Totem is full of co-op "a-ha" moments

Press Play hasn’t wasted time bringing puzzle platformers to the Xbox One. First we had Max: The Curse of Brotherhood, which took the concept of Max & the Magic Marker and re-imagined it for a controller. It was a novel concept, allowing you to create vines and platforms by drawing, but it was also imprecise enough to lose some of the magic along the way. Enter Totem, their next game, which maintains the puzzle platforming concept but frames it in a much more precise, 2D gameplay style.

In single-player mode you control two heads in a Totem pole, capable of stacking on top of each other. The trick is that you control both at the same time. Move left and they both move left, move right and they both move right. At first that simply means keeping track of both -- one may have to jump a gap where the other simply keeps walking, and you can use walls and other obstacles to separate the two or bring them closer together, depending on the puzzle at hand.

Totem

Eventually you may have to stack up to access higher areas, and you can even perform a double jump by jumping with the stacked totems. The game also throws color-coded fields at you, which you must align with your green and purple totems. Green can pass through a green field, but purple cannot. This might mean stacking one totem on top of the other to keep it out of danger, or vice-versa.

Things got interesting when I gained the ability to swap the positions of the two totems. This had me carefully considering my moves as I had to pass the two totems through several fields of alternating colors. I died, felt stupid, but tried again, starting to recognize who had to be where more quickly. Then the game put the pressure on, dropping my two totems into a hole filled with color-coded fields where I had to swap the two totems as quick as I could. Reaching the bottom was a thrill.

In co-op, the game doesn’t simply give you the control of one of the two totems, but ups that number to four. One player has control of two red totems, while the other player controls two blue totems. Before long the game is asking you to stack up to avoid more colored fields, reach higher places, and keep each other alive.

Totem co-op

My co-op buddy was a random stranger from the PAX East showfloor, but that didn’t matter. We had to work together, communicate, and solve each puzzle using teamwork. There was the same kind of back-and-forth deductions I enjoyed in Portal 2, where solving each puzzle as a team felt like a triumph. I didn’t know the guy, but we high-fived all the same.

Totem features a clean, simple, 2D art style. It isn’t quite as graphically stunning as the Xbox One version of Max: Curse of Brotherhood, but I have to imagine that’s a contributing factor towards this being an overall cleaner, better playing game. And despite the simple graphics, Totem does have a pretty cool “trixel” effect where totems and walls in the environment dissolve into tiny triangles.

I hesitate to gush over Totem, because so many puzzle games live and die by how they progress over the course of the full game. Those demo puzzles provided a great first taste, but it will be up to Press Play to make sure the final game maintains the careful balance of satisfaction and challenge. It’s a good start, and I really hope that next time I’m playing Totem, it’s with a buddy who I can truly share some triumphant “a-ha” puzzle game moments with.

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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Tags: PAX East 2014

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