PAX Prime: Project Totem Preview – This Is Why You Game

Totem

I imagine that “refreshing” is one of the better compliments a developer can receive with regard to the gameplay of its current project, and I want to begin this preview by stating that Project Totem is easily one of the more refreshing games I played at PAX. Maybe it was the timing, or the wonderful insight from producer Forest Swartout Large, or the AAA overload I’d been exposed to just hours before. Or, maybe it’s the simple fact that Project Totem really is that fun, and that interesting. I’m told the title is far from complete, which effectively doubles my excitement. I had a blast just toying with what’s been made so far.

The concepts at play in Project Totem aren’t all that complicated to grasp on paper, but as soon as you’re forcibly acquainted with them in-game, suddenly simple ideas require substantial mental focus to successfully grasp. The crux of the experience involves manipulating two totems, each of a different color, and guiding them from beginning to end of a sidescrolling stage. The catch is that each totem mirrors the other’s movements; pressing A will make both totems jump, and there’s no getting around it. There’s a swap button to force the totems to switch colors, and also a stack ability so one totem can piggyback on the other. When stacked, the mirror function is reeled in slightly — the riding totem won’t jump unless deliberately “boosted.” It’s a reasonable set of rules that can be grasped quickly. That is, until the challenge ramps up.

The first world included a few stages, and the variety of challenges found within was pretty remarkable. It’s already clear that Project Totem is a game that offers surprises not just once every play-session, or once every world or level-batch, but actually multiple times per individual stage. In one instance I had to swap totems with perfect timing to push one through colored goo and quickly allow the same for the other, while other stages introduce ice, anti-gravity mechanics, and who knows what else.

Of course, a colored totem is only able to pass through goo of its own unique shade, making swapping more and more crucial as you progress. Part of Totem’s joy is its ability to make you feel smart one moment, then humbled the next. I’d often speedrun a few sections like a pro only to find myself certifiably stumped minutes later, forcing me to actually stop and think. It’s somewhat of a novel concept for a lot of today’s games. You know, thinking.

I mentioned earlier how Project Totem manages to surprise and delight with alarming frequency, and as I passed through the available demo stages I experienced numerous epiphanies. A later level grants one of your totems wings, enabling a gliding effect upon jumping. The wings are game-changing not just in terms of platforming, but swapping as well; suddenly the X button puts the gliding totem on the bottom, leaving the passenger free to jump around on top. This, as you might expect, requires careful input from the player.

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From what I was able to learn, it sounds as though the mechanics I saw account for less than half of what the final game will offer, and I can only interpret that as incredibly happy news. I also tried my hand at some co-op with Ms. Large, and though we had some spells of frustration, it never felt like the game’s fault. Rather, the game almost highlights flaws in the real-world communication taking place. Eventually we completed a level by way of an out-loud counting system (co-op involves four totems, by the way), and I can only imagine the hilarity that would ensue trying co-op with friends and family with whom you’re already closely acquainted (and, perhaps, quite willing to chide or curse at openly). Family fun indeed.

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I want to comment on the game’s art style quickly. It’s comprised of bright colors and clean lines, with a modest set of particle effects for various actions that take place during play. Hopping through illuminated goo is one example of something that looks lovely, and for each world there’s a drastic pallette swap that goes a long way in refreshing and renewing your interest. I was told upon commenting that art design is far from complete either, so perhaps we’ll see some truly fancy effects in the final build when it’s ready.

Project Totem is set to release later this year, and though it’s an Xbox One exclusive for now, it sounds as though Press Play would like to target other platforms down the road. Personally, I’d absolutely love to bring this experience on the go, and though 3DS might be a bit cramped for totem-sliding and goo-hopping, the Vita’s screen would surely make a  great fit. Then again, we do have those fancy new 3DS systems coming, so who really can say.

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Also of note, the final title for the game isn’t actually Project Totem; that’s just a code name. Given that the game single-handedly revived me from an exasperated, sleep-deprived slog on my last day of appointments at PAX, I think it’s fair to say I’ll follow its progress regardless of what the development team decides to name it. Given the trend I’ve witnessed so far, Press Play may very well surprise me. In fact, I hope they do exactly that.