In my opinion, Silicon Knights is responsible for the best game released for the Nintendo Gamecube and one of the best games released in the previous console generation: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.
Eternal Darkness, while not achieving much commercial success, was full of innovative approaches to storytelling in an interactive medium. That game evoked an eerie Lovecraftian atmosphere alongside some really interesting meta-gaming scares. The game successfully blended both in and out-of-game experiences via a sanity meter that devilishly disrupted game play and even played on real life (not just fictional) gamer’s fears (“Oh crap, I just lost my game save file” is a cruel meta-joke to play on any gamer). Additionally, the game told its eon-spanning tale through a mixed chronology of acts that placed the player in the skin of a host of different characters from different times with different physical and mental characteristics that affected and changed the experience of each new chapter. Adapting to differing physical and mental abilities had real game play consequences. Suddenly, the badass you were gives way to the fat guy that you have become. It is uncomfortable for a player, but also a legitimately interesting experience.
So, it is with some disappointment that I report that the commercially unsuccessful innovation seems to have given way to a fairly conventional approach to this latest project by Silicon Knights. Too Human seems to have fallen into the mold of a more proven style of commercially successful game: a hack-and-slash-style dungeon crawler. In a nutshell, it is more or less a Diablo clone.
The player, in the role of at an at least partially cybernetically enhanced god, Baldur of Norse mythology, finds him or herself in a hybrid sci-fi/fantasy world where Norse “cybergods” roam and interact with humanity. Baldur finds himself a guardian to humanity against an encroaching tide of machines. In order to combat this menace, the player can make some choices allowing Baldur to embrace cybernetic enhancement as a means to combat this tide or retain his more natural biology (the very thing that gives him some sympathy for humanity).
In terms of gameplay, this means that the player will be developing Baldur’s abilities via one of these routes but also empowering himself through randomly generated loot that he finds as he hacks and slashes (or shoots) his way through hordes of mechanical fiends in dungeon-like environments. There are several classes that the player’s Baldur may adopt at the beginning of the game, a couple melee characters, a range-based attacker, and two more mage-like characters, one of which is more offense-oriented (a kind of technological derivative of the “battle mage”) and a more defensive healer type. These options seem largely to exist to give some variety to co-op play with players taking on the traditional tank, ranged, and magic roles of standard RPGs.
Combat, as is often the case in other hack-and-slash action-oriented RPGs, is a fairly straightforward affair. Diablo provided PC gamers an elegant left-click to move, right-click to attack approach to a control system not generally conducive to action games—a mouse-based combat system. Too Human relies on a flick of the right stick to skate forward and attack in melee while using controller triggers for lock on shooting. The system works passably well but despite its seemingly similar simplicity lacks the real elegance of its forerunner in actual practice. Lock-ons are often rather fickle affairs and the glide that occurs in melee attacks makes deliberate positioning of a tank a dodgy business.
The need to shift back and forth to menus to equip items and evaluate new loot also fares even worse in a console environment. Though these activities can be automated to some degree, part of the pleasure of games of this sort is checking out what you have found and considering what items might best complement your gameplay style and current circumstances. The intrusive nature of the interface really drags out this activity.
Again, like other games of this kind, the game shines more as a multiplayer experience, since it is more fun to kill hordes of monsters and divide up loot with friends than to go it alone. A solo experience tends towards a more redundant and a more sterile combat experience. Indeed, while fitting with the Norse theme, the very odd mechanism of having a valkyrie (with a rather slow animation cycle) appear on the battlefield after a player’s death, disappear with the player’s body, and then resurrect the player seems designed solely with the idea of a multiplayer experience in mind. Such a mechanism allows dead companions to return fairly quickly to the battlefield in terms of a typical multiplayer experience, but slowly and awkwardly in a single player experience. As a result, I suppose the inability to die (since the player respawns where he or she last died) fits with the idea of playing as an immortal, it is a very odd gameplay choice. When fighting a boss in single player mode, there is no need to heal. You will kill it eventually despite innumerable deaths, since Baldur just respawns where he left off. As a result, combat lacks any sense of urgency or tension. It just takes a lot of time if the bad guy has a lot of hit points.
Finally, Silicon Knights maintains its commitment to storytelling; however, again they have chosen to do so in a conventional way and moved away from innovation. The story is told not through interesting chronological mash ups or through unique interactive experiences but through regular old cut scenes.
Assuming that my speculation has any truth to it (that the safety of conventional game play and conventional narrative is driven in part by the financial failure of the more innovative Eternal Darkness), I guess I can understand Silicon Knights’ choice to go this route. Critical success doesn’t pay the bills. For me, however, Too Human is very simply too conventional.