It’s tough to look at Toby: The Secret Mine and not be instantly reminded of Playdead’s classic monochrome platformer, Limbo. The shadowy aesthetic, the precision jumping puzzles, the maddening multitude of deaths via giant circular saw; it’s all here. While imitation is far from a truly bad thing in this case considering the material being emulated is so excellent, a game still needs to guarantee it does enough to ensure it can stand on it’s own.
I guess the question is, does Toby make a name for itself separate from the title that so obviously inspired it?
One of the great aspects of Limbo was it’s intentionally obtuse narrative style, a style that conveyed emotion and nuance despite the absence of any text or cutscene. Bereft of any of the usual overindulgent exposition associated with gaming, the player was left to ponder the mysteries of the lonely boy adrift in a broken world in search of his lost sister. It was clean and elegant, open to individual view and interpretation.
While it’s delivered in the same minimalist style, Toby’s story is a short and simple affair lacking the depth and ambiguity that made Limbo so memorable. A nasty red eyed demon has kidnapped all your friends and it’s up to you to rescue them. That’s just about all there is to it. You will spend the majority of your playtime running from left to right, jumping spiked pits and avoiding gigantic saws. Each of the 21 levels has a few puzzling sections requiring the acquisition of a key or scouting out the location of a hidden lever that will enable progression. A few of these had me stumped for a short while but most of them were easily solved with a little trial and error. Don’t expect to be straining the old gray matter here, there are no real brain busting conundrums to be found.
What you can expect is to die often. The title screen even has a helpful death counter for a nice reminder of how inept you were while trying to leap over that line of circular saws. After my initial playthrough, I had reached over 300 which is either about right for this style of game or a depressing testament to my ordinary platforming skills. Regardless, death comes frequently in Toby and it visits in many colorful forms. Spike pits, crushing presses, squirmy underground leeches, arrow traps. Get ready to die in fun and amusing ways!
While it is arguably a matter of personal taste, I always found this die-memorize-repeat style of gameplay a bit unfair. Limbo suffered from the same deficiency and was a worse game for it. Toby has many sections where you will die no matter what, without warning, until you strike the correct path to memory. Rough design, in my opinion. There was also the odd glaring technical glitch in Toby that stopped gameplay in it’s tracks. They weren’t frequent or game breaking but usually required a restart to progress.
While Toby apes it’s predecessor in many ways, it also improves upon it’s mechanics making it an easier title to come to grips with. Limbo was a frustratingly difficult trial, especially in the later stages when many obstacles are being thrown your way at once. Dying was inevitable and it’s checkpoint system meant you had to play entire sections over from the start each time. Toby saves almost exactly where you died which is extremely helpful. Once you pass a difficult part within the level, that’s where you respawn without having to restart from the beginning.
Limbo was a stunning game for it’s time but it was all blacks and whites with all the grays in between. Even though it replicates that shadowy tone, Toby is superior when it comes to visuals. Clean and crisp, there is a lot of colorful variety on display with dreary browns soaked with rain to hellish reds streaked with flame. There is even an impressive snowy white-out series of stages where you attempt to outrun a thundering avalanche. Fun to play and well designed. The same can’t be said of the sound design. The score was fairly forgettable and effects were utilitarian, to say the least. Both were present and got the job done but were far from memorable.
Much of the indie games market is made up of short form titles designed to be completed quickly, which is to be expected considering their small budgets and development teams. No one expects a month long epic from a two-person studio, it’s just not possible. Even with these thoughts in mind, Toby can be considered a very short game. I completed it in just over two hours and that’s with over 300 entertaining deaths and many stops to admire the fantastic scenery. Granted, I didn’t save all 26 of my friends so there is some replayability potential in that. Also, there is an intriguing alternate ending on offer due to a split decision at the end of the game that changes the outcome, possibly worth a second playthrough for those interested.
Toby: The Secret Mine is a fun platforming adventure whose art design alone is worth a look. The visuals are consistently amazing all the way through it’s short playtime. The fact that it takes so little time to finish is it’s biggest flaw. The odd technical hitch and a general lack of depth don’t help matters. Fans of Limbo will be in circular saw heaven here and are probably the ones who will benefit most from Toby’s stylings. For the rest, this is a game where the sights are breathtaking to behold but when examined deeper, it’s a journey found curiously wanting.