There’s a fine line between brilliance and frustration when it comes to puzzle games, and unfortunately, Toby: The Secret Mine from Lukas Navratil crosses that line far too often for me to give it a full recommendation at this time.
It’s not to say that Toby: The Secret Mine isn’t great to look at. In fact, it’s backgrounds hint at a much larger world that I’d love to know more about. The animations are silky smooth, and the character designs are intriguing. I like the fact that the game switches things up when it comes to environments, with the wintry worlds being especially interesting (although they do lead to some design flaws I’ll come back to in a bit). The traps and obstacles Toby faces along his journey are sometimes downright inspired, especially in their deviousness and their aesthetic. The villain is suitably mysterious and comes off as equally dangerous and cowardly, which is even more impressive considering this is all done without words. Sound effects are adequate for maintaining suspension of disbelief and enhancing the atmosphere, but like the other audio, aren’t particularly memorable. Again, even though it’s told completely through gameplay, the story is intriguing. Why is someone taking all of Toby’s friends? Since he’s clearly more than a match for Toby physically, why does he run and resort to traps rather than forcing a showdown (he’s armed and Toby isn’t). I like the idea of the game posing questions like this visually. Voices or other narrative aids would only muddy the waters here.
No, it’s not the presentation that hurts Toby: The Secret Mine. It’s not even the puzzles per se that cause an issue. In fact, some of the physics-based obstacles are rather brilliant in design and execution, and I really admire the fact that the game expects you to fully explore every inch of each map in order to discover non-obvious solutions to various challenges. Completing what feel like nearly impossible puzzles is extremely rewarding and inspires you to continue even though the going gets rough. It’s when the challenges kill you without warning over and over again that the game becomes frustrating, making you want, no, NEED to quit in order to regain your sanity. Spike traps skewer poor Toby with no visual indication of their presence until it’s too late. While riding a minecart at breakneck speed (cool!), you’re required to pull levers with barely a moment’s notice lest you are killed by some hidden obstacle (not cool). Worse yet, sometimes you’re required to leave certain objects alone, only moving some of the ones in a series. Of course you have no way of knowing which ones, so you’re forced to die over and over until you figure it out (or happen into the solution by luck). The game deserves credit for supplementing platforming and physical puzzles for other types of challenges, but several of these provide no hint as to how to proceed (at least none I could find) once again requiring you to rely on luck and/or repetition to conquer them. This makes what would otherwise be fun diversions into irritating roadblocks.
It’s a shame, because Toby: The Secret Mine styles itself as a Limbo-esque experience, but without the latter’s elegance. With some reworking, it could easily become a must-play. Toby: The Secret Mine has charm for days, but the fun factor just isn’t consistent enough to warrant a purchase without patching or a significant sale. That being said, I encourage Lukas Navratil to continue along this path, as there’s the potential for a great game in here, and I admire his creative vision even when I’m not enjoying this particular title.