While Toki Tori was a launch title on WiiWare and seized a lot of attention as a result, its direct sequel has had a more protracted release history. Initially planned as a Wii U eShop launch title, Toki Tori 2 arrives after developer Two Tribes had a late change of heart and delayed release, taking the opportunity to expand on it further and improve key elements. The final result is a long way from its Game Boy Color and WiiWare predecessors, and provides a new and potentially divisive twist on the formula.
While Toki Tori was classic puzzle fare — enclosed areas with fixed items and one escape route — this sequel delves off in an entirely different direction. For one thing, gone is the linear progression and hand holding, and in its place Two Tribes dusts its palms of the game and says, quite simply, "now it's all yours". Even the manual tells you that you whistle with A and stomp with B, before stating that it's up to you to find out everything else for yourself. There's no real tutorial, no "go this way" arrows or text boxes of tips; it's all about interpreting your surroundings, while using deductions and your puzzle-solving skills.
As a system it starts off rather well. The set items and levels of the original make way for much larger stages, and you have to engage with and manipulate various creatures to get around. Whistles and stomps have different effects; for example you may need to stomp to make a berry fall to a lower area, you whistle a frog to attract it to that area, the frog eats the berry and, with a stomp, will blow out a bubble that carries you up to a platform. Your little chick can't do anything but walk and carry out those two simple actions, so practically every area of a stage requires the use of these creatures, and as you progress the interactions become more complex, precise and varied in results; some puzzles not only demand sharp thinking, but good timing and quick thumbs. You also unlock the rather neat camera tool, with which you're given the task of using the GamePad to snap landmarks and creatures to add to a photo album.
All of this adds to a sense of immersion with the world, and you really are a chick with limited tools making its way without any kind of road map. It's an attractive place to explore, too, with areas typified by lush long grasses, waterfalls, caves or a volcanic mountain. It's a lovely graphics engine with bright colours and chunky models, with ambient music and sounds perfectly suited to the various settings.
In the initial stages we did believe this to be a linear title — we were soon to learn otherwise — as we merrily progressed through gates and saw our hero moving along the map from stage to stage. We were activating beacons, without necessarily knowing why, and it was easy to be swept away by its charms; it had been nothing but interesting, challenging and enjoyable at that stage. There were some sticking points, as good puzzle games provide, but even without any real guidance we were moving along the path we found naturally.
It was after roughly two hours that we met a dead-end, with nothing more than a vague vision directing us to an area we hadn't found yet; we were stuck, as for the first time no new path opened up. We'd been collecting gold pieces, so assumed that we needed to go back and find more in previous stages as, frankly, we weren't sure what else we could do. Watching someone else playing we noticed that even at the very start of the game, and in other areas besides, there were devious extra animal manipulations possible to divert off a natural path for extra gold and, sometimes, a route to a new area. The fact a new song had been taught to us — songs that you whistle are vital tools for restarts, activating your camera and more — in one of these secret areas that showed where gold was located, simply made us think that was our goal. As the game had been teaching us and telling a story through oblique but perceptible means, we took it as a good indication.
It's at this stage that a merry-go-round took place that highlights a design flaw that, for any impatient gamers out there, may be problematic. We wandered around, repeating stages, attempting to retrieve gold, and despite some success found some of the puzzles particularly fiendish. After a couple of hours we concluded that we were making very little progress by repeating levels and again explored stages on the map with blocked off paths. One avenue was repeatedly closed, and by chance we eventually stumbled across a route to a fresh gate. Hosanna's were sang and there was a sweet sense of accomplishment, but only after a long time of aimless confusion and frustration.
This approach — so commonly referred to as Metroidvania — can work, and in this title you earn the ability to fly between levels where you've found beacons and launched from a save point. Despite this, exploration has no sense of momentum because every area, even just walking a little in any direction, often requires solving multiple puzzles, so if you backtrack or explore you're repeating puzzles over and over again. When you combine this with the absence of assistance aside from some fairly unassuming visual cues, it's easy to become utterly baffled.
When the experience flows this game is a delight, but when you miss a cue or struggle with a puzzle, it can feel like there's no way out. While challenge is good, the absence of any substantial hints or "passes" to earn and use sparingly can lead to multiple road-blocks to leave you scratching your head. Rather unlike the Lostwinds titles on WiiWare, or even the famous Super Metroid, the setup doesn't feel as instinctive as seeking colour co-ordinated doors — Toki Tori 2 isn't as generous with its cues, and the puzzle solving core to the concept always slows you down, which is particularly frustrating with tough areas that require precise timing or convoluted movements.
Our time with the game has led to occasions where being stuck for a significant period, or even worse not knowing where to go, left us pining for a currency we could spend to move to the next point, or even a guide to give us a limited number of hints. When we found a new area or successfully progressed thanks to a vague clue given in game, there was a feeling of exhilaration; yet sometimes the balance felt too far against our favour, where we wanted the developer to give us a small helping hand.
In that sense this is a bold approach we don't often see in modern games. The player is left to their own devices and must essentially "live off the land", but on this occasion it's actually solving puzzles off the bounty of nature. Some of these puzzles can rightly be a source of pride for the development team, as they're either intuitive and smart enough to raise a smile, or are typified by clever mis-direction and trickery. We happily had our minds stretched trying to figure some of them out or extended periods, and in actual fact had a lot of enjoyment playing while others were in the room — a form of puzzle co-op. If a puzzle does defeat you for extended periods, however, you have no option but to keep grinding on; there's no get out of jail card.
Another important point is that there's no "file selection", as when you start the game you automatically pick up where you left off, which comes across as a nice piece of immersion and sense that you're naturally progressing in an adventure. That said, if more than one member of the household is playing they can create their own save via their Wii U system user profile, to avoid any confusion or disappointment. It's also worth noting that the often mentioned level editor isn't present at launch, with plans for it to arrive in a subsequent update.
Toki Tori 2 takes the Two Tribes mascot in a bold, ambitious new direction, and represents a unique offering on the Wii U eShop. At its best it's a visually appealing, intuitive experience that truly teaches you to use powers of deduction and to think creatively. The offset of the hands-off approach to narrative is that the lack of guidance can be daunting and, at times, detrimental — it's simply too easy to miss a subtle clue and wander aimlessly with no suggestion of what you need to achieve. Like its toughest puzzles, the pieces eventually fall into place and bring satisfaction, but the move towards self-dependence, exploration and back-tracking doesn't always suit the puzzle-on-every-screen mechanic. As such this is a beautiful but flawed experience, worth an investment even if — occasionally — pride has to be swallowed and an online guide sought out.
Since launch Two Tribes has released a major free update on 12th September in North America and Europe, titled Toki Tori 2+. The up-to-date version addresses many of the issues outlined in this review; while this article remains unchanged, you can read our Hands On: Toki Tori 2+ feature for our impressions on the updated version of the game.