Review: The Signal from Tolva

Tölva starts out with an orbital view of an alien planet – the view your actual body apparently has, while the rest of the game takes place by remotely taking control of existing ‘Surveyor’ robots. The game quickly introduces you to a surface on which various other factions vie for control using automated humanoid robots. Various neutral drones also form a surreal digital fauna for this ecosystem, drifting across your view while they scan for … something.

Unlike Big Robot’s earlier game, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, the landscape is not (unless I’m vastly mistaken) procedurally generated. And while I’m a sucker for procgen in general, the handcrafted touch here works well. The opening landscape includes the hazy silhouette of a massive dropship, which ends up being a landmark in the central part of the map. The first time I noticed I was actually on the other side of that dropship surprised me; it seemed impossible that I had actually worked my way across what my initial impression had registered as such a vast distance.

Where the procedural gameplay comes into effect here is in the various competing factions. The Surveyors, your unknowing allies, are at odds with other groups of similar robot scouts, and to progress across the map you will almost certainly find yourself needing to wrest control of various robot-production bases from these other groups. Aiding you in this are resources to collect that can be traded in for upgrades of your choice, which give you some ability to turn the gameplay in your preferred direction. Sniper rifles can be bought with or without long-distance scopes, giving a sort of semi-noscope approach; other options include powerful short-range weapons, a tool for “hacking” other Surveyors into accompanying you, and activated items such as a single-use energy burst or a remote drone.

The glitch aesthetic in this telepresence-themed shooter is excellent. Jumping to other places on the map is framed as swapping control of a new robot, with console-like text during transition. More importantly, reality itself has some moments of glitch, as you uncover remnants of some ancient technology that is producing the titular signals. A different visual mode can be activated that makes these signals have ‘form’ as undulating, tentacled things. Reality becomes even weirder when you give into the temptation to explore any of a handful of tunneled mazes, or when you reach … well, perhaps I should stop there.

Tölva has a lot going for it – well-executed style, engaging FPS gameplay with an open ecosystem feel to it. I think my only disappointment was arguably a strength – while the game does have a culminating choice and accompanying finale, I had hoped that some of the quieter weirdness in the periphery of your view during the game would have a more clear, resolving connection by the end. But if Tölva chooses to keep some of its secrets in the end, who am I to complain? The journey along the way was fantastic.

Disclosure: I made a mention on Twitter that I’d be willing to write about this game, and then the lead designer took me up on it and gave me a copy despite me not normally being a games writer. But I like writing about things worth thinking about. And I like free games, especially when it’s already one I had wishlisted. So anyway here we are.

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