirdness to be found here, and when you stack it all up it's not only one of the best puzzle games I've played this year, but also hands down one of the chewiest and stickiest games to lodge itself in my brain full stop. Kinda like what happens when I try and eat an actual Toblerone, to be honest - that stuff just gets everywhere. Even now, I'm thinking about the sheer scale and enormity of its giant laser towers, solutions to puzzles I haven't quite been able to wrap my head around yet, and whether, after losing track of which body-double I beamed my consciousness into back on island four, whether I am, in fact, still the same robot I began the game with. You might just be here to solve a puzzle, according to Alcatraz, but what a journey it takes you on in the process.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by publishers Devolver Digital.