The Talos Principle 2 Review – The Ultimate Puzzle

10/10

As close to flawless as any puzzle game can be, the Talos Principle 2 offers some of the deepest philosophy, most poignant moments, best written characters, and -- of course -- the smartest puzzles in gaming, all beautifully interwoven with each other to produce a masterful experience for contemplative gamers.

There are no two ways around it: The Talos Principle 2 is a masterpiece, intelligently designed to be not only one of the finest puzzle games of all time, but also to craft some of the finest philosophical discussions in gaming, and with a narrative that is equal parts melancholic, powerful, and subtle. There is no part here that does not work to a greater whole. And that whole will leave a curious mind questioning and satisfied in equal measure.

I didn’t think a puzzle game so steeped in dense, philosophical wonderings could be such a moving experience, but it is. And it does this without violence and with only a few dramatic set-pieces. It does this even as you simply play through its hundreds of puzzles — sometimes stuck for ages just trying to figure out how the heck you get the green laser through the barrier for the dozenth time. It does this even as it maintains symbols that, if done incorrectly, could’ve just turned out pretentious and bloviating, but instead turned out masterful and poignant.

I don’t know how, but developers Croteam, and especially writers Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes, have crafted what might be the first perfect puzzle game of the 2020’s, immediately putting it on the same pedestal as Portal, The Witness, and — in fact — the first Talos Principle, though this sequel exceeds even that.

But, I am being long-winded. All the deep thoughts and ponderings of The Talos Principle 2 must be getting to me; and I’m not quite as adept at keeping them interesting. Thus, it is time to discuss the merits of the game itself, piece by puzzling piece.

Where else to start the discussion of a puzzle game, except for the puzzles themselves?

Let’s start objective: your mission in The Talos Principle 2 is to solve 8 discrete puzzles in each of 12 regions so that you can unlock a tower in order to access the mysterious Megastructure at the heart of an island. In each level, there are also 2 bonus puzzles, which can count toward the total; 2 “statue” puzzles, which always involve interacting with the region; and a “golden gate” puzzle, which can only be attempted after completing every regular and bonus puzzle in the game.

Now, to shift to the subjective: The Talos Principle 2 has the best executed version of “puzzle rooms” (or “test chambers”) since the original Portal, and maybe even better. The core of the puzzles is the same as in the first game: you must manipulate lasers, buttons, barriers, and all manner of other devices in order to, eventually, make your way to the end of the puzzle.

Through this, it manages to stay novel across its 132 regular puzzles by introducing a new device or concept for each region. Every single one of these new concepts, from teleportation to body-swapping to simple moving platforms, is used alongside a few mainstays in interesting and unorthodox ways in order to solve the puzzles. And, once you leave the region, that “gimmick” mostly stops appearing, preventing anything from becoming stale or overplayed.

Somehow, the game is flush with puzzles, but manages to still feel restrained in how it implements its dozen-plus puzzle elements. And, somehow, none of its puzzle elements feel contrived or frustrating (well… At least not in retrospect). Instead, it all feels perfectly balanced. Just enough time with each concept to satisfying without irritating, all thanks to expertly designed puzzles that are challenging without ever feeling insurmountable.

the talos principle 2 review lasers and puzzles

There are only 2 elements of puzzles that the game has done away with from its predecessor, both for the better. Firstly, anything that can kill you is gone; no more obnoxious mines and turrets dotted around to ruin the mood and spoil the fun of puzzle solving via loud noise and hard reset.

And, by the same token, there are no more “timed” puzzles to rush you along and artificially increase difficulty — no platforms you need to jump on at exactly the right time or lasers you need to align exactly with the timing of a shifting piece. And, paradoxically, removing these artificial difficulties actually forces the puzzles in the game to be more cerebrally difficult — some puzzles in The Talos Principle 2 are extremely hard, owing entirely to good puzzle design and not to cheap non-puzzle mechanics.

The hardest puzzles are not the puzzle rooms, though — not even the bonus or golden door variants — but rather the statue puzzles, which force you to perceptively and cleverly engage with the environments of each region in order to solve them. These come in three variants: the “hide and seek” Prometheus puzzles, the “cipher and answer” Sphinx puzzles, and the “connect the dots” Pandora puzzles (which are the hardest puzzles in the game), and they fully capitalize on something the game’s predecessor lacked: the beautiful and open level design of each region. Which makes for a good excuse to talk about…

The regions in the game are an ideal medium. In the first game, worldbuilding and environmental design was undeniably lacking; at least when compared to its contemporary The Witness (with a frankly stunning world) and some other games from the same time. But, at the same time, The Witness was over-reliant on meta, world-based puzzles which broke the rules, creating a unique experience but ultimately weakening the satisfaction of its core puzzles by constantly undermining them.

The Talos Principle 2, meanwhile, weaves between these two styles in order to craft exceptionally gorgeous regions which both stun in their beauty and in their interconnectedness. Just those two “meta-puzzles” per level (plus maybe some secrets) are enough to really force players to think about how each region connects. To notice sightlines and oddities. To really grapple with each region’s geography and architecture.

And, oh, what architecture it is. The Talos Principle 2 two swaps out the historically-themed architecture from the first game — which saw explicit Egyptian and Greek designs and motifs — for historically-inspired architecture, which I found to be a slight improvement on the ideas from the first game.

Let me explain: The Talos Principle 2 still features somewhat familiar iconography. The most important structure in the entire game is a pyramid, for example, with clear design influence from both Egyptian and Mesoamerican examples. And the puzzle rooms are often filled with columns and open-air segments that evoke classical Greek and Roman gardens.

the talos principle 2 review world

But, unlike the first game, the architecture is not simple lifted from those cultures, but rather has a modern, often-impossible flair. It is Egypt by way of Frank Lloyd Wright, or Greece by way of modern art sculptor, if those creators were also able to defy physics (and yes, you should be asking how those buildings are able to do that).

Someone with more knowledge of architecture than me could write a treatise on the design philosophies that go into the white walls and glass panels and floating beams of the Talos Principle, which somehow both feel both modern and ancient, both impossible and entirely grounded in the nature they are found in.

And all these incredible pieces of virtual architecture are explained so well by the world, fit in so well with the beautiful landscapes of each region — with their own biomes — that nothing feels out of place, as though the modernist structures jutting from the ground (complete with lasers and colored glows after you are done with them) are part of the nature of that region. The only real exception to the psuedo-naturalistic/modernistic feel are the ominous halls within the Megastructure but, ah… I think you’d best see those for yourself.

This extends not only to the mysterious towers and puzzles, but also to New Jerusalem — the city built by your mechanical forebearers and housing them beautifully — which, while not especially large as virtual futurist cities goes, is still a sight to behold (and explore). Even as you also explore the issues that it has.

Half the reason for that, though, is so that you can interact with its many residents, who are one of the highlights of an already incredible game. That’s right, I’m talking about…

Did you ever get the sense, in a game — especially an artsy game like this — that the main character was the only character with deep thoughts? Or the only character with enough information to make choices? Or the only character capable of doing anything in the world? Even in otherwise brilliant, narrative-heavy games, this is often true: your character is the active mover of the plot so, of course, they are also the only active thinker, with all others being obtuse and uninterested in anything not pertaining to their plotlines. And any other thinking characters think only just enough to elucidate some grand ideas to you, the main character.

The characters in The Talos Principle 2 are not like that. Every character, from the current-day droids you have conversations with, to the ancient humans you find records of, to the strange ethereal spirits who try to guide your path, are equal thinkers to you. They have unique concerns and viewpoints on the myriad philosophical topics which appear throughout the narrative, and ask fascinating questions, usually without concrete answers, but which you must answer nonetheless. The characters recognize that you are the main character (sometimes fairly directly), and thus will be making the bulk of the narrative choices in the game, but they will try to convince and influence you to take their side on all manner of issues.

Despite this argumentative framework, the characters also manage to be warm and real. Every person I interacted with, from the ever-optimistic Byron to his opposite (and best friend) Alcatraz to the moralistic Mayor Hermanubis to the practically-minded Melville felt realistic and thoughtful in their own, very unique ways.

the talos principle 2 review characters

To write so many characters that think so deeply in such diametric ways is already a demonstration of writing prowess that few could hope to match, but to also give them deep characterization and warmth? To also make them feel human — something fundamental to the game’s success — and not just like ideological talking heads? It is hard to express how impressive that is to manage that so effortlessly.

What is also impressive is how the game handles choice, which is entirely done in dialogue with these characters. It very rarely presents you with a direct moral choice. Instead, you are presented with questions: philosophical and moralistic in nature, but very practical to the situations you find yourself in, and must answer. At first, these dialog choices seem somewhat hollow — what can the game possibly do with you telling a sphinx hologram that it is better to ensure freedom for humankind over stability?

But, eventually, you do see the consequences of those choices — as you livestream your experiences back to the rest of your expedition team and to the people of New Jerusalem, new conversations come up. People begin discussing things, and seeing things the way you do. When you answer that population growth helps make the universe more beautiful, or that one must exercise caution when dealing with immense power, people respond in kind. They won’t all agree with you, but they will respond to you, to your choices. And, slowly, surely, things will change, just because of your thoughts, making for a powerful experience where what you think matters, and the way you influence minds matters as much as what you say or do directly.

I could go on longer. I could discuss how Alcatraz and Byron’s unlikely friendship is an emotional powerhouse in an otherwise still, contemplative game. I could discuss how the lack of secrecy and openness of information makes for more powerful dramatic moments and conflicts, not less. I could discuss how emotionally captivating the stories of self-exiled Athena or long-dead Alexandra Drennan are. But… I think you get the picture: The Talos Principle 2’s characters are both thoughtful and human, in ways that very few biological human characters in other games are. It truly is wonderful, made only more wonderful because of…

The Talos Principle 2 is a fairly still game. Zen puzzles, calm music, unwavering environments, steadfast characters. Most of what moves does so at a leisurely pace, befitting a 20-hour long puzzle game. But the element that moves the most within that is the plot, which examines, perhaps ironically but no less palpably, what it means to be a society at the edge of change. And, though it moves more than anything else, it still does so gracefully.

If you let yourself, you will be engrossed with the game and the mysteries it presents, and how your personal answers to those mysteries will shape society and, maybe, the world itself.

It is difficult to discuss much about the game’s plot without getting into spoilers. There are big reveals which lead to slow burns that lead to even more big reveals, such that even seemingly tiny things can actually expose a mystery many hours before it is actually discussed. That isn’t to say The Talos Principle 2 is twist-heavy — there are actually almost no “rug-pulls” that recontextualize the whole story — but it is beat-heavy; new story beats are introduced often, adding on to the knowledge you’ve already acquired and enabling new decisions. for more and more complex moral choices.

the talos principle 2 review megastructure

In that way, the story is like a pyramid, all of its elements building up upon themselves in order to present more interesting dilemmas and ideas, built on previous blocks. These blocks are as much emotional as they are philosophical, too, each new reveal not only asking greater question of you, but also pulling at the heartstrings in new and interesting ways. And all the while reacting to your choices.

I would never say that The Talos Principle 2 is a more emotional story than, say, Red Dead Redemption or That Dragon, Cancer (after all, those games focus on emotions), but I will say that, in combination from its interwoven philosophy and fantastic characters, it is able to pull at the heart and brain at the same time to create something truly… poignant. And when those poignant moments hit, they hit.

There is a scene around the midpoint that had me reeling in fear and uncertainness as my ideological ally was punished for the same ideology I shared, and another not long after that left me in tears, staring out my window instead of playing for several minutes as I processed it. Other games might get me weeping from loss, but only The Talos Principle 2 has managed to leave me frozen in thought for minutes at a time, contemplating.

It is not the most emotional game I’ve played, but it might be one of the most overwhelming, and that is an achievement in-and-of itself. And that is all thanks to…

The Talos Principle dared to ask the unconventional question “are sentient robots human?” And thank goodness it did, and gave a definitive answer (“Yes”) so that we don’t have to deal with anything quite that tired in the sequel. In fact, a lot of the lessons from the first game really do feel like that: philosophical lessons and basic ideas. As fascinating as many of those portions were, they rarely had much more complexity than a high school philosophy class, asking questions on the nature of god, what it means to be human, and so on. It did so interesting ways, but, ultimately, the explorations were not especially unique.

That was 2014. The Stanley Parable, Soma, The Witness, The Turning Test, The Swapper, The Beginner’s Guide, and other similar games exploring philosophical themes were out or soon to be out, with The Talos Principle right alongside them. All of with similar philosophical explorations, many of them related to the same topics as The Talos Principle. It was a boom, a capitalization on gamers’ thirst for philosophy, and as such, most of the moral and philosophical topics in those games played with relatively simple thought experiments, albeit in a new medium and with new analyses.

Cut to 2023, and that doesn’t cut it anymore. The arch-texts of philosophy in gaming have mostly been written, covering core concepts. The foundation has been laid, and it does not need to be laid again. Yes, The Talos Principle 2 could’ve been a rehash of the first game: explorations on concepts like “are sentient robots human”, but instead it goes many steps further, building on that and the other lessons in the first game and asking “so what”? It does so by presenting unique thought experiments, some of which are surprisingly topical, and begging you to answer them.

The themes of godhood and mythology in the first game are extended and interwoven with the burgeoning society of New Jerusalem, skipping the basic theological questions to ask not only what the purpose is of myths on society, but also what impact they practically have, both on societies and individuals. The themes of humanity as machine are expanded, and questions are asked about the universe and morality as machines. The themes of debate and free will are extrapolated upon, asking not “what is free will and do we have it?”, but continuing on to ask “what do we do with it, and what does it mean?”. The most interesting moral grappling is that between optimism and pessimism, which take on new and captivating implications through the lens of a post-post-apocalyptic, robot-human society. Try finding that one in Philosophy 101.

the talos principle 2 review philosophy

There are too many moral and philosophical topics presented in The Talos Principle 2 to discuss here. There would be too many to discuss in an entire essay devoted to just that; if this game grows popular enough, I could see books and university capstones written about it. But, suffice to say, the writing here is not just meaningless meandering about philosophy that is no deeper than a sophomore-year high school class — the philosophy on display is earnest, complex, novel, and practical.

Since The Talos Principle 2 now takes place in “the Real World” (as opposed to “The Simulation” in the first game), its themes are also real, even if some of the metaphors it uses are definitively sci-fi. This game really is comparable to Asimov or Le Guin when it comes to using sci-fi premises to explore deeper thoughts, and those thoughts are restless enough to always be building and expanding.

In the first game, I felt I knew all the answers going in; my worldviews were not challenged, so much as explored. In this second game, I still don’t know the answers, and I don’t think I ever could, and that makes for as much enlightening experience. Overall, that is what The Talos Principle 2 is about. Which leads us to…

I could talk about literally any facet of the game for hours. Moreover, I want to talk about The Talos Principle 2 for hours. It’s a rich game, full of intelligence that extends well beyond its incredible puzzles, and there is no shortage of discussion to be had about it, and that is what, truly, makes this a masterpiece; the fact that I think it could be talked about and examined, layer by later, forever.

There are many games I love, but only a few that I think about even years after playing them, and I can already tell this will be one. The dilemmas it presents, the characters it highlights, the puzzles it thrusts at you, all of it will be lodged in my brain, getting me to think long after I’ve finished the final puzzle for the final time (which, given the multiple endings and depths to those, might be quite a ways yet).

The Talos Principle 2 does not stand alone on any of its pedestals — there are games with puzzles as good (like Portal), with philosophy as deep (like Soma), and with stories as moving and thoughtful (like Silent Hill 2). But those pillars are high — as high as they can be — and The Talos Principle 2 stands uniquely and powerfully atop them. It is the perfect amount of innovation and familiarity (coincidentally a topic that the game explores) to be just that: an essentially-flawless experience.

The Talos Principle 2 is patient, calm, and contemplative. It isn’t for everyone, even among puzzlers. But those who it is for couldn’t wish for a better game. For what it sets out to do, it is perfect, or at least so near to it that I cannot imagine another puzzle game reaching its heights any time soon.

The Talos Principle 2 gets a 10 out of 10 from me. I can’t wait to think about it for years to come.


This article is a transcript from a YouTube video review.

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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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