The Signal from Tölva: Sci-Fi Ambience

Even disregarding my own skewed interest in space exploration I think we’re due a resurgence of alien based sci-fi. Where the space race ignited the public’s interest in travel beyond our planet in the 50’s and 60’s, recent remote exploration in Mars and the discovery of exoplanets such as Trappist-1e has been trickling down into the public’s imagination and sparking that interest once again. In contrast to last year’s controversial ‘No Man’s Sky’ which attempted to generate an entire galaxy’s worth of planets, ‘The Signal from Tölva’ focuses on providing the player with an insight into one such imagined exoplanet.

Big Robot first tried their hand with something robot-themed and open-world in the quite spiffing “Sir! You Are Being Hunted”; it’s a title that won me over with its portrayal of gentrified automatons spouting British pleasantries, riding jet-powered steads, and of course pursuing the player mercilessly with shotguns & dogs. The humor and ‘Britishness’ of it was one thing, but under the hood it displayed some impressive technical feats for a small team and limited dev experience. The AI would intelligently search for the player plotting likely movements from a last known position, and the map of this open-world FPS romp was procedural generated with each play through. Tie all this together with some memorable enemy types and the addition of a bizarrely co-op/competitive multiplayer and the result really was something quite special… plus you could find the odd thermos of tea which always makes the day go smoother, don’t you think?

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‘The Signal from Tölva’ takes this android experience and placed it in a sculpted otherworldy setting. The player is dropped into the boots… erm… shoes… erm… legs?… of a character called the ‘Broker’ who is merrily floating in orbit around a mysterious planet Tölva. It seems that the Broker is interested in unexplained signals coming from the planet and hijacks a surveyor droid remotely to look around and discover the source. The player takes the puppet strings of this droid and begins a merry march around the planet surface from source to source with the ultimate hope of learning the truth about the planet. Unfortunately, despite playing the game through from start to finish, I’m not sure that I ever learnt the truth about Tölva; the storytelling tends to take a back-seat, which is a shame, as the premise is interesting and the game excels in creating mystery but never truly capitalises on it. Apart from a brief intro and final cutscene, the game delivers most of the plot through radio communications, found logs, and notes attached to the scanned signal sources. This ‘optional’ exposition of the tale seems to be in fashion at the moment, but I can’t say I find it an engaging way to deliver narrative; I was just too busy being a robot exploring an alien planet to pause and read the headlines.

It is in this directed roaming around the planet surface that most of the joy can be found on Tölva. From a purely mechanical point of view, the gameplay is simple: explore new areas, head to the signal markers, and scan them. Additionally the player can capture bunkers or beacons, both of which  provide the Broker with a place which can be used to hijack a replacement droid in the unfortunate event that one transforms into scrap metal, or if retracing steps is just too much of an arduous task. Finally there are crash sites with shiny things to collect, and ambush areas … where you can get ambushed. The surveyors are only one of the trio of robot factions roaming the planet and act as the player’s ally, unaware that they are harbouring an interloper in their ranks; the other two robot factions, handily colour themed red and blue, act as the antagonists. Completing objectives provides access to new weaponry, abilities, and hazard suits which allow the droid to navigate through treacherous terrain; all of which are either desirable or necessary to fully explore the planet. The recruit tool makes up one such unlock and I would argue is essential kit (even though it occupies one of the precious two weapon slots) as it allows the player to round up ally droids to provide company in those long marches across the plains, but more importantly extra guns in the violent exchanges for bunkers.

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Luckily for ‘The Signal from Tölva’ a clinical description of the game’s ‘nuts & bolts’ doesn’t capture finer points of the title. The scenery is outstanding and creates a sci-fi ambience rarely seen; the plains are scattered with the remains of colossal ancient robots, abandoned ships lie wasting away, and ancient structures loom on the horizon, clad in the scaffold of the surveyors eager to learn their secrets. At night, temporary work lamps uplight the bunkers and the glow of engines from some faction’s ship cast the world in deep red hues as it hangs suspended in the alien sky. Explore a little more and you’ll have to face down more sinister automated foes (and the noise… play it with headphones, trust me) and maybe even stumble upon some of the mystery that the planet has to offer. The mazes make up one of these enigmatic aspects to the game; generally unmarked, but distinct from their telltale entry and internal lighting, the mazes shift the tone from expansive to claustrophobic. Their internal layout defies explanation as the corridors seamlessly change and seem to distort space-time to bring you back to regions in impossible ways. I found myself becoming increasingly tense as the minutes passed and with each successive corner back into the hub region, failing to find a way forward… or a way back out.

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Into this enchanting world are thrown the robots, themselves both old yet futuristic; the happy chirps from your allies and the alert cries of your enemies adding to their personality. I’m assuming that a good chunk of AI was lifted from ‘Sir! You Are Being Hunted’ as gazing through the binoculars at a wandering trio of bandits reminded me distinctly of the hunters from Big Robot’s previous outing. Battles occur in a procedural way, so whilst there are no set pieces, there were many points where I found myself overlooking a valley only to see the laser fire and beam weaponry of a skirmish in progress. Initially I was quite underwhelmed by the combat aspects, but despite its simplicity, there is something satisfying in mounting a direct assault on an enemy bunker with a pack of your robotic allies in tow. Jumping behind rocks, the sound and light from shields and guns, exploding droids, and cleaning up the final few as they run all fits together well.

It’s a game more about ‘feel’ than story; ambience rather than complicated gameplay. I couldn’t in good conscience recommend it for everyone; the plot and limited mechanics are destined to rub some people up the wrong way. It’s one of those titles where I suspect those who are going to enjoy it will just ‘know’ from seeing some of the promotional material.

‘The Signal from Tölva’ is available now on Steam, have you played it? let me know what you thought in the comments!  

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