Toby: The Secret Mine is a puzzle-platformer that takes cues and pays homage to games that came before it, and if you’re going to do that, you may as well aim for the best. Toby does just that in going after LIMBO. As a big fan of LIMBO (and its pseudo-sequel/spiritual successor INSIDE), Toby was certainly something I kept my eye on to hit home consoles. Did it live up to my expectations?
Developed by Lukáš Navrátil (and as far as I’m aware, only Lukáš, but don’t take me to court over it), Toby: The Secret Mine released on Steam in late 2015 and this past April for iOS and Android. You play as the titular Toby, running, jumping, and scouring the land looking for your friends who have been captured and put into cages. It’s unclear who did it or why, but you don’t care. You spring into action to rescue everyone.
Immediately you’ll be hit with an obvious truth: Toby: The Secret Mine is a gorgeous looking game. You can argue against that, but I won’t listen. I’m a stubborn guy, and this is one more fight I’ll stand my ground in. The way everything in the foreground is black and shadowed/silhouetted already gets me excited, but when you put it against the colors and movements of the background? The whole thing pops. The stark contrast to it all makes every asset look even better than it already does. And we aren’t only treated to outside forest areas. Caves, mountains, mines (duh), and more all showcase beautiful environments with overt and subtle moving parts, both back, and foreground, all working wonderfully together to visually please the eye. There’s not much in the way of negatives I can find with the graphical quality on display, and that’s a great start.
Moving on to the animations, we come to a middling of ground. Here we get faults, but nothing to instantly push this game to the garbage bin. On the plus side, Toby is a cute little guy, running and jumping around, and pressing the action button without an action to perform causes him to make cute little noises. When he grabs a key, you can see him holding it until it gets used in a lock. A nice little detail that some may not even notice, but I appreciate being there. Enemy encounters are rare, but when they crop up, the way they move around adequately showcases the menacing quality needed. For the low points, we run into mostly “transition” problems, and by that, I mean when moving from an area or when you die. About half the time for either scenario Toby would act out of place, and sometimes laughably so. You can get stuck on ledges, almost as if you can grasp them and pull yourself up, only to realize that it’s just his knee getting caught and you more often than not need to jump up again, this time being sure to clear the obstacle. Death animations are as far as I noticed (sometimes the culprit obscures the body) exactly the same no matter how you get killed, unlike the ragdoll effects from LIMBO, which I feel would have been very helpful here. OK, fine, if you want to call that as me being too “nitpicky”, I will front you that, however, what I can’t overlook is when dying the body being flung awkwardly across the screen or in a completely unrealistic direction from how you were hit, or, my personal favorite, falling down a pit or into a pit of spikes only to be moved under the level and getting stuck there, still “alive” but not being able to do anything but run back and forth on the screen until you get fed up enough to restart from the main menu…
…which leads me to the control issues in the game. Cardinal sin #1 in my book was committed once again in an indie game, and I can’t for the life of me understand why this keeps happening. A completely 2D game that has no use of the d-pad for gameplay functions not allowing the player to use it for movement. Not even in the very minimalistic menu. I honestly don’t get it. There’s got to be something going on for this to happen so often, right? I’m sure I’ll never know. Either way, this needs to be rectified going forward for everything. See? The stubbornness rears it’s ugly head again. The above graphical death glitch can probably be put into this category, too, but you can add in after dying not being able to move at all/not being able to jump, once again needing to restart from the menu, which typically means you start at the beginning of that level, not at the checkpoint (though we do have a pretty generous checkpoint system in the game – 65% of the time when it works). Now, I know what you must be thinking, it’s my controller. I can assure it, it’s not. The controller used is brand new, and I tested out the areas that were affected numerous times. Same issue each time if you die in the same place. It’s annoying, frustrating, but most of all, unfortunate. Although, there is an Achievement for dying 100 times, so, some of the cheap deaths that you encounter that don’t involve scenarios like me hoping to see a new animation or testing to see if the game is broken have a slight purpose. Lastly, I’ll just toss out there that some scenes teleport you to a starting point awkwardly (but realistically I can overlook those kinds of things when it’s not the player controlling the movement) and on a couple of occasions when transitioning from one area/level to the next the screen stayed black and required a restart. Luckily, that put you right back to where you were supposed to be, so, it could have been much worse.
With Toby being a puzzle game, a saving grace in the genre can come from great puzzles. For the most part, the puzzles are decent at best. I don’t have much issue with them, per se, but not a single one posed any sort of challenge, and I’m including the few colorful, non-environmental puzzles that pop up randomly (and all too infrequently) where you have no idea what it’s looking for because they feel like they’re out of left field. Everything was solved almost immediately, and that was sad for me. I never had to think about any of it. Whether it be light puzzles, box movement, hidden obstacles, etc., nothing pushed me anywhere but to the front of the line.
I know I love puzzle games and play them often, but I don’t think I’m some sort of a master genius or anything, so I don’t know if I can chalk it up to that. Because of this, it made an already short game even shorter. I completed it in less than 2 hours. I’m aware many don’t care about game length, and I don’t always feel it matters, either. Unfortunately, not everything can be simplified to one line of thinking or ideology. This is one of those times. The game length and simplicity of not only the puzzles but also the search for your friends (hidden in cages throughout your adventure; 26 in all) does hurt the game/experience for me. The same goes for Telltale games. They’re getting shorter and shorter, getting simpler, but demand the same considerations as their predecessors, which is hard to keep affording them.
Sound-wise, Toby has some nice SFX in the moment to moment, and the different area tracks work well with what the location is, but nothing to me went above and beyond. Now, this isn’t a knock on the game, it just is what it is. I will say, though, that the use of sound in some puzzles does work well, and you’d be smart to pay attention to ALL your surroundings every step of the way.
The Achievement list for Xbox One is the minimum 10 required, and they’re a mix between how many friends you rescue, story/level section completions, and endings, of which there are 2, a good and a bad ending. I didn’t check what they were prior to playing, though even if I did, the ending ones felt swapped to me from what I chose, and I don’t know if knowing would have altered anything. What I thought would have been the good ending was actually the bad one and vice versa. This will not be a tough completion for people looking to do so. I do want to point out that if you have friends playing the game and they publish the Achievements to their feed, some pictures have spoilers, so, keep that in mind and use however you see fit.
Like LIMBO, the story is told in (relative) silence, forcing you to observe the world around you for the story details. Unlike LIMBO, there’s a big feeling that something is missing. The story of LIMBO is explained in 1 sentence on various storefronts to get you started, should you need the backstory boost (Uncertain of his sister’s fate, a boy enters LIMBO). With Toby, that backstory is comparatively much longer:
A peaceful way of life in a small mountain village is shattered. Someone has kidnapped most of its residents. A few brave souls tried to rescue their friends but none have returned.
… Brave little Toby didn’t want to just sit and wait to see what happens next, so he has set about on his own to solve the mystery. Entering the deep forest, he sees this may be an adventure bigger than him, but he won’t stop.
In both, you go through the game with no dialogue, only using the environment and puzzles to tell and move the story along. However, Toby doesn’t hit the emotional notes like LIMBO and INSIDE do. Those games felt weighty, they felt urgent, and the story being told felt important. Almost as if they were important to the genre itself. With Toby? Hollow is mostly how it felt from start to finish for me. The toughness of LIMBO did not transfer over along with the rest of the inspirations. Truth be told, the major wound here with me may be self-inflicted. The lofty expectations I set for this game couldn’t possibly be met, right? Did I overhype the game in my mind, or did the dev team set its sights too high? I struggle to find the right answer to this conundrum. The reality is it’s probably a bit of both, though the percentages are where it’s too tough to call. If you’re going to tout yourself as taking inspiration from the best and have your game mirror it in all the ways it can while trying to be different, you have to deliver in most areas.
If you’re looking for a more casual LIMBO-stye game, this is certainly one I can recommend, because, after further evaluation, this is pretty much what Toby is going for in my estimation. A simpler, more accessible, friendlier LIMBO. It’s not a bad game. If, however, you’re like me and looking for a more core game like the former, this won’t hit those marks, though it could be a worthy play down the line with a sale, or if you just need more of these kinds of games in your library right now. Plus, did you see how pretty it is?!
Toby: The Secret Mine is available now on Xbox One and Wii U for $9.99. The game is also available on various other platforms and mobile devices. A copy of the game was generously provided by our friends at Headup Games.