Swordtales’ Toren is a game that has a lot of stuff to tell. With a time-bending narrative leading the way, it attempts to stand with atmospheric puzzlers like ICO as a hypnotic and endearing fable to play through. It’s a noble goal, one packed with potential, but also one that’s easy to misstep into pretentiousness or outright tedium. Toren doesn’t fall into those traps, but that doesn’t mean its journey is without fault. Toren is sketchy, both in gameplay and in technical prowess, but there’s still a decent amount of fun to be had during the very brief time it lasts.
Toren puts you in the role of Moonchild, a young girl whose goal is to discover her purpose by climbing an enormous tower, guarded by a dragon. Though she starts as an infant, throughout the game, she ages into childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Her fate is cyclical, as some moments have her reincarnating into a new form after death. She’s led throughout by an older voice, and with that guide, the mythology that builds Toren is revealed. Moonchild isn’t that interesting of a protagonist on her own, but the way she’s bouncing back and forth throughout the stream of time is very fascinating. Though the dialogue can feel a bit pretentious at times, the overall story of Toren hits a solid balance between dreamlike philosophy and fairy tale approachability. It doesn’t feel artsy for the sake of being artsy.
Most of the game has you solving puzzles, which eventually help you ascend up the tower. Moonchild controls easily enough, with moves like attacking being earned throughout the game. Despite a very restrictive moveset, Toren uses its simplicity in some pretty interesting ways. Very much like ICO before it, Toren captivates with simple design, but throws a curve ball every now and then, keeping players on their toes. Some situations are intentionally designed to have you fail, which is a cool way to move both the story and gameplay along smoothly. Imagination guides much of Toren’s appeal, even through the sketchier parts.
To progress, Moonchild must enter the world of her dreams, done by interacting with small totems in the tower. Upon entering her dreams, the stage becomes a more linear puzzle, highlighted by pouring salt atop symbols on the ground. Most of these stages are very well-designed, complemented by imaginative aesthetics and some unique solutions. Some of the puzzles can be a bit too simple, however, which can make later stages too much of a breeze to really embrace. Toren uses these small interludes well, while keeping the story cohesive, despite its nebulous subject matter.
In the tower itself, things open up a bit. While it stays in a linear pattern to move forward, the tower has all kinds of detours, brought together by a symbolic Tree of Life. The major setpieces take place in the tower, including a creative, but pretty simple boss fight. That’s really the biggest issue with Toren’s gameplay; it’s very simple. You have your basic collection of moves, but there isn’t anything truly surprising during its short length. At only three or so hours long, it doesn’t sink its teeth in deep enough to hypnotize. Main mechanics don’t evolve, and the brief moments of creativity in the dream worlds are never brought over to the tower itself. You could easily call Toren “pedestrian” in how it’s designed; without any startling evolution, it’s a pretty casual and breezy puzzler.
Graphically, Toren has an interesting art direction. It clearly has a handle on the mythological mindset, because most of the figures and ideas feel inspired from tall tales and fables. Between the Tree of Life and Moonchild’s constantly shifting timeline, there’s a beautiful sense of wonder. The spiraling tower is fantastic, with great construction for the challenges. Dream worlds change up in aesthetic quickly, surprising, but still feeling cohesive. Overall, it has a really stylized approach that benefits from its narrative. However, Toren’s imaginative premise and artistic direction do nothing to hide its technical sloppiness. This is a very rough game. The most apparent is the hideous texture quality; every single texture in this game looks paper-thin. From the tree leaves to Moonchild’s hair, it all looks bad. Clipping is absurdly common and I found plenty of bugs throughout my playthrough, some even requiring a reload from a recent checkpoint. Nothing in Toren was outright game-breaking, mind you, but the problems felt omnipresent, distracting from the positive qualities it showed.
Toren is very rough-around-the-edges, but there is some charm during the few hours it lasts. The stylized aesthetic and narrative take the best parts from fables and mythology, giving them a poignant sense of presence. It’s a puzzler that takes full command of the world it constructs. The gameplay feels too simple and the lack of substantial evolution is noticeable, however, especially in a game this short. The technical sketchiness is a huge blemish on a game that wants to tell you an endearing tale, because constant texture tearing and bugs are far too present to overlook. Toren is short and simple, rarely stepping outside of any established template or setup, but during those few hours, there’s a touch of magic on display. Don’t expect anything mind-blowing with Toren; instead, just sit back and enjoy this flawed, but imaginative puzzle game.