Reviews// Toby: The Secret Mine

Posted 4 Jul 2017 14:42 by
I'm always interested to hear about what inspires developers.

Recently when speaking to Andrew Smith of Spilt Milk Studios about his inspirations he immediately referred to Nintendo and its philosophy of making every action fun. Be it a menu system or a puzzle the focus must be on the player enjoying everything they do.

It's also interesting to see how this inspiration is executed in the games they produce. Using thoughts and ideas picked up along the way is fine but only if they're implemented to create something different.

Toby: The Secret Mine is a perfect example of a game that leans too hard on those that it pulls from. It's easy to see what there developers were playing before they started work on this game as visually it's a straight-up copy of Limbo.

You play as Toby, a horned devil silhouette as he travels through the dark shadows of a forest filled with traps. His main tasks are to survive and rescue his friends, who are scattered around the levels in cages.

Standing between you and Toby's goals are a series of puzzles and platforming challenges, and the more you play the more you realise that it's not only Limbo's visual style that is emulated in Toby: The Secret Mine.

There are spike traps, crates to move, hidden areas and spinning saws amongst the various other nods towards the 2010 classic. It's pretty striking and I get less of a feeling that the developers were inspired by Limbo and more that they played it and thought they could do better.

The problem is, within about an hour of play it was evident that they couldn't. Limbo is full of interesting puzzles and atmosphere, and although it has trial and error moments they're easy to learn from. All of this is lacking here.

For a start Toby is pretty frustrating to control. He's slow and heavy, making jumping feel completely unnatural for a game with so many platforming areas. When I approached a series of jumps I knew that without the forward momentum that platformers usually offer I had to take every jump slowly, otherwise I'd fall into a pit of spikes and have to start again.

This slowed everything down and obliterated the thrill of skipping through levels that you'd usually get with 2D platformers. Trust is lost in the gameplay pretty quickly and when the last level asks for an insane amount of precision, it has a feeling that Toby's movement isn't designed for the levels he's asked to work through.

As for the puzzles, they lack any real satisfaction in the solving of them. You'll barely know what your goal is and when you work things out the solution is usually something completely hidden from view. It's trial and error gaming at its worst.

For example, in one area after being killed out of nowhere you'll learn that by entering some light beams that spill through the cracks in some trees, arrows will fall from the sky and leave you dead. So I studied the pattern that the arrows landed in and made sure I was in the only space that wasn't fired upon the next time. However, despite managing to avoid these arrows Toby still dropped to the ground and I had to try again.

After several attempts I found that the correct solution was to break a wooden panel by jumping on it to find an underground path, avoiding the area completely. The only indication that this was possible was a wooden creaking noise as I walked over it. With the game being nothing but shadows, it was almost impossible to see that the ground here was different than anywhere else. To make thinks worse, the spawn point after being hit by an invisible arrow for the 20th time is ahead of this panel, so the only time I would have heard it was on my initial approach to the area.

It felt less like a puzzle and more of "What number am I thinking of between 1 and 10?". There's no way of guessing the number without being wrong a fair few times and no payoff because well, you're just banging your head against a brick wall until it finally makes a dent.

This approach continues throughout. From codes that can only be broken by getting them wrong ten times in a row to avoiding arrows using boulders and getting hit by a stray one that fires a moment or so later.

The biggest problem with all this is that over the three hours it took me to play through Toby: The Secret Mine there wasn't a single moment in which I was enjoying myself. There are glimpses of good ideas here and there, but they're overshadowed by the cheap shot traps and lack of atmosphere.

In fact, the only time I felt the game was starting to offer something interesting was when it drops the dark aesthetic for a snow level. The contrast between all that black and the sudden overbearing white was a good one and I felt like had the full game looked like this it may have had its own identity. But it was short-lived and soon enough it was back to the lesser Limbo.

By the time I had finished I tried to think of what Toby: The Secret Mine had added to the genre, whether it had something unique to say or make the player feel. Unfortunately there's nothing here that feels fresh or stands up with its own voice.

When I think back to what Andrew told me it's clear that his takeaway from Nintendo was to use its ideology and apply it to everything he makes. After playing Toby: The Secret Mine it feels like developers, 'Lukáš Navrátil Games' should take more inspiration from Nintendo than Limbo.

+ Looks good
+ The one area where it changes art style is a nice change

- Gameplay is poor
- Puzzles are bad

SPOnG Score: 4/10

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