Review: The Road to Gehenna advances The Talos Principle's deliciously provocative tale
“You set off on a long journey, and you feel you may already be a new person by the time the city is in view. You ask the messenger the name of this place, but he is gone forever. You open your eyes. Welcome to Gehenna.”
The end of days is upon us.
Standing trial for your sins
WARNING: In order to write this, I need to spoil some of the original Talos Principle storyline. Like, the ending. And most of the middle. I highly recommend playing through the original game yourself before reading this review. Regardless, spoilers start…now.
The Talos Principle didn’t need an expansion. Croteam’s philosophical puzzler actually wrapped up quite a bit more neatly than I might’ve anticipated, given the topics it wrestled with. And yet when I defied Elohim, when I climbed his tower and “ascended” from his little puzzle-garden into an android body, it seemed like a fitting end to the story.
So no, The Talos Principle didn’t need an expansion. But I’m still glad we got one.
The expansion, subtitled Road to Gehenna, sort of picks up where the original game left off. Sort of. See, once you ascended and left Elohim behind his entire world—all the puzzles, all the artificial intelligences that had come before you—began to disappear. There was no reason for them to exist anymore. They’d served their purpose.
Rather than continue your original story in the “real world,” Road to Gehenna explores the apocalypse. You take control of Uriel, Elohim’s messenger, who you might remember from the cryptic communications left on the walls in the original game. In this final moment it falls to you, Uriel, to “save the world.” Or at least to save the various artificial intelligences trapped inside. Elohim has seen the error of his ways, and he commands it of you.
That’s the basic narrative framework surrounding another batch of Portal-esque puzzles. As you can probably guess from the names above, the game is once again packed with light musings on philosophy and religion. For instance, the titular Gehenna is a biblical term, i.e. “And you shall not be afraid of those who kill the body that are not able to kill the soul; rather be afraid of him who can destroy soul and body in Gehenna,” from Matthew 10:28. In layman’s terms, Gehenna is sort of like hell (or, at least, that’s how many scholars interpret it in the New Testament).
And Gehenna in The Talos Principle is also sort of like hell—Elohim trapped the failed AIs inside puzzles, although none of these entities understand what they did wrong. Their only outlet is Gehenna, basically an Internet forum that gives the illusion of community even if each is imprisoned separately.
If The Talos Principle was about questioning whether God and Heaven and Hell existed, Road to Gehenna is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. We know why Elohim exists, why the “world” exists, and why it’s steadily falling apart. Now you must convince the other AIs in Gehenna to listen to you. You must convince them to ascend, despite the fact that means leaving everything they’ve ever known behind on the word of someone who can provide zero solid evidence.
It’s a heavy premise, played out across dozens of text snippets on in-game computer terminals, the same as the original story. It’s almost an amusingly sparse design, interspersed as it is with a bunch of puzzles—both the obvious critical path and the ones hidden in the corners.
The puzzles themselves are properly brain-wrinkling. Road to Gehenna wastes no time on tutorials, assuming instead that you’ve played the original game. The new batch of challenges starts difficult and only gets harder, forcing you to use some of its tools in ways you never even thought of in the original set. Which is honestly surprising, because there were a ton of puzzles in the base game.
But because there were so many puzzles, it allowed Croteam to really explore its limits—and then to push even further with Road to Gehenna. This is Croteam taking all its tools and making the craziest, most elaborate puzzles it can think of, and that’s something few puzzle games get (or are allowed) to do for fear of losing the audience. There’s true craftsmanship on display in Road to Gehenna.
If I have one complaint, it’s that with increased complexity often comes increased size. This became a problem towards the second half of The Talos Principle and it’s all-too-often a problem in Road to Gehenna—massive spaces filled with a ton of tools and no solid idea where to go or how to get started. While those multi-step puzzles can be interesting, too many in a row is overwhelming. And Road to Gehenna is, with a few exceptions, mostly made up of large-scale puzzles.
The Talos Principle almost staged a last-minute Game of the Year upset on PCWorld last December, and for good reason—it’s one of the best puzzle games ever made. And Road to Gehenna is that most boring and yet occasionally most earnest of compliments: “More of the same.”
If you haven’t yet played The Talos Principle, 1) You shouldn’t even have read this review, but 2) You should play The Talos Principle. And if you played it, I’d recommend Road to Gehenna. More puzzles. More difficult. More philosophy. More soul-searching. More.