A STRANGE MISHMASH: And the saga of Too Human’s development is a lot more interesting than the game’s storyline.
Fair or not, it’s hard to discuss Too Human without bringing in the circumstances of its creation. Conceived by its developer, Silicon Knights, as an epic trilogy for the PlayStation One, Too Human spent the past decade getting delayed, reworked, and relaunched before finally landing on Xbox 360. Its development cycle was marked by constant on-line battles between Silicon Knights honcho Dennis Dyack and vituperative fanboys. Just weeks ago, Dyack was banned from the massive message board NeoGAF for starting fights with its members.
Whew! The development of Too Human is a saga with more dramatic twists than the game’s storyline. It’s also a lot more interesting. Too Human is a strange mishmash of influences and ideas that coexist uneasily, saddled with plodding dialogue and wooden voice acting. The setting and the characters are based on Norse mythology, but with a cyberpunk twist. It’s a strange mix.
As Baldur, you’re part of a team of cybernetically enhanced mercenaries charged with protecting humankind against an onslaught of evil robots. (Really.) Transposing traditional notions of divinity onto a technological foundation might have been a good idea if the events of the plot had made any sense. Instead, you get long cutscenes in which characters do nothing but explain to one another what’s going on. Yet by the end you know less than you did at the start.
The gameplay, though also muddled, at least has something to recommend it. Too Human is a traditional dungeon crawler, pitting Baldur against hordes of (mostly) easily downed foes who often drop bundles of sweet, sweet loot. Loot might be better weapons or armor, runes that upgrade weapons and armor, or cash to help buy more weapons and armor. You can’t take three steps in this game without picking up some new piece of equipment. And though the menus you have to navigate to customize Baldur can be laggy and unwieldy (he wears six different types of armor alone), increasing his abilities and his status is the most satisfying part of the game.
Silicon Knights took some chances with the gameplay mechanics, however, and not all of them pay off. Melee attacks are executed not with button presses but with the right analog stick. In a crowd of enemies, you simply rotate the stick toward Baldur’s next target and he does the rest. There’s more to it than that, but the system comes with tradeoffs. It removes camera control from the player, and the AI-controlled viewpoint is clunky.
Using projectile weapons is also a trial. Often it’s the best way to wear down a boss’s shields from a distance. But you can’t select a bigger target if it’s standing behind a smaller one, and most bosses are accompanied by waves of grunts. Whether play control or enemy programming is to blame, these more-cerebral encounters aren’t nearly as much fun as the hacking and slashing that make up the bulk of the gameplay.
Even all this might be forgivable if it weren’t for one of the dumbest design decisions in recent memory. There’s no game over in Too Human — a fine idea, in principle. But in practice, when Baldur dies, a Valkyrie descends from the sky, grabs him, and deposits him at the last checkpoint. The whole stupid sequence takes about 15 seconds and cannot be bypassed. During tough boss encounters, you might spend more time waiting for the Valkyrie to go away than doing anything.
That’s symptomatic of the basic problem here. Silicon Knights put a lot of grand ideas into Too Human, but it doesn’t seem to have given any thought to user experience. The little things matter. Or ought to.