360, Xbox One
For a game conceived by two brothers, it seems fitting that Totem should have two playable protagonists. Bo and Asger Strandby, lead designer and game director respectively, started toying with the idea of their puzzle platformer while putting the finishing touches to Max: The Curse Of Brotherhood. Weary of bug fixing and eager to start something new, Totem gave them a creative outlet. But it wasn’t until they showed the game to an inebriated Ole Teglbjærg, one of Press Play’s studio directors, at a work party that it took on life as a full-time project.
“I was pretty excited about it,” Teglbjærg tells us, “but I honestly didn’t remember a lot of details from it when I woke up the next morning! I asked for a build to take home so I could spend more time with it. And then it became clear to me that, in its simplicity, [ Totem] had something special to offer.”
Teglbjærg shared the game with Press Play’s two other directors, Mikkel Thorsted and Rune Dittmer, and all agreed that it warranted a proof of concept. The Strandbys were given a small team to develop their prototype and now the game is wending its way to Xbox One and 360.
Set on a tropical island, your goal is to recover the pieces of a totem pole that once stood in your village. Shattered by a Dark Shaman, who killed the monument’s White Shaman guardian in the process, the pieces are now scattered. You retrieve them by negotiating the perilous obstacle courses that make up each level, ensuring that both of your totemic charges survive.
In the early stages each character has its own pathway, occupying either the top or the bottom of the screen, but later on these paths overlap and converge. As both characters respond to your inputs, you’ll have to make use of the environment – temporarily blocking one’s progress using a wall, for example – in order to line them up for jumps or to operate switches simultaneously. When they’re on the same plane the pair can stand on each other’s shoulders, allowing you to combine their standard double jumps for greater reach, or keep one out of the deadly colour-coded Spirit Zones.
These purple and green zones (or red and blue in co-op – see ‘Twotem’) form the backdrop to many of the puzzles, and only the character of matching colour can pass through them. You can swap the two characters’ positions with a button press, and the game delights in setting up patterns and then second-guessing your instinct, resulting in a death that will initially have you casting for someone to blame before concluding that it’s your fault (think Limbo’s pressure-plateoperated crushers). A couple of falling sequences require extremely quick thinking as we plummet through alternating patterns. Your reactions will be tested elsewhere, too, with Press Play achieving a pleasing balance between puzzle solving and twitch platforming. The campaign is split into three worlds, each introducing its own special power. The first of these, and the only one revealed so far, is Gravity, which combines the basic swapping mechanic with inverted forces of attraction. Initially this is used just to switch surfaces, but we’re soon having to time button presses carefully in order to stay in the air and float through deadly sections.
Pickups dotted about each stage decide your final score, and how many you collect will decide whether the totem piece you win at the end is an uninspiring block of wood, or a colourful face sporting accoutrements such as sunglasses or a peace pipe. You can, of course, go back and replay any level to improve your prize.
Totem is still in an early state, but the well-weighted platforming already feels satisfying and substantial, and new ideas and abilities are offered up at a fair lick. If Press Play can maintain this momentum without undermining the purity of the core idea, the odds will be stacked in Totem’s favour.
The game initially reminded us of ZooKeeper, but in play Totem crafts its own look
Ole Teglbjærg, studio director at Press Play