Review | Toby: The Secret Mine

Toby is a little villager who has grown tired of his other fellow villagers being kidnapped. Toby decides to do something about it. Toby goes on an adventure to save them all. Toby is good. Be like Toby.
Toby: The Secret Mine
Surreal, dark environments tie together the levels.

My first impressions of Toby: The Secret Mine were unavoidable, the first thing I saw of the game was bright, lush backdrops in a silhouetted world where you controlled a little, lost human in what was clearly a puzzle platformer. My mind rushed to Limbo (2010), surely an indie legend in the eyes of many, a game which used a similar motif of dark silhouette, and a lonely, small character wandering the world. The other game it made me think of was Badlands, admittedly a nutty, floaty, cloney thing, but it’s bright backgrounds, and once again the silhouettes, immediately sprung to mind.

All that said, it really carries off the art style well, there’s a lot of extra details that bring the different areas to life and set them apart. It’s clear that a lot of attention was taken over the level design also.

The mobile version of the game that I’m reviewing -specifically the iOS version- launches later on this month, on April 14th [Ed – This is a transferred post originally posted before launch on another website] for the iPad, iPhone, and Android devices. For those more PC savvy however you might recognise the game from it’s desktop (and Mac, Linux) launch back in October last year.

“…the game seems to just put death traps in your path and expect you to just learn and remember where they were when you respawn. It’s a cruel system,”

So, the story. Toby, a little villager, grows frustrated at his hopeless fellow villagers lack of action in stopping themselves from being stolen away by a sinister beasty. It’s clear that somebody needs to play the hero and save the town, and you steer Toby in his quest to defeat the monster and save the townsfolk. In an inverse of the scrolling platformers of old it’s actually yourself doing the chasing, as the monster scatters through a variety of levels. Just as the monster is within reach it dissolves into the shadows themselves, leaving in it’s wake a puzzle to traverse. How can that creature get past the puzzle in a second? Can it climb? Can it fly? Why is it waiting for us to catch up to it?

Imagine a three layered pop out book, dark shadows and fine details flitter between the fore and mid-ground, the background bright and warm. The colours shift between stages, always bright and  dazzling, and the details change, but the immediate world Toby is in is dark and cold. That’s what Toby: The Secret Mine looks like really, a very beautifully polished stage with the occasional stylised lens flare that peers in through the background. At the very start of the game the background is -in fact- the only source of colour for that particular world bar the beady, red eyes of the monster. As the game progresses though, and the village becomes less than a distant spec, the world starts changing – green plants clamour up, snow blankets the land, deadly lasers rip though the pale backgrounds.

Puzzles with no information...bring it on randomly clicking things system.
Puzzles with no information…bring it on randomly clicking things system.

Each world has it’s own unique, and surreal characteristics, with, as mentioned before, it’s own colour scheme. It does looks incredibly detailed, and what’s more the worlds are hand drawn, which suddenly hit me mid-play and caused me to stop and appreciate it in a few moments when I shouldn’t have lost concentration. World animations are also rather eye-catching, whether it’s a sandstorm passing over the background, or whether it’s the little things, like a cat perched on a tree, or a frog hopping to its hideaway

I have no idea how I did this...but it's a puzzle.
I have no idea how I did this…but it’s a puzzle.

The animations are all super smooth, even down the camera not jarring, or jolting. While smooth the game does seem to operate at a slower pace – the character and physic animations move noticeably slower than most platform titles. Gravity also appears to be affected, almost floaty at times. Although, let’s be fair, this is a surreal world after all, so who is to say the physics on this world are going to be the same as the physics we are used to?

The music and sounds of the game are wonderful, sound effects really capture the ambiance of the mystical world awaiting exploration – the sounds of the gentle rain pattering down through to the heavy winds blowing through. A musical score does peek it’s head in at certain points, giving what I can only describe as a nice upbeat feeling of tension, enough to make your fingers rush with a sense of urgency.

It may be snowy, it may finally show more colour, but damn it's hard to see.
It may be snowy, it may finally show more colour, but damn it’s hard to see.

My main gripe with Toby: The Secret Mine is actually with the controls. It seems like a game that worked amazingly well on a keyboard, but for a mobile phone game it seems to struggle. I kept trying to jump and run to the next pillar, but either my jump button doesn’t respond, or my move button doesn’t, and the reasoning is because the buttons seem to be too small and close together. I must confess, I am running this on an iPhone 5s, so I’d imagine on bigger devices, like a Samsung Galaxy S7, or an iPad, there would probably be more room to allow for the precise input it requires.

I like how stylistic the worlds are. Beautiful.
Deeply contrasting, minimalist worlds in a platform title are a thing that will take a long time for me to grow sick of.

However, I must return to Limbo now. Limbo always stood out to me for it’s ability to kill you and make it feel like your fault. The deaths were annoying, but it was clear on approach that the various traps and pitfalls were present, and so you only had yourself to blame had you failed to read and react to the situation incorrectly. In Toby the game seems to just put death traps in your path and expect you to just learn and remember where they were on your next respawn. It’s a cruel system which for me, combined with the squashed up controls, just lead to frustration. I spent at least 10 minutes trying to jump some pillars, but couldn’t because one control wouldn’t register my thumb tap.

There are some excellent push and symbol puzzles in the game, which really give a feeling that you’re exploring a lost world, however a lot of the platform based ones get a little frustrating. There were several points where the item I needed to interact with to pass a situation was actually hidden, at one point I died over a dozen times before accidentally breaking a floor panel -that was entirely concealed- which revealed a lever. In that instance there were no visual clues, so I was left feeling a bit miffed at the game.

It’s a good game, and it’s exceptionally pretty as well. I’d also say that for the most part it can stand shoulder to shoulder with it’s inspirations when it comes to visual and audio design. My time with it was blemished by the controls, and the deaths coming from obscure points, or said controls. However, it remains a game I would definitely recommend if you’re looking for a stylish platformer.

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