The Signal from Tolva caught us by surprise. Big Robot’s last game, 2013’s Sir, You Are Being Hunted, was a procedurally generated FPS and a pretty great one at that. When we loaded up Tolva for the first time, we expected something similar. Robots were abound again, and indeed the game is a shooter, but this one’s world and story are far more scripted. In return, The Signal from Tolva is a slow burning experience whose mystery and artistry make up for some slow pacing and a lack of feedback in combat. For a scant $20, The Signal from Tolva is a game like few others. This is our The Signal from Tolva review.
Sir, You Are a Robot
In a time after humanity, your “people” or The Network as told in the 48 page lore document sent along with our review code, are searching the solar system for the source of “The Signal”. Basically, the Network is looking for the source of its past (if I skimmed the documents right). And it seems the Signal is on Tolva. As part of the Network, you can jump from Surveyor robot to Surveyor robot. As you rove the planet and take on enemy robot factions, you unlock higher ranks of gear abilities to equip your Surveyor with.
Kotaku once described Tolva as “Far Cry with Robots”, and it’s not entirely far off. Still, Far Cry has become heavy handed and overdone with waypoints and “stuff to do”. The Signal from Tolva is more methodical, quieter. It’s a more artistic experience, with beautiful scenery to be appreciated and mysterious to be probed between frantic firefights with the Zealots and Bandits residing on Tolva. It’s weird to play a game without any humanoids, but before long the presentation of Tolva has you immersed in the experience of being one with the Network.
Carefully Scripted Mayhem and Mystery
Where Sir, You Are Being Hunted prided itself on its replayability, Tolva is much more a “play once and savor” sort of game. You won’t see much difference between playthroughs, as story and events are the same from game to game. But that’s OK – I’ll trade the carefully orchestrated creepiness and somber tones of Tolva over something that feels generic because of procedural map generation. Tolva is a world with a story to tell, and it tells it well.
The first 30 minutes, seen in the video here, aren’t very telling – you won’t really get any crumbs of story until almost an hour into your journey. As I said at the start, The Signal from Tolva is a slow burning adventure, but once it gets going it doesn’t let its hooks out of you. Events happen at predetermined times, but they never feel telegraphed or phony (unless you’re playing through it a second time). It’s clear that Big Robot is the director, leading you through this quest – and when it’s over the ending won’t be what you expected. At the same time, they don’t pull any eye-rolling twists out of thin air either. Let’s just say when you see your first “creepy” moment in the game, you’ll quickly learn to expect more.
Things Explode, But I Always Feel Like I Miss
Tolva is a shooter at heart, and you’ll explode a lot of bad robots as you play through the game. But the thing about shooting in Tolva is that it lacks any real feedback from the enemies when you shoot them. Eventually, they’ll explode, sometimes you’ll see text from your HUD that says “HIT”, but ultimately the gunplay just isn’t satisfying because it rarely feels like you’re hitting your target. That visceral feedback is missing. Luckily, minus a couple of stray crashes, that’s the only real issue I had with The Signal from Tolva. Bugs are few and far between, the presentation is minimalist intentionally but also near flawless. The only other quirk is that when you loot resources, the game seems to “pause” for a brief second before adding it to your tally.
As the game goes on, you’ll recruit ally robots to your cause and they’ll help you fight off factions, fend off attacks on your bases, and turrets and other defenses make the combat more interesting. It’s the gunplay alone that just doesn’t feel quite right and that’s probably my one sticking point with the core gameplay loop of exploration and combat. Breaking the gunfights up are numerous puzzles and mysteries to solve, mazes to unravel, and plenty of wandering time to take in the sights and sounds of Tolva.
A Work of Art
It’s funny that people still argue about games as art. Because when I play The Signal from Tolva, with its Ian McQue inspired landscapes and robotic citizenry, I can’t help but see it as one. From top to bottom, including the lore document that’s not even “part” of the game, such tender care went into every detail of Tolva that it’s clear to me its as much a work of art as any film. Like THX 1138, Metropolis or Blade Runner, The Signal from Tolva is a great example of science fiction as art. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s a wholly unique experience and an adventure well worth exploring for the inquisitive gamer.
It’s out today, April 10th, for $20 on Steam. Hop to it, the Network needs you.