Road to Gehenna begins much the same as its predecessor. Voice from the sky, crazy-fast sprinting ability, robot avatar, talking to computer terminals, etc. etc. And given the great reception of The Talos Principle, it’s not necessarily an insult to say that the similarities don’t end there. The game play is the same, the puzzles are made up of the same components, and the story is all based on the familiar text-based computer terminals we found scattered around the world from the original game. It’s no surprise that the developers went in a ‘more of the same’ direction when drafting up ideas for their first expansion, because gamers and critics loved Talos. And while I loved Talos just as much as the next puzzler-addict, I loved Road to Gehenna just the slightest bit more.
Everything is just a tad smaller – and sweeter – in this parallel realm in which Uriel (that’s you) is charged by Elohim to release his imprisoned children (you might remember them as the folks who wrote all the QR codes in the first game.) You see, late one night Elohim got wicked drunk and locked all his little robo-children in cages. After sobering up, he began to regret his actions and wants them released from their puzzly prisons so that they might ‘ascend.’ Whatever all that stuff about ‘ascension’ means, zealous little you runs head-first into this newness to solve puzzles and free robots.
Upon entering Gehenna, I noticed that the environments, unlike the huge, sprawling, world-like simulations as found in Talos, are condensed and reworked into little terrarium-like worlds. They offer the same beautiful ruins, deserts, and waterscapes, just reimagined as smaller, more precise and deconstructed. As before these amazing landscapes are worth exploring as you’ll find plenty of hidden stars (most of which were too difficult for me to bother trying to get) and little easter eggs.
This expansion’s puzzles are fundamentally similar to those in Talos, with no new mechanics or serious changes to the way you need to think to solve them. But like the physical world of Gehenna, they have been refined to reflect what was best about the first game. And while there is still the occasional tiresome bout of laser-beacon swapping and running back and forth, this smaller collection of puzzles houses some of the best examples of first person puzzling I have ever seen. Larger puzzles have deceptively simple and elegant solutions while smaller puzzles have surprising levels of substance and challenge. Gehenna manages to distill the first person puzzler feeling to a point where each solution brings the reverie of the eureka moment – a feeling that I never felt with this consistency in the original, or in big games like Portal 2.
It is refreshing that the expansion begins difficult and stays difficult, rather than following the same build-up as the base game. Road to Gehenna is much more difficult than Talos and I would have been utterly unsatisfied had it been any easier. Rather than flying through the puzzles without an inkling of concentration or forethought, I actually had to take my finger off the shift button, get to a good vantage point, and think out my next movements. Gehenna latches onto the core concepts from the puzzles of the former game, sucks them of their vital puzzly essence, and reconstitutes them into the clever, fresh challenges in this new world.
In The Talos Principle, I fell in love with the interactive story moments in which you got to converse with Milton, the rogue AI that argues against your existence. In Gehenna, the player is presented with an entire mock-Internet forum, complete with archetypal members like the troll, the conspiracy nut, the pseudo-intellectual, and the silent and mysterious content creator. Gehenna, for which the expansion is named, is an incisive commentary on real-world Internet communities (like reddit,) touching on weighty subjects like censorship, authoritarianism, “good” art and “bad” art, separatism and group-think. Though I would say the original story packed more of a mental punch and offered more along the lines of philosophical thought, the excellent writing of Jonas Kyratzes and Tom Jubert breathes Gehenna full of life.
When coughing up money for DLC, it is not uncommon to have that nagging feeling of having been ripped off. This is especially the case when a game doesn’t seem to stand on it’s own two legs without extra content. Road to Gehenna is a refreshing shot of legitimacy in an industry that often tries to chop games into chunks and sell those bits and pieces as whole. With a huge game like The Talos Principle, you don’t feel cheated when paying full price. With a worthwhile and proper expansion like Road to Gehenna, you may feel like you’re the one getting away with the steal.