Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Signal From Tölva (PC, 2017)

 Not every game has to be a five course meal. Or a Nobel prize winner, you know, if games could win those. I am perfectly fine with the bite-sized games and only rarely seek out 100+ hour ones like The Witcher 3. With the limited game time I have, I am happy playing a ~5 hour game, as long as it knows what it is doing. Games like The Room, Five Nights at Freddy's or Gone Home (and heck, every game on consoles before 1995). Often these games sacrifice breadth and instead focus on a certain aspect - the puzzling, the scare or the story for the beforementioned examples. It's even more important then that these aspects are fun or interesting. Because if you don't have that, you don't really have much of anything.

And I've come across a few of those games, that just end up feeling fairly empty. Since they only take a handful of hours to play through I often stick it out if I feel like I can sense the end on the horizon. For some reason these games fail to stick the landing, and they're either so obscure in their story telling or void of content that after a handful of hours of checking it out, you struggle to find any reason to continue. There is simply nothing to motivate you forward. Games like Rymdresa, Year Walk, Superbrothers: Of Sword and Sworcery and Lifeless Planet all fit this category. 

And unfortunately, The Signal From Tölva will be another game I add to this list.

Released by Big Robot in 2017, it starts out promising; you close in on a planet - Tölva - and need to check out a signal (roll credits). Instead of going in yourself, you've got an endless amount of robots to do it for you. Whenever one of your robots gets out of service (i.e destroyed), you simply spawn as a new one in one of the spawn-zones you will find on the planet surface.

It's a beautiful day

I liked the premise of this one, it is was got me interested in the first place and got me to try it out even though screenshots of the game weren't really selling it for me.

On the planet surface your objective is to scramble around and look out different points of interest. Some of these you will scan, which will reward you some vague information about what is going on. These tidbits of text are obscure and never cleared anything up for me. Otherwise there is really not much to see on Tölva. Bandit robots and other enemy robots are also scattered on the surface and they will always (as far as I have played) attack you on sight. There are no other flora or fauna to interact with on Tölva and it's also never entirely clear what it is you're looking for. 

You will be given quests to liberate certain areas, which allows you to spawn in new areas and access your "outfitter". In the outfitter you can buy and equip new weapons and pieces of armor that allow you to traverse certain types of hazards. All of this just sort of happens and it doesn't feel earned. When playing a typical metroidvania, you first get to feel the frustration and curiosity of not being able to access something, before you finally get the tool to do so.  Here I get the ability to traverse a hazard before I even realized that it was going to be a problem, meaning it doesn't feel like a reward or accomplishment to be able to move to a new area. 

Contact of the first kind.

Combat works fine, you get a selection of equipping three different guns, a shield and an AoE effect to play around with. The guns range from the usual types - pistols, rifles, shotguns etc. When you try to compare them in the outfitter/store it is not entirely clear what constitutes an upgrade. It should be that a weapon with higher DPS kills stuff faster, but it doesn't translate very clearly in actual combat. I found that my personal favorites were the ones that reloaded quickly.

Not too far into the game you get the ability to enlist other robots to your team. They will fight for you until they die (which is almost immediately) and work better as a distraction or cannon fodder than your new posse. This is a fun addition to an otherwise incredibly lonely game. Unfortunately you can only enlist robots in certain places, and these are not too common. You either choose to get these robots and do a whole lot of running back and forth, or you juts decide to go at it alone.

Looks nice enough.

There is still going to be a lot of running
. Running isn't even the right term, your robot can either saunter like some playboy on his Sunday walk, or waggle slightly faster if you hold down your Shift key. Considering the distances of sameness you have to get through, the speed is just not enough. Maybe later in the game you get some sort of rocket boots or jet pack, maybe even a teleport (!) but if so the trek there (pun intended) is just too far.

There is something curious that has piqued my interest though, and I suspect it will haunt my nightmares even long after I have stopped playing this game. Every here and there you come across what looks like abandoned bunkers or barracks. As you walk in there it at first glance seems pretty unassuming. There isn't anything to interact with (like most of the rest of the planet), no secrets to uncover and no information that clears up your confusion about the place. As you go to leave however, you notice that the way you came from suddenly has turned into a dead end. You go down a corridor and end up where you entered. You go around a corner and end up in another dead end. You quickly notice that you are stuck in this place and that each corridor and each turn just leads back to the center of the structure. It is frustrating and confusing, but also haunting and eerie. 

I encountered two buildings like this and managed to get out of the first one by walking through the corridors in a certain order, or so I think. Maybe there is a timer or a trigger somewhere, I honestly don't know. The second structure I went into I simply couldn't get out of, even though I asked the rest of my family for help to try to figure it out. Fortunately I could just abandon my poor robot in there and simply respawn as another outside that hellish place. I swore never to enter one again.

As a gameplay element these structures are both intriguing and annoying. Other than the fascination of not understanding their purpose and them being so curious, they're really just another piece of this world that don't add anything of value. There isn't anything to uncover or learn (except maybe the depths of your frustrations).

Tölva is a curious planet - basically void of any animal life except the occasional flock of birds (?) in the sky. As previously mentioned, other than other robots there is literally nothing to interact with. I guess this is kind of what the Mars Rovers must feel like. Visually it ranges from thought-provoking to dreary. While it's pretty to look at, it's also very repetitive. And frustrating. The planet is covered with derelict ships, probes, robots, bunkers, ships flying overhead... you name it. All these beg to be explored, there is the potential to an interesting story here. But the secret about what is going on is a tightly kept one. So you keep on moving around, destroying enemy robots and scanning things - hoping to uncover something that will make it worth your time.

Roughly six hours into the game it's difficult for me to recommend it. Some half-interesting gameplay elements aren't enough to keep me motivated when the story offers so little. On the other hand maybe there is something to be said for a straight-forward, predictable game that doesn't try to be more than the sum of its parts. At least it won't stress you out.