Adventure Gamers Awards
The Talos Principle dropped seemingly out of nowhere last year: a heady, smart, and dense puzzle-heavy adventure from the last people on the planet you’d expect. Croteam, the developers of the Serious Sam shooter series, absolutely nailed their first foray into this new territory. The Talos Principle was challenging, thought-provoking, amusing, and rewarding in spades. And although it took a hefty helping of inspiration from Portal, it easily carved out its own identity.
Nine months later, Croteam has released a downloadable add-on for owners of the base game titled Road to Gehenna that adds new story, new areas, and a ton of new puzzles. Instead of the unnamed android protagonist from its predecessor, you now take the role of Uriel, one of the messengers who originally provided hints. Actually, you’re a copy of Uriel, sent by the admin program ELOHIM to undo old mistakes of his. See, in the midst of his megalomania he sent a number of dissident programs into a prison realm called Gehenna. Now he wants you to go and free them.
Gehenna is a new hub with four sub-worlds that re-use the textures and assets of the original game. Each world is familiar yet striking: medieval castles in the sky, a massive Roman aqueduct running over ruins, Egyptian ruins ringed around a huge crater, and so on. Despite running on exactly the same engine, the game looks more gorgeous than ever. Just about everything else is exactly the same. The music, controls, user interface, etc. remain unchanged from the The Talos Principle – which, let’s be clear, isn’t a bad thing, as all were excellent before.
The residents of Gehenna, though imprisoned, have constructed a free virtual network not unlike Reddit or a message board that allows them to communicate and share their thoughts and creative works. Overseen by moderators and a mysterious entity named Admin, the prisoners generate poetry, artwork, serial fiction, and even text adventures, shared via computer terminals in their cells. Each world has multiple terminals you can use to check the Gehenna network, reading new threads and even making your own posts (via predetermined options).
Narratively, Road to Gehenna takes the elements of the original game that addressed and poked fun at modern internet culture and runs with them. Upvotes, sockpuppet accounts, shadowbanning and other public forum tools all enter into the story, placing fake internet drama in an actual apocalyptic scenario. Each time you finish a puzzle, the network updates with the latest posts, allowing you to follow the thoughts and actions of Gehenna’s inhabitants through their messages. Like in the base game, Gehenna has almost no cutscenes or direct storytelling, but the writing in the terminal posts is vivid enough to create a rich picture of this strange community. If it lacks the grand scale of the first one, that’s all right, because it’s insightful, mysterious, and charming all the same. It’s also quite a bit funnier.
But as good as the story is, The Talos Principle is first and foremost a puzzle game, and I’m pleased to say that Road to Gehenna does not disappoint. In fact, the puzzles in the expansion rank among the cleverest and most dastardly Croteam has devised. There are 17 standard puzzles and 17 hidden stars as well as – shh! – a couple of secret worlds with several of the hardest puzzles of all. There’s no tutorial here, as Gehenna naturally assumes you are familiar with the mechanics already. All four worlds’ puzzles are available from the very start, and even if you go in numerical order you’ll encounter many advanced mechanics in the very first few puzzle rooms. You’ll have to stack crates on top of patrolling mines, block laser beams with your body, and manipulate clones of yourself without any easing back in.
As I noted in the original review, the best puzzles are difficult without being frustrating, challenging the player but eventually relenting to clever thinking before too much profanity is shouted. Road to Gehenna once again gets this balance almost exactly right. The standard puzzles rarely take more than 10 or 20 minutes to solve, but each one feels like a well-fought battle of the wits. The stars and secret puzzles are true head-scratchers, the kind that have you scribbling out cryptic diagrams on a nearby notepad and keep you up at night, combing over a mental recreation of the map. The stars in particular are rewarding because they often rely on transgressive ways of playing the game: sneaking equipment out of one puzzle into another, leaping onto forbidden geometry, sending beams from one far corner of the world to the other. It feels like you’re putting one over on the game.
The only disappointment is that Road to Gehenna introduces no new mechanics. All of the puzzles are built from the same concepts as the original game. That’s not really a problem – there’s plenty of meat left on those bones, but it might have been nice to have at least one new obstacle or piece of equipment. Ah well, all the more reason to get excited for the inevitable sequel.
All in all, it probably took me 6-7 hours to get through Road to Gehenna, completing all of the normal puzzles and just enough of the stars to unlock one of the secret worlds. I have to imagine that for the intrepid completionist, there could easily be 15 hours of new content to enjoy. For a very reasonable price, this add-on represents the very best qualities of The Talos Principle, adding even more great stuff to one of the best puzzle games ever made.