mento's Toki Tori 2+ (PC) review

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A diabolically challenging heart beating beneath a cute feathery facade.

Toki Tori 2 can be a deceptive little game -- one that hides its true colors until the player is already deep into their adventure. What you see is a bright and cheerfully cartoony game starring the eponymous spherical bird Toki off on another journey to save his friends, but the core is still an extremely deliberate and thoughtful puzzle game that can often require the player to think several stages in advance and execute on them with an intimidating level of precision.

The nature of the second Toki Tori game ameliorates the intensity of its puzzles somewhat with its open-world nature. The player is free to explore in any direction and the only real goal is to make it to Toki's hometown to witness what little plot there is, and then to the five "ancient frogs"; each constituting a moderately difficult challenge to get them to where they need to be. The game doesn't explain any of this, incidentally, because it's one of those almost entirely text-free games that lets players figure out things on their own through images and context. Toki himself can only communicate through his birdsong: a system of short and long notes, similar to Morse code, that can create a number of compositions with various uses. However, insofar as interacting with his surroundings and the creatures around him, Toki can only tweet and perform a stomp attack. Each has a separate effect on everything he encounters and all of the puzzles are built around this simple system. Despite being a SpaceWhipper, the game doesn't actually have any additional abilities to unlock: the player is free to go wherever they wish, if they can figure out how. It's actually possible to ignore whole swaths of the game, and the collectibles scattered around are simply that: trivial trinkets for the dedicated to seek after (they might open a certain secret door if you collect enough of them).

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What isn't apparent with Toki Tori 2, at least not immediately, is the precision which these puzzles require. The whole world of Toki Tori 2 is made up of blocks, though it looks so seamless that it's an easy detail to miss. Toki is two blocks wide and two blocks high, and each step he takes is a single block or half his total width. These are the sorts of considerations that must be at the player's mind at all times while setting up all the sliding blocks, frogs with uplifting bubbles, bugs that replicate Toki's birdsong to distract other creatures, birds that will pick up Toki and deposit him in their nests whether you want them to or not, bugs that shock, bats that murder everything in sight should they be awoken and lizard porcupines that charge forward when agitated. Whenever a player enters a new screen, it looks for all the world as if a bunch of creatures are simply hanging around an ecosystem minding their own business, but every single one of them is necessary for a multi-stage puzzle that either lets the player progress or procures them a handful of collectibles.

(Just in case you aren't one for visualizing.)
(Just in case you aren't one for visualizing.)

It wouldn't do to simply leave it at that. Though it diminishes the game's arsenal to describe one of its puzzles in finer detail, I feel it's necessary to properly convey just how diabolical this game can be. I'll ask you to try to visualize this puzzle: There are two sets of portals in a pit, each above its twin, through each of which a frog is continually falling. At the bottom of the pit, next to the lower portals, are a pair of bugs that can be fed through the portal to the frogs, inflating them. An inflated frog, if it's within the range of Toki's stomp, will spit out a bubble that Toki (or any creature in range) can ride in to otherwise out-of-reach locations. To the upper right of this pit, which needs a bubble to reach, is one of the block crab creatures that can be beckoned with birdsong or repelled by a stomp, and creates a movable obstacle that can be used as a stepping stone or as a barrier. To the upper left is a small pool, and to the upper left of that is where the player wants to go. To cut things short, the player must use the right frog to send the left frog to the small pool, the player then sends one of the bugs over to the same pool in the same fashion to inflate the frog there. Tweeting so that the right frog is facing right, Toki feeds him a bug and uses the bubble to get over to the rock crab, which he brings down to block the second portal. The right frog now hops into the left portal, at which point Toki feeds him yet another bug and uses the bubble to reach the other frog, and can then use that frog to reach the goal. I've abridged the process somewhat, but each stage of this puzzle requires that the frogs are pointing in the right direction, that the bugs are being sent through the portals with some tactical stomping, that the rock crab falls in just the right area and doesn't crush anything and so on. And that's just one of many puzzles in the game with this level of complexity.

The other puzzle-solving tools at Toki's disposal concern the environment. If the player wishes to pass by a few lightning bugs, they can eliminate them by dousing them with water. To do that, the player must walk through a pool and, while Toki's still dripping, perform his stomp attack near the enemies in question. The player can also use darkness and shadows to their advantage, though usually he's better off finding a source of light to render certain darkness-inhabiting enemies temporarily inert. Tall grass can hide Toki from the larger birds, who would otherwise swoop him up and deposit him elsewhere, and grass can be grown by walking over some dry patches while wet. The player is constantly required to take the geography into account to solve puzzles, and to memorize the behaviors of enemies and to take into account the limitations of their birdsong and stomp abilities.

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However, the game isn't so strict that it doesn't provide a few amenities. If the player pays attention to Toki's little white bird friend whenever it pops up, it'll tweet out a series of short and protracted notes that make tunes that provide the player with some benefit without actually affecting the puzzles at all. There's a tune that detects collectibles in the vicinity (this information is relayed to the player with a little compass that appears over Toki, pointing in the direction(s) of any collectibles). There's one that lets Toki warp to a map marker he's activated, but only when he's near a checkpoint. There's one that displays the map and one that summons the photography bird to take images for the Tokidex -- the game's other optional collectible series, which the player can fill by taking photos of every creature and point of interest similarly to The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker's photography sidequest. Most vital of all is a little ditty that simply resets Toki to the nearest checkpoint if he messes up. The player can look these tunes up online before they start, or simply pay attention whenever Toki's little friend is around, and conveniences like these help mitigate a lot of the game's more frustrating aspects.

While I might say that the game's core trait is its brutal level of precise puzzling, the strength of any SpaceWhipper is its sense of discovery through exploration and Toki Tori 2 exemplifies that strength better than almost any other game in that genre. Everything the player learns is through doing rather than through a tutorial; every trick, every creature behavior, every tune, every puzzle solution and every little secret is gleaned via experimentation or by paying attention to one's environment. If I had to draw a parallel with another semi-recent SpaceWhipper, it would be Nifflas's under-appreciated Knytt Underground, which also eschewed combat and the usual progression upgrades for a truly open world full of attractive scenery, interesting self-contained puzzles and numerous secrets. Make no mistake: Toki Tori 2's as devious a puzzle-platformer as you're likely to find, but that it manages to do so much with such an unassuming package is remarkable.

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