One of the reasons 2001's Ico remains so special lies in how little it's been imitated. Only the last five years have brought us releases that borrow much of its haunting atmosphere, like Lost in Shadow, Papo & Yo, and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons—still, being understated hasn't increased too much in popularity since Fumito Ueda's PlayStation 2 debut.
Even so, the indie scene has done an excellent job of proving the viability of formerly abandoned genres; how else could isometric RPGs and classic point-and-click adventures currently exist without it? So it's no surprise to see Toren, an upcoming game from Brazilian developer Swordtales, find inspiration in the premise of what once seemed like a one-off curiosity. That's not to say Toren's developers are crunching code with one hand and cribbing from Ico with another, but I walked away from its brief GDC demo feeling some very Ueda-y vibes—pretty impressive for a developer's first project.
While Ico built an air of mystery by wrapping its backstory in that of a fictional culture (with an equally fictional language), Toren uses Brazilian mythology—undoubtedly a fuzzy concept to many players—as its foundation. And Swordtales definitely takes this aspect of their game seriously: Toren is being produced in accordance with Brazil's Cultural Incentive Law, which seeks to preserve and spread awareness of the country and its people's culture. If this sounds worrying, the presence of government oversight doesn't harm Swordtales' vision one bit; the game never stops to teach the player about the significance of what they're seeing, and, as someone woefully unaware of Brazilian culture, no aspect of the game in particular felt like a "teachable moment." (Though I wouldn't mind an appendix to fill me in on everything I'm missing.)
Toren's 30-minute demo only gave me a brief peek at its world, but what I've seen so far looks promising. The beginning of the story opens on a singular location—in this case, a seemingly abandoned tower—shortly after some sort of cataclysmic event, but not much else is disclosed. The protagonist, moonchild, finds herself sent on a quest to prove herself from a booming, disembodied voice—something that definitely gave me some Shadow of the Colossus flashbacks—which traces her life from birth to multiple deaths. Passing away doesn't close the book on Moonchild; though environmental hazards can claim her life and earn you a quick respawn, certain story-based deaths see Moonchild being born into a younger body for reasons that still aren't entirely clear.
Most of the hands-on demo I played focused on obtaining a sword for Moonchild to prepare herself for the many dangers ahead. The biggest aggressor in the section comes in the form of a dragon that breathes petrifying fumes, and throughout this early section, it makes its presence known. Reaching this weapon involves the environmental puzzles and block-pushing you'd expected from a very Ico-like experience, and even the brief bit of combat didn't feel all that action packed: After being stalked by the dragon for so long, Moonchild finally turns the tables, but this battle boils down to slowly approaching the beast while hiding from his petrifying breath behind protective statues—and using the same statues to cover her hide after the dragon knocks her sword into the distance. (Okay, these devs definitely played Ico.)
Toren's been winning awards at game shows since 2011, and, based on what I've experienced so far, Swordtales definitely understand what they're doing. And I'll definitely excuse the Ico borrowings because, hell, I've been itching for a similar experience since I played (and replayed) that great little PS2 game. Still, I've only seen a 30-minute slice of what's shaping up to be a four to six-hour experience, and I have no idea if Toren will be just as surprising and inventive as Ueda's work. If Swordtales can maintain the momentum of this early section, though, Toren just might make a name for Brazilian game development.