Toem accomplishes more in two hours than most games accomplish in twenty. It’s a bitterly short but wonderfully sweet package that wraps you in a world which feels like Paper Mario and A Short Hike got thrown into a blender and then poured into a photographer’s mug. I just can’t get over how much developer Something We Made packs into so little. But I also can’t get over my desire for just a bit more. Like bite-sized indie greats such as Untitled Goose Game or the aforementioned A Short Hike, Toem ends just when it hits its stride. But when my biggest criticism is that I wanted more, the game has certainly done something right.
And Something We Made did a lot right here in Toem. From the opening moments, you’re wrapped in the warmth of the game’s quaint world. Here, the first steps out of my house after talking with my mom reminded me of the start to many Pokémon adventures. Similar to leaving Pallet Town, the humble opening area of Toem gives way to grander and grander locales. There’s a great geographical progression here, one which reminded me of my time leaving a rural town for college next to a big city. For this reason and many others, I found Toem to be an emotionally resonant experience.
A Picture-perfect world
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I think it’s due in part to how this world feels. To adopt one of gaming’s newest buzzwords, Toem is a cozy adventure. It establishes a connection to its player in part by drawing on familiar touchstones in the context of an unfamiliar world. As I said, there’s some Pokémon here. And there’s a lot of Paper Mario in the presentation, in the eclectic, flat characters that bring Toem to life. But the game is also super weird. A skeleton gave me sunglasses that let me see ghosts. I walked around the city wearing a springy hotdog hat in order to promote a restaurant. Hell, I tracked down a meteor so that an overly-excited astronomer could send her robot helpers to go collect it.
When wrapped up in a relatable thematic, geographic progression and an evocatively familiar aesthetic, this strangeness feels par for the course. It also feels damn earnest because of Toem’s lovely script. This is where I really saw notes of Adam Robinson-Yu’s A Short Hike. Toem knows how to write absolutely bizarre situations which have real soul. At one point, I rescued a child balloon who was separated from his parent balloons by a huge gust of wind. It was the balloon’s birthday, even. Actually reuniting the family wasn’t difficult by any means – Toem is very mechanically simple as we’ll discuss – but it really struck a chord. Something We Made somehow got me, in minutes, to care about these three living balloons.
I always felt welcomed and invited by even the oddest or the most curmudgeonly inhabitants of Toem. I really believe that the peculiar situations, memorable character concepts, and whimsical writing here will cement Toem as one of gaming’s great indies. The title is a little pocket of personable creativity that I just want to glow about, because it’s the sort of world that I used to draw in the margins of my notebooks or imagine on my swingset after school. There’s a childlike invention here, but it’s anchored by a more mature set of themes. It’s simultaneously elevated by a great soundtrack, one that punctuates emotional beats and bobs along with the adventure. In short, Toem’s world is immediately timeless.
a picture is worth a thousand words
While the world is exceptional, I’d say that the gameplay is servicable. It is a conduit for exploring Toem’s locations and meeting their inhabitants. Something We Made recognizes this, as the crux of the gameplay is predicated on these interactions. To progress through the game’s areas, you have to complete various favors for the people in the region. From photography challenges to fetch quests to environmental puzzles, these never get very complex. On a mechanical level, these tasks feel about on par with a villager request in the GameCube Animal Crossing title. That is to say, they’re fairly easy. Even the puzzle-focused objectives aren’t too difficult to figure out. Like Animal Crossing though, the appeal is the experience, not the complexity of the nuts and bolts gameplay itself.
I expected to find just bit more meat on the bone gameplay-wise in the photography element. I’d say that while Toem is billed as a photography adventure foremost, that isn’t completely accurate. Photography is central to a good portion of the game’s quests, but it isn’t a deep system and an unexpectedly large portion of the quests don’t use photography at all. I think that’s fine, because it keeps the gameplay varied. I never found myself wanting to use the camera more. But, I did find myself wanting more nuance in how my camera operated. It’s effectively a point-and-shoot polaroid with a dynamic zoom. That’s about it. The camera is simple and incredibly satisfying, especially since it perfectly captures the iconic click noise of a photo being snapped.
Still, I think that Something We Made could’ve gone a bit further here. Due to a lack of options, I mainly used my camera to take the photos required to complete tasks or to fill up my critter compendium. I never felt compelled to take photos just for fun as I would in a traditional photo mode, as I didn’t feel like the suite of tools available was deep enough. I suppose that I’m just spoiled by games like Ghost of Tsushima in this regard. Like I said though, there is a tactile nature to taking a photo which kept this facet of the gameplay fun, albeit a bit too basic.
take a picture, it’ll last longer
Nonetheless, I never chafed at this lack of mechanical depth because there’s a surprising amount of choice and discovery in Toem. Each area presented me with far more requests to complete than I needed in order to move on, so I had the freedom to decide how I progressed. I was also kept busy by the numerous animals that are strewn about waiting for their close up. I photographed quite a number of creatures in my short playtime, adding them to my encyclopedia of local wildlife. While this seems to be mainly a completionist’s objective, it still provided me with ample incentive to keep looking through my viewfinder constantly. Toem’s many costumes hidden throughout the worlds provided me with incentive to explore also, given that many are required for certain missions. They’re similar to Super Mario Odyssey’s costumes in this respect. They only have mild gameplay significance, but are plenty of fun to dress up in.
When all was said and done though, my playthrough of Toem clocked in at only an hour and fifty minutes. Since I love this game so much (spoiler alert for my verdict), I fully intend to get the Platinum here, as I’m playing on PlayStation 5. However, I imagine that 100% can be achieved in just another sitting. Once that’s done, I doubt that I’ll have logged much more than five hours into Toem. I’m of a few minds here. On one hand, I really love succinct games where a creator builds a focused experience. Abzû and Sayonara Wild Hearts are great examples of this. On the other hand, I did want more, and I think that Toem had more to give. These mechanics and ideas could’ve been taken further. Just one more hour of required gameplay could’ve brought Toem’s world to its natural conclusion. That isn’t to say that I was unsatisfied by the runtime, but to say that I could’ve been further satisfied with just a bit more.
Regardless, I had an exceptional time with Toem and view it as one of the year’s best games. It was a soothing experience and an inventive one. I’ve come to truly value and seek out games like this. Toem defies most categorization, instead drawing on disparate influences and using them as a base for something truly unique. This feels like a clear reflection of Something We Made’s passion. It’s unmediated and beautiful. While I wished that there was a bit more depth in various respects, Toem is still a hearty recommendation from me.