Topatoi

Game Description: Your journey begins in an unexplored and mysterious corner of a far-flung world, where Raph’s airship has crash-landed. Now you must help him scavenge for spare parts to fix the airship – and save his girlfriend as well. Topatoi is a dynamic arcade game that puts you at the controls of a fantastic gyroscopic hovercraft which handles like a futuristic spinning top. Spin your craft through the many intricate levels of the Great Tree, use it to fight enemies and meet the mysterious world’s inhabitants. Success in your main mission will unlock more than ten bonus levels and an interesting multiplayer split screen mode to further shake up your playing experience.

Topatoi: The Great Tree Story Review

Everything Old is... Still Old

Topatoi: Episode One Screenshot

HIGH Blasting through the last stages with the upgraded push ability.

LOW Labyrinth taught us that rolling balls into holes with real life physics is never, ever fun so why is it still in so many games?

WTF The hero is struck mute after the opening cinematic.

Region-specific releases on the PlayStation Network (PSN) always generate a kind of passive curiosity for me, at least when that specific region isn't North America. Like a window shopper, I log into my fancypants overseas PSN accounts (easy to set up) and read over the names and descriptions, but never actually feel bothered enough to jump through the necessary hoops to actually purchase any of them. Topatoi: The Great Tree Story was one of the more interesting examples of this phenomenon until it covertly crossed the pond well after I had stopped holding a torch for it. One five dollar discount later, and passive curiosity gave way to active download.

Of all the genre mutations I've seen fall by the wayside over the course of my gaming career, the PS1 platformer is one I never expected to see revisited. Seeing actual three-dimensional characters scramble about collecting fruits and crystals and anything else that wasn't nailed down was nifty when it first made the scene, but it isn't a concept that has aged well. These games were often limited to small rooms and narrow pathways due to hardware restraints, and frequently did little more than marry the cheap deaths of 2D gaming with the now-horrendous and angular graphics of early 3D. Once the PS2 arrived on the scene, the technical limitations vanished and PS1-era platforming died an unceremonious death.

Fast forward to Topatoi, and it's 1996 all over again, except someone just discovered how to implement in-game physics! The idea is a familiar one to anyone who owned the original PlayStation: navigate linear pathways while collecting assorted Somethings while progressing to the goal. The twist here is that the protagonist pilots a neat little hover machine that has the ability to push and pull items around the stage. It's a concept that has some potential, but Boolat Games's hovercraft never really makes it off the ground.

The way the physics are utilized here deserves some praise. Progression is usually reliant on pushing or holding switches to open doors and move platforms, and it seems Boolat was smart enough to realize that any physics engine is finicky by nature; each scenario in which physics plays a role thankfully includes enough wiggle room to preempt frustration. The push and pull of the hovercraft is pretty powerful, so I rarely had to worry about a ball getting away from me while making quick turns. When it did happen, losing an object off of a cliff never required much more than a couple jumps back to get another. It's a very restrained experience, and in a game that makes physics its central mechanic, restraint is a good thing.

It's unfortunate that this restraint bleeds over into the way the episode is structured. Each of the game's seven stages introduces a new mechanic, which isn't unheard of, but these concepts just aren't enough to sustain full stages. We're talking really basic stuff; one level teaches the player to use a double jump, another focuses on the ability of the hover to push objects. The result is that the first episode is essentially a tutorial for a game that doesn't even exist yet. I understand the concept of episodic delivery, but for it to work each episode should feel at least somewhat like a complete experience, and that's just not the case here. It isn't until the final stage that Topatoi blossoms into what could be a decent little platformer, but instead of being a nice start, it was an unfulfilling end.

Topatoi: The Great Tree Story delays its payoff for too long, and in the end exists mostly as a suggestion of a game that might be good to play when (and if) it makes its way to the PSN store. Add the fact that the characters of Topatoi lack any of the charm or personality of your typical platformer cast—their in game models look a little revolting even—and it's a hard game to recommend. Those jonesing for a return to the days of the PS1 (all three of you!) can easily turn to the PS1 classics already available on the PlayStation Network for comparable prices, and there's no need to wait for later episodes to get to the good stuff. Rating: 4.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 4 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains comic mischief. There's nothing to be concerned with here. Enemies are defeated by pushing them off the edges of the stage, at which point they disappear in an orange poof.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Audio cues are used to denote that an object has appeared, usually upon pressing a switch. While it's possible to simply search around after activating a switch to see what effect it had, it should be noted that these sometimes take place off-screen, necessitating a bit of searching.

Topatoi: Pillar of the Skies Review

The Rest of the Story

Topatoi: Pillar of the Skies Screenshot

HIGH The simple joys of physics sans frustration.

LOW The one occasion where I had to precisely propel a block over a chasm to hit a button. Most certainly not sans frustration.

WTF Dealing with most enemies by sitting just below them as they enthusiastically rocketed themselves over my head and into open sky.

In my review for the first episode of Topatoi, I noted the solid physics, but couldn't ignore the fact that it was basically a foundation for something meatier. The entire journey through the the seven stages of the great tree did little more than set players up for as-yet-unreleased content. In developing all of the stingily rationed ideas of the first outing, Topatoi: Pillar of the Skies is the substantive puzzle-platformer that its predecessor only alluded to.

At the end of the first episode, the evil Blackwing takes the hero's girlfriend through a portal to another dimension and Raph, our ever-charmless protagonist, pursues. Once there, he learns that Blackwing has ascended to the top of Sky Pillar (surprise!), and can only catch up by collecting majiggers and dragging blocks around.  Topatoi was never about high drama or world-building, but as an excuse to get players back to the business of toolin' around in a hovercraft, it gets the job done.

The praise for the effective handling of physics in the original episode is doubly warranted here. While the first episode had plenty of boxes to drag around, the trials that required it were pretty simplistic; pushing a box onto a switch or rolling a ball up an incline was about as demanding as things got. In the second episode the gloves come off, and players frequently face much more involved challenges. Evoking memories of Portal's companion cube, one particular instance had me navigating perilous catwalks, riding elevators and fending off enemies all while hanging onto a box I had found much earlier.

At first, gauntlets like this elicited a reflexive groan; I wondered how many of my inevitable repeat attempts would result from fussy physics. Thankfully Topatoi's stable object control rarely faltered, and I was able to complete a majority of these physics-heavy tasks in a single run.

While the basic gameplay has been much improved from the first episode, Pillar of the Skies also brings a greater and unwelcome emphasis on combat. In the The Great Tree Story, enemy encounters didn't do much to add or detract from the experience, so I didn't even feel compelled to mention them. In the second episode, dismantlers—the enemy du jour—are both more plentiful and more tenacious, and the frequency of combat highlighted just how much this system leaves to be desired.

Encounters play out like a sumo match, as the player and enemies simply attempt to shove each other off of the game's many precarious platforms. The dismantlers aren't exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, habitually surrounding Raph and pushing against him in opposite directions. Often we'd all just sit there, clustered like a bumper car pile up. The imprecise futzing of these "fights" stands in stark contrast to the tight design that defines the rest of the experience.

Despite the stumbling of the first episode, Topatoi: Pillar of the Skies finally sees the series hit its stride. While the game could still do with a little more personality, and less emphasis on combat (or even better, none at all) Boolat has proven that a modern physics twist on old-school platforming is a concept with legs. Rating: 7.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 5 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 times) and 1 hour of play in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains comic mischief. As with the first episode, there's nothing to be concerned with here.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Audio cues are used to denote that an object has appeared, usually upon pressing a switch. While it's possible to simply search around after activating a switch to see what effect it had, it should be noted that these sometimes take place off-screen, necessitating a bit of searching.