The Wii U eShop has played host to some wonderful indie titles over the years, and despite the console's impending retirement there's still room for another sleeper hit to offer a charming send off. With its distinctive art-style, intriguing level design and enigmatic story, Toby: The Secret Mine seemed set to impress when first announced, but now the secret's out - is it one worth spreading around?
Having previously released on PC and mobile devices, this puzzle platformer was developed entirely by one man; Lukáš Navrátil. Imitation is often the sincerest form of flattery, and Toby: The Secret Mine plays out something like a hodge-podge of several different games all at once. Its monochromatic visuals are instantly reminiscent of moody pioneers like Limbo and even later releases like Badland, while the physics-based platforming and 2-dimensional view only serve to build upon that comparison. It's a perfectly competent blend of these particular elements, but imitation is only half the battle.
On a journey to save his kidnapped friends, Toby is tasked with chasing down a group of thugs while conquering physics puzzles a-plenty and jumping across 21 levels in total. Each one lasts about 5 minutes or so, and they're roughly grouped together into different areas with a set theme. It's a particularly pleasant surprise to see these stark landscapes brought to life with a splash of well-placed colour, used to great effect in contrast with the shaded foreground. These painterly vistas are often stunning, creating a sense of texture and layering to give the visuals an added oomph. From gloomy forests to bright fields, burning deserts and snowy tundras, there's enough diversity to keep you guessing where you'll end up next and it's undoubtedly a very pretty game indeed.
Although the level-based approach certainly helps introduce fresh environments at a steady rate, the downside is that it really hampers the sense of immersion and world-building that would usually be in place. With a plot as threadbare as ''save your friends'', it would have been nice to see this universe fleshed out a little more through some indirect storytelling or environmental hints, but the absence of this leaves a rather hollow feeling to the whole affair. You'll jump from a sandstorm to a blizzard with little in-between to explain how you got there, making it all feel quite artificial.
Each shadowy environment is also a dangerous platforming playground, but not always for the right reasons. The game takes a 'trial and error' approach with its difficulty, though particularly delights in your failure; even going so far as to track your death count on the main menu. While obvious traps like moving platforms and spike pits are immediately a threat, many more are hidden away with little indication that they're dangerous at all. You'll need to watch your step and actually plan a route around sneaky ambushes, eventually forming a solid run through repeated failed attempts. While you can learn to recognise a few triggers, there are a few too many examples of obstacles or enemies killing you immediately on your first encounter with no warning at all, either for a quick thrill or cruel trick. We loved having a challenge and thinking our way through certain levels, but at times these one-shot kills felt suspiciously like a cheap way to pad out a fairly short experience.
Toby himself controls well enough, though is so sluggish that you'll slam your thumb down on the control stick in a futile effort to try and somehow speed him up. His "run" is far more like an ambling trot, and a lot of focus is instead placed squarely on his paradoxically amazing jumping skills. One tap of the button sends you halfway to the moon, so a lot of the platforming is based around just that - timed jumps from platform to platform with several different obstacles to deal with simultaneously. We'll admit we never fully got to grips with the way he moved, though we point some of the blame towards repeated cases of sketchy collision detection throughout the adventure. It's nothing too dreadful, however - mostly just catching on corners or being bumped by moving platforms - and thankfully there's a generous checkpoint system that usually leaves you back right where you left off.
Some moments slow things down, allowing you to backtrack in order to find a key, or search around for a hidden passage. We enjoyed the puzzles on offer to begin with, from pushing blocks to solving door codes, and even something so simple as listening to your footsteps in order to hear when you step across a wooden hatch. Eventually, however, even the puzzles start seeming like they're out to get you, presenting the player with increasingly obtuse dead ends and hoping you trip over the answer through sheer chance and stubborn repetition. Once you hit the late game the platforming really ramps up the difficulty, so these moments should offer some respite, but eventually it all blurred together into one frustrating jog through a very pretty painting.
Though we hoped that some of the puzzles might incorporate the Wii U GamePad, as it's a fairly standard console port this sadly isn't the case. When puzzle artifacts like keypads or symbols pop up on the screen to be interacted with it really does feel like a sorely missed opportunity not to utilise touch controls, and in fact the GamePad is completely turned off unless you activate off-screen play, a lá Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
The main adventure will only take about 2 hours to complete, with the biggest incentive to return being some optional caged friends to find hidden throughout each level. While you can go back and replay any level at any time, it's not actually possible to see how many cages you missed in each one, so we gave up on that extra mission real quick. Sorry, nameless and faceless villagers that we know nothing about! It's little things like this that detract from the whole experience, such as the annoying piece of music that plays on a loop during chase scenes, or the various glitches such as minor freezes that you're sure to come across in your brief time with the game.
What's frustrating about Toby: The Secret Mine is that it feels like it's actually trying to offer more than the sum of its parts, but just doesn't quite pull it off. It feels too bogged down in its inspirations to present any exciting ideas of its own, and while it's visually stunning at times, even this apes off superior titles that came before. Some challenging platforming and decent puzzles make it one to consider if you're looking to give your Wii U one last Nindie hurrah, but otherwise we'd recommend waiting on a digital sale before diving into this dark adventure.