Posted by Philip J Reed
It may be a map, but it's no legend
Congratulations are in order for Abstraction Games: it released a topography game that's even less fun that it sounds.
Topoloco almost deserves an award for just how much it gets entirely wrong. Before you read the rest of this review, know that we didn't expect this to be much of a game, per se. Topoloco markets itself as an educational aid, and we adjusted our expectations accordingly. We were still seriously disappointed.
Quite what the purpose of this release was is unclear. Nothing about it is fun, or even aims to be, but there's nothing about it that's particularly educational either. The game flaunts its "digital atlas" feature, but that atlas is buried so deeply in the game's menus and is such a pain to navigate that it may have the dubious distinction of being the only "digital" advancement on Earth that's more cumbersome than its physical analogue.
The game begins with a lengthy — though thankfully skippable — animation that pans back and forth across a classroom. Start the game and an elderly professor walks in. This is the most realistic part of Topoloco, as the professor does indeed move with the wretched slowness of a senior citizen who no longer cares about his job and yearns for the sweet embrace of death. We're not sure that's what Abstraction Games was going for, but we're going to take silver linings wherever we can find them.
Get used to the slow and needless animation of the old man, by the way, because you'll be seeing it a lot. Between questions, while navigating menus, selecting options; nearly everything you do has a corresponding — yet irrelevant — animation on the top screen, which you will have to sit through before you can do anything else. For a game based entirely around clicking through menus and selecting answers, that's a huge and needless annoyance. The endlessly looping and boundlessly terrible music only adds to our suspicion that Topoloco was specifically designed to drive us insane.
Regarding the content of the game itself, Topoloco fails to even qualify as a lesson in topography. It's actually more of a geography lesson, as you're identifying unlabelled countries rather than considering in any way the physical and natural features of those regions.
Oddly, the game even bungles its role as a geography tool, as it only features five of the Earth's seven continents. We can almost understand leaving off Antarctica — though there's no reason the game can't at least acknowledge its existence — but surely Australia has enough cultural value to deserve some attention. In fact, it's almost insulting that it's left out, as though it isn't worth learning about at all. What does Topoloco have against our Aussie friends?
Actually, Australia shouldn't feel all that slighted. For a "topography" game, everything sure is flat and featureless. You can use the stylus to drag your way around undetailed maps, tapping on regions to learn their names, their capitals, and see their flags. We hope you weren't hoping to learn anything else at all about the world around you, because you won't get it.
What's more, there's not much educational value in tapping some small area of a blank map to see the word "Ghana" pop up. That doesn't teach you anything, it just displays a fact. There's more to learning than the rote memorization of place names, and it would be nice if some more intriguing facts about these areas were displayed, in order to better engage and encourage the player. Instead you tap the screen, a name pops up, and you tap again. That's neither educational nor fun.
When you think you're well-versed enough in the context-free names of five continents' worth of countries, you can choose to take an exam. Yes, that is Topoloco's reward to you for hours of study; you get to take a test.
All answers are multiple choice, and you'll be doing everything from telling the professor the names of countries, names of capitals and which flag belongs where. It's all the excitement of filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil, and you can have it on the go!
When you're finished, the slowly-dying professor will slug his way across the room — and nearer to his grave — to grade your paper. If you ever wanted an old man to tell you that you're bad at educational video games, then this is a fantastic feature. Otherwise it's just another waste of time as a fictional character pretends to review your answers and assign you a score.
There are three save slots available in this game, but it's hard to believe there are three people in the world who would want to play this, let alone three people using the same console. On the plus side, there's so little content that your disappointment can register that much sooner. That's a useful time-saver at least.
Let's not mince words: Topoloco is awful. The fact that it chose to emphasize education over fun is not the problem; the problem is that it bungles even the educational side of things. It's slow, clumsy, brainless and annoying. If taking an endless series of barely interactive exams appeals to you, then perhaps you will enjoy Topoloco. Perhaps you will also enjoy finding a different hobby.