The Signal from Tolva review
The Signal from Tölva is an open-world shooter set on a ruined planet. You are a robot brain who jumps between robot chassis to wander through a pretty landscape shooting other, hostile robots, and you’ve come to Tölva to investigate the mysterious messages that a dispatcher called The Broker has intercepted. I enjoy pretty landscapes, mysteries, and robots, so I expected to enjoy The Signal from Tölva, but I was disappointed to find a repetitive, empty, and frustrating six to ten-hour slog.
Primarily, your time in Tölva is consumed either by slowly jogging through rocky plains or fighting clumps of bad guys to take control of waypoints. If you kill all enemies near a waypoint, you secure a new spawn location— or get a “signal,” a text snippet that you read from the menu. You’re rarely in imminent danger unless you instigate it yourself; you can choose instead to just explore.
It reminds me of the sections in 2001’s Halo: Combat Evolved where you meandered through huge open scrublands, fighting scattered pods of enemies. In Halo, this created a nice mix of relaxing exploration and tense tactical combat. This experience is what The Signal from Tölva seems to be aiming for, but it falls far short of the mark.
Almost any shooter gives players many types of enemies to contend with, requiring a variety of fighting styles and techniques, but Tölva has almost no enemy diversity. There are three robot factions, one of which is friendly, but their primary difference is the color of their metallic plating. I could discern no distinction between the weapons, tactics, or strategies of each faction. The yellows are good, and the reds and blues are bad. At first, I didn’t even process this difference, because they’re otherwise very similar-looking; slightly different head shapes and body geometry are hard to tell apart unless they’re standing next to each other, and the colors wash out in low light.
You have three weapon slots, but one of them is permanently locked to a pistol that is useless within an hour. There are thirty-five weapons in Tölva, which you’d think would lead to a wide variety of playstyles, but that hasn’t been my experience. They basically fit into four categories: assault rifle, energy rifle, sniper rifle, and robot enslaver. This last one lets you bring a couple of friendly robots into battle, and while it’s a cool idea, in practice your robots die quickly and you’re left carrying a useless weapon. The sniper rifles allow you to engage from further away, which is nice, but they’re useless at even medium distance. So for most of the game, I either used two assault rifles or an assault rifle and an energy rifle.
An example: at a friendly bunker, I equipped the CAR-3a Lich, an assault rifle with high damage, and the K-950 Krivchenkov, a “closed-loop intensity sink.” The energy weapon descriptions are A-tier technobabble. A couple more: “Limited-neutron energy accelerator weapon.” “Low gain Haswalt-Lowberman algorithm energy-lance.” They all shoot a low-range laser beam that looks like it was shot from the Ghostbusters proton pack.
After choosing my loadout, I spawned at the nearest beacon and I went off to take the “Lucidity Base,” which was under Zealot control. Once I controlled it, I'd be able to teleport there, or to respawn there if I died. Along the way, a red turret the size of a mini-bus dropped from the sky. Turrets are one of the only enemies in the game that aren’t humanoid robots. There were no other enemies in sight, so I put a big grey rock between me and the turret, which was audibly charging its weapon. A thick beam frothed harmlessly against my rock. I took a couple of steps right and unloaded a full clip from my assault rifle while the turret was on cooldown, and then scurried back behind my rock in time for the second laser barrage. I repeated this cycle four times. The turret died at some point, but I didn’t know when. It wasn't shooting at me anymore, and I could see a plume of smoke, so it must've been dead. Fighting turrets on their own does not pose a challenge, and if an enemy turret drops in the middle of combat with other enemies, it’s usually just a death warrant. They’re either boring or frustrating.
I checked my map to reorient, and headed onward to the base at a “run” (jog). It was night, but when I arrived I could make out a couple of red baddies with my binoculars. I let off a few staccato rounds at the closest one and five of them came running at me. A bright green line quickly depleted my shield, but I had a secret weapon-– a little nook between two boulders. One-by-one, five robots popped their heads around the corner to look for me— then retreated towards their bunker!
By then I knew to expect this bizarre AI behavior. Clever enemy AI makes sense in games where you can out-maneuver enemies, or ensnare them with clever tactics. In Tölva, however, you can't sneak up on enemies, or lure them into a trap, or cluster them up and hit them with grenades and rockets, or duck, dodge, block, parry, roll… you can shoot at them, and you can hide behind rocks. Tölva's enemies have to be foolish, because the player doesn't have any other way of killing them.
I popped out enough so that one of them could see me. He powered up his shield. I hid again until it lost all charge and then unloaded with my laser gun. At first, I wasn't in range. My laser was visibly hitting the robot, but the hits don’t count if you can’t hear the crackling impact sound. I walked closer so I could reach him, and once my shield was burned I went back to my hiding spot. This robot decided to follow me, but he was too slow; I shot him with my rifle until he exploded into a spinning yellow cube. Retrieving it would have given me ten robot bucks, but the economy balance is way off -- my next gun would cost me 2520 -- so I just ignored it.
The other robots lost interest in me and meandered back towards their base. Once my cooldowns replenished, I headed out again, repeating the process until they were all dead. I could then jog over to the empty base and capture it. I held F to repair at the base’s terminal (every base is a small identical rectangular room with a terminal on the back wall), and picked my next target – a bunker four minutes north. The sun was rising. That was good! During night, the colors wash out, and I was tired of squinting at grey shadows.
Combat like this is monotonous. Even in the two or three boss fights, you stand behind stuff and shoot at them when they’re recharging. To be clear, this isn’t a cover shooter. You don’t crouch with your back to a wall, peeking around corners to fire at enemies. You just stand looking at a grainy surface texture until the attack sounds end and then you run out, unload your rifle, and run back to your rock again. After the first few waypoints, I was never excited to see what was at the next one, because I already knew.
One of Tölva’s selling points is its emergent AI skirmishes, where different robot factions fight with one another to dynamically change control of waypoints. I can confirm that this happens. It’s nice when the robots fight each other and I can ignore them. It’s not so nice when I finally take over some base after dying to the blue robots twice, only to have the red robots take it while I’m away, not only requiring me to take it back, but leaving me no spawn point anywhere near where I need to go.
The Signal from Tölva’s world is certainly stronger than the combat, though it's still very flawed. The art is lovely; I could look at huge, overgrown metal robot skeletons for days. There are several ruined robot shells and crashed ships in Tölva, half-buried in dirt and yellow grass, and finding these was my favorite part of the game. You search through them for upgrade currency and orbs that add a “signal” to your inventory. Sometimes, they’re “I don’t know if anyone will ever read this” diary messages, sometimes they’re semi-relevant philosophical musings, and occasionally they read like poetry.
Too often, however, signals are bland, emotionless descriptions of events. “Foreign materials were releasing uncontrolled EM emissions across multiple spectra.” I understand that this sounds appropriately robotic, but it makes my eyes glaze over. At first I was intrigued by the mystery behind the rubble and ruins, but I lost interest when the story didn’t coalesce over time. It stayed out of focus, a jumble of unrelated, inscrutable pieces. I still don’t know, for instance, who the blue robots are. The red ones are “zealots,” but I’m unsure what they’re zealous about.
Hilariously, if you click on the "manual" button on the side menu of the game page in your Steam library, you will find a 48-page lorebook. Section one of the lorebook is called "the strange and terrible history of the fall of mankind," but here's an excerpt from the prologue: "the fate of the human race also hangs in the balance in this hostile and complicated universe (even though humans don't appear in The Signal from Tolva video game, they do play a role in the wider story)." The lorebook details the political systems of twenty-one different worlds, such as the "Kleptocracy of Makisat." On Raja Duit, there are "VR jousting tournaments…, a masquerade rooted in the planet's anxiety." I'm 90% sure that none of these planets are ever mentioned in the game!
As I explored the comparatively mundane Tölva, I ran into little concrete bunkers, usually tucked away behind some rock outcroppings. These were very strange, because they’re completely different from the rest of the game. They’re non-Euclidean mazes where doorways lead to unexpected places— environments somewhere in-between Antichamber and the Lost Woods in Ocarina of Time. These are interesting, but they’re entirely nonessential to the rest of the game. They don’t contain enemies, and they don’t have dramatic payoffs when you solve them. They feel tacked-on, like they were added as an afterthought when the game was almost done.
And that’s it. That’s all there is to do. Fight the same enemy repeatedly, read signals, walk, buy upgrades, fight two or three bosses, maybe get lost in a concrete maze. Most of the game is boring and numb, too irritating to be relaxing. The combat isn’t fun, and neither is slowly trudging back to a fight after you die. One hour in, I thought: there must be more to it than this. Three hours in, I started listening to an audiobook between fights because I was so bored. Clever codex entries and pretty scenery are nice, but they don’t even come close to saving Tölva from its tedium.
Disclosure: Kent has written for Rock Paper Shotgun, a games news website founded by Jim Rossingol, who also founded Big Robot, the developer of The Signal from Tolva.