A shame then, that Tölva contradicts its eerie environment design with an over-formatted structure. From the moment you arrive on the planet, your map overflows with icons that amount to the same four or five activities repeated over and over. What’s more, much of this is highly familiar open-world territory, from enemy fortresses that need conquering, to wreckage-sites that can be looted for financial gain. The signals themselves never lose their mysterious glow, but arriving at one often culminates in scanning a nondescript cube or a chunk of rather humdrum-looking debris, which is a bit like wandering through a toyshop to investigate the stationary. It’s just a touch anticlimactic.
What’s more, the rewards for your expeditions are a smattering of new weapons and a chunk of (well-written) story text that appears in your data log. This further adds to the formatted feel of Tolva’s structure, and feels disconnected from your action. When you walk up to an ancient alien artefact and poke it with a stick, it needs to respond somehow. Tölva’s rarely do, and the result is a bizarre sensation of stasis, a lack of purpose to your expedition.
At least the weapons you’re rewarded with are satisfying to shoot. There are three types of gun in Tölva: assault rifles, sniper-rifles, and underslung beam-weapons (plus a pistol that you’ll probably never use). Tölva’s combat often occurs at long-distance, and it’s almost as much of a visual feast as the environments themselves. Battles are deadly light-shows with laser-beams of half-a-dozen hues hurled hundreds of metres across the planet’s rocky plains. Night-battles are a particular treat, as each shot illuminates the darkness for a fraction of a second in brilliant purple or vibrant green. In these moments, Tölva recalls the motley bombast of Planetside 2, albeit on a considerably smaller scale.
As well as looking pretty, Tölva’s weapons feel fantastic, too, with projectiles thudding audibly against the metallic exoskeletons of your enemies. Eventually, they succumb to your assault in a sudden, powerful explosion that echoes across the plains. Enemies are canny too, albeit somewhat predictable. They utilise the same abilities as you, from deflector shields to powerful area-of-effect abilities. Tactically, they’ll attempt to flank you, rush you while in cover, and beat a hasty retreat when heavily damaged. At its best, Tölva’s combat will take you from a simple ambush on an enemy patrol to a chaotic, three-way battle as both allies and enemies leap in at all sides.
Sadly, such events are relatively rare, at least until the game’s final hour. Indeed, Tölva’s biggest problem is that its vision for an emergent, planetwide war severely lacks depth. The idea is that each of the three factions can assume control of the various fortresses dotted across the map. But this mainly amounts to the AI retaking a fortress that you’ve recently gained control of, and half the time your AI buddies will immediately oust your enemies anyway.
Whether or not a skirmish on Tölva becomes something more seems entirely down to chance. Although it’s possible to manually recruit AI allies to join your squad, you can only order them around in a rudimentary fashion (you can’t prevent them from automatically attacking enemies, for example). What’s more, you can’t call in reinforcements remotely, and from what I can tell the enemy can’t either. In short, Tölva lacks a strategic layer to make its grander game of capture-the-fortress a viable prospect.
Moreover, there are no meaningful ways for battles to escalate. There’s no massive change in the types of weapons available through the game, and enemy types remain roughly the same as well. Occasionally you’ll see a turret drop into play, or encounter a rare type of large enemy, but these are either scripted moments or so rare that they feel like scripted moments. The result is that every encounter in Tölva feels identical, defeating the point of them occurring organically.
Tölva’s failure to produce memorable emergent combat makes it difficult to recommend, as this is one of the core pillars of its experience. Nevertheless, although I was never thrilled by it in the way I had hoped, I was never exactly bored by it, either. The supreme skill and effort that has gone into designing the world itself meant that I always yearned to see what lay beyond the next rise. Big Robot may not have struck gold with Tölva, but it has landed on something interesting, and although at times it feels frustratingly hollow and obscure, there are also moments when it fills you with wonder.