Truly innovative puzzle games don’t come around too often, though, in the early 2010s, the genre seemed to be going through somewhat of a renaissance. 2011’s Portal 2 revitalized the perfect mix of puzzling and story the Point-and-Click genre had birthed a decade before, and indie titles like Braid a few years earlier and FEZ a year after did a lot to bring clever brain teasers back into the forefront of Video Game culture.
But while those titles remain some of my favorite games, it was The Talos Principle that took the number one spot for me. Where Braid and Fez kept the player within the confines of one or two core ideas, The Talos Principle’s puzzles continually pushed them through layer upon layer of complexity; where Portal 2 cleverly explored the implications of sentient A.I., Croteam’s game blew the doors off of that concept. Years after, it seemed to me the genre’s swansong, with nothing else of its caliber released in recent times.
It was with some sentiment of disbelief, then, that in 2021 I heard that a sequel was in the works. Despite my excitement, I was also cognisant that The Talos Principle 2 would inevitably be in the unfortunate position of needing to live up to its now legendary predecessor, and among the biggest questions the original game asked and left hanging, the most burgeoning was how, exactly, Croteam was going to pull this thing off. I took a look at the PC version to find out.
I Think, Therefore I…Am?
Upon starting The Talos Principle 2, it was with a hefty dose of nostalgia that I found myself in the ancient ruins so familiar to me from the original game, though things certainly look a little different this time around.
This is the first of Croteam’s titles to be developed with Unreal Engine 5 as opposed to their Serious Engine—something I was initially somewhat sad about considering the unique look and feel of their own product, but that I quickly came to appreciate given how well the developers had put their stamp on things. The company has always been a dab hand at rending stunning vistas drenched in blistering sunlight, and Unreal Engine only complimented their abilities here. As sacrilegious as it feels to say it, I had to wonder what a new Serious Sam entry would look like with the Unreal Engine sheen.
One could argue that some of that original Croteam charm has been diminished as a result, but this is still very clearly one of their games. Booting into this ancient arena—reverberating bongo trills in the distance—I even felt a reflexive tensing of muscles as I readied for the crescendoing screams of a hundred headless humanoids with bombs for hands appearing over the horizon. But no imminent death awaits here. Quite the opposite—we’re about to be reborn.
The beginning segment of the game simultaneously serves to acquaint us with the series’ core puzzle designs and some familiar characters. After this, though, it focuses primarily on introducing us to the new world we’d been wondering about since the finale of the first game.
The Talos Principle treats its approach to a sequel a lot like how Valve did it with Portal. The original game was a much lonelier affair, with most of your interaction with other characters taking place through command-prompt screens as you tried to figure out what on earth was going on. Similarly to Portal, the big reveal at the end of the first game shatters the foreboding ambiguity that was such a big part of the experience, meaning the sequel opts for a much broader scope to compensate.
In a scene mirroring Neo’s awakening in The Matrix and the subsequent revelations imparted by Morpheus, we revive as a humanoid robot called 1K. We mark the final product of a project to create 1000 humanoids to rebuild the new world, and we quickly learn that this is where allusions to the Wachowski siblings’s post-apocalyptic vision ends.
The city of New Jerusalem is vast and impressive—a squeaky-clean futuristic utopia that’s half natural scenery and half glossy white skyscrapers, and we’re the star of the show. Being the latest and last in a long lineage, everybody looks to 1K as having answers to just about everything, and we’re given the full spectrum of possible responses ranging from ingeniously insightful to expressing the player’s inevitable philosophical ineptitude.
But while The Talos Principle 2 leans much further into the concepts explored in the first game, it makes it all much more accessible. The game tends to convey its metaphysical ideas through its characters rather than vague allusions to 60,000-word poems, and while I did enjoy delving into that stuff after the first game, I was glad to have things explored through the post-human experience of those around me this time.
There’s a character we come across who expresses anxiety over not meeting that special someone; another citizen struggles to comprehend the meaning of their existence having mastered their assigned job; number 998 has more superficial fears, worrying the Californian Surfer Dude ‘voice pack’ he’s decided upon sounds silly and wonders if he should change it. It’s just as clever as the first game, but it doesn’t require a crash course in philosophy to understand it.
We spend a fair amount of time acquainting ourselves with New Jerusalem before tackling any puzzles, and it’s just as well that we’re eased into the brutal mental gymnastics ahead.
One Hell of a First Day
The Talos Principle 2 expands modestly but appropriately on the sorts of puzzles you’d find in the first game. I didn’t find it to be more difficult — rather it just feels new, which is exactly what I and many fans were hopeful for.
Once you’ve had enough of pottering about the city, you’ll get on a helicopter to go on an expedition. Having witnessed some strange apparitions during the mayor’s speech, you’ve been selected to join the group that heads off to investigate what’s going on, and naturally, the answers are shrouded in a network of dozens of puzzles.
From here on, the game behaves much more like the first game, but you’ve got some friends with you this time. Gone are the text-based conversations with the malevolent A.I. Milton from the first game: he’s replaced with a cast of upbeat fellow explorers, the most notable of which is a cynical cockney engineer with enough snarky remarks to give GlaDOS a run for her money. The other two are less notable, but their backstories are still interesting in their own right. These characters constantly chime in as you work together to unravel the mystery, but other than the engineer who’s busy fixing the tram system you use to get around, you seem to be the only one doing any actual work.
1K is the designated puzzle solver, and using this aforementioned tram system, our job is to travel between a series of nodes to unlock the secrets of several megastructures at the center of each environment.
As such, each node represents a hub of sorts in which you must complete eight puzzles to proceed, and I was thoroughly impressed with how beautifully designed each of these outdoor areas was.
Croteam has implemented Unreal Engine 5’s photogrammetry techniques to stunning effect, producing natural environments that look photorealistic at times; these serene worlds combined with the lush, ethereal soundtrack go a long way in keeping you calm and focused as you face tough challenges.
The puzzles themselves rest on a relatively simple foundation: gain access to a button that marks the end of a puzzle by using laser beams and sometimes pressure plates to unlock it. Of course, this is a premise ever-increasing in complexity, and I was quite astounded at how creative things got.
It’s often the case that puzzle games inconsistently manage their difficulty curves, but that’s not the case here. While level to level (as in node to node) is noticeably harder, you maintain confidence in your ability from puzzle to puzzle: each level introduces a new concept, but you’ve already got the skills to figure out the next seven puzzles having completed the first.
As opposed to Portal’s satisfying A-to-B puzzle structure, The Talos Principle 2 motivates through several small victories to keep you pushing forward. Maybe you figured out how to open the first gate in a sequence of three or found a way to circumvent an annoying piece of fence that enables you to progress slightly. In this way, while the puzzle as a whole can seem overwhelming, the ability to take it step by step keeps you from pulling your hair out.
This implementation is crucial given the crazy array of tools and gadgets the game throws at you. Everything the first offers is here along with many new contraptions, and I was impressed with just how far the developers were able to take ordinarily simple concepts and reinvent them.
The game piles on the pressure relatively early when it introduces the RGB Splitters and Converters. When you have to think about color mixing and reverse lasers, a layer of abstraction is introduced that forces you to think through everything in your head before you move anything. I actually drew stuff down on a piece of paper at one point to try and get my head around one of the puzzles.
While I felt the difficulty level was appropriate the vast majority of the time, there were one or two puzzles—even ones quite early on—that felt a little too hard. I think at the degree of complexity where you’ve forgotten what you were doing in the first place, the puzzle design has gone a bit far.
Having said this, that’s somewhat of an inevitability given the sheer number of ideas on offer here. Not everything will stick, but I’d rather that than a game that plays things too safe.
I did find the controls could be a little irritating at times as well. The game maps some actions to the same button that are differentiated by a press or a hold, and there were several times when I pressed the wrong button and severed all my connections for a given piece of equipment. Perhaps that was just down to my own clumsiness, but I think it would have been better to map each action to separate keys to avoid this from happening.
Going On an Adventure
This sequel is just as much about exploration as it is about puzzling. You’re out on an expedition, after all, and the game continuously rewards you for investigating every nook and cranny of each level. There are secret puzzles to find, new bits of lore, historical text logs, ancient artifacts, and more, and it’s clear that, in combination with the more cinematic focus, Croteam is equally devoted to both telling its story and making a challenging puzzle game.
You’re given a compass with an array of question marks indicating areas of interest, meaning that if a particular puzzle is giving you a lot of grief, you can take a breather and explore something else. It means that the game doesn’t feel too intense at any given time because there’s always something interesting to explore.
You’ll also find a special hidden flame in each level, allowing you to skip a puzzle you feel you can’t spend any more time with. These aren’t marked on the compass, so you’ve got to go out of your way to search every possible hiding place.
Having completed all eight puzzles in a level, there’s one final challenge. Fans will remember that in the first game, you acquire tetramino pieces for a final puzzle at the end of each area, and this returns but in a slightly different way. Rather than arranging the pieces on a two-dimensional board, you must place each piece down to make a functioning bridge to reach one of the three access points at each megastructure. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed these. I found the disconnect between the pieces shown in the top left of the screen and what I was placing down in front of me too jarring, and I ended up just clicking through randomly sometimes just to move on.
Finiky tetramenos aside, the puzzles ultimately offered everything I was after: the same high but manageable difficulty with a ton of new tools to play around with. It’s ultimately more of the same, but that’s in no way a bad thing here. More critical to the game’s success, in my opinion, was how it handled the deeply complex lore established previously, and it’s here where the sequel truly makes its mark.
A Tale as Old as Time
The narrative is also very puzzle-like in its design. As we complete each area, we’re offered both cryptic dialogue from holographic Greek gods and snippets of humanity’s past to piece together, and it all unfolds very naturally given that it’s baked into the environments we explore. Where the first game aimed to compare A.I. to the human mind and question the differences, the sequel is content to establish that a fully functional, immortal human existence could exist in the future and explore what it might be like.
What I found most refreshing was how the game showcases a far more hopeful world than the vast majority of other post-apocalyptic media. The story hinges on recognizing the mistakes of past society and the inherent fear of repeating them; it’s A.I. as a benevolent evolution of humanity rather than a SKYNET or GlaDOS situation that has been done to death. These characters, despite looking identical to each other, feel more human than human at times. I was thoroughly impressed with how they’d been characterized as having a unique set of robot problems, and this society of a finite number of 1000 made me wonder how our own civilizations would behave in a similar situation.
The story builds to an awe-inspiring discovery, each completed puzzle bringing you closer to the grand reveal. I found the conclusion to be just as profound as the first game, but it has to be said that it takes a lot from the player to get there. This is without a doubt one of the most mentally taxing games I’ve ever played, and while the payoff is well worth it, it’s something you need to be aware of going in.
The Verdict: 9/10
It may sound cliché to say that The Talos Principle 2 is everything a great sequel should be, but there’s really no better way of putting it. It’s a greatly expanded new installment that seeks to embolden both the story and gameplay elements of the first game from all possible angles — something that could have easily fallen flat.
It’s an incredibly clever puzzle game in its own right, but the way the writers have flipped the trope of post-apocalyptic equating abject horror to actually evoking sentiments of hope is what truly makes the game stand out as a whole package.
The game must have taken an immense amount of skill and effort to put together, and you can truly feel the team’s passion for the project in every pixel. Hopefully this time, Croteam will get the widespread recognition they deserve as game designers and storytellers.
- Easily the most innovative puzzle designs of any game in recent memory
- A greatly expanded, impressively profound narrative
- Beautifully rendered environments
- Plenty of secrets to uncover post-game
- Clunky controls can get in the way sometimes
- The tetromino puzzles fall a bit flat
- One or two puzzles that outstay their welcome
Closest alternatives to The Talos Principle 2
- Portal 1 & 2
- The Witness
- The Turing Test
- The Swapper
- Manifold Garden
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: I’ve decided I’m going to go into this without playing the original. What else can I do to prepare?
Answer: If you don’t want to go through the entirety of the first game, check out our Story Explained guide here on Indie Game Culture for a rundown. This article will cover everything you need to know without spoiling the finale. You can also check out our Puzzle Design Guide to learn more about the nuts and bolts of the gameplay.
Question: I’ve never been particularly good at puzzle games. Will I be able to handle this?
Answer: The Talos Principle 2’s puzzles can indeed be challenging, but if they weren’t, players would come out of the experience unfulfilled. It’s difficult, but nothing you can’t handle with enough patience. If you get stuck initially, be sure to check out our guide on the Grasslands Ring area.
Question: The story seems like a bit too much effort and I just want to do the puzzles. Can I skip it?
Answer: While you’d be missing a large part of the game’s greatness, there is the option of skipping dialog and cutscenes with the push of a key or button. Exploring New Jerusalem is also optional, and you can just head straight for the expedition if you want to get going on the puzzles.
Linden put his brain through the ultimate workout for hours 22 hours–enough to complete the main puzzles, delve into the lore, and complete several side activities.