A slow burn of a sci-fi robot shooter.
The Signal From Tölva gives you more robots than you’ll know what to do with. This story-based shooter drops you onto a planet full of robots clashing with other robots… who are clashing with still more robots, all of whom are looking for the source of a strange signal. There is a mystery to solve and some interesting AI systems to manipulate in the 10 hours you’ll spend playing, but there’s a lot of slow-paced walking time to get to the good stuff.
Your character is sort of a mystery itself. An outside organization, who you only hear about through a dispatcher named The Broker, has sent you to infiltrate the Surveyors, a robot faction who is probing the planet Tölva for secrets. This allows you to commandeer robot drones on the planet’s surface, effectively warping around in a vast computer network. It’s a smart way to subtly implement an in-universe respawn and fast-travel system, and you can use it to cut down on some of the walking.
And there will be walking. A lot of it, and at frustratingly lethargic speeds, even while running. This slower pace allows you to feel the weight and chassis of your robot drone, but it’s a bit much considering the distances you have to cover. That turns this shooter into something that moves more like a “walking simulator,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but after a while that extra walking time feels like padding.
That deliberate pace does lead to some decent reveals, as I found myself getting slowly drawn into certain aspects of the mystery in the latter half. There are areas of this barren world — think of a slightly more cheery Fallout landscape — that revealed themselves a piece at a time, with some strange new sight or sound that beckoned me to take a closer look. The day/night cycle also adds to this, as a flashing light or hovering ship take on new texture in the darkness. But these “wow” moments are few and far between, as the cadence of story events just isn’t consistent or interesting enough. Just when a story arc seemed to be forming, there was a lot more walking waiting for me.
Finding message fragments is essential for understanding what’s happening.
This search for illuminating clues is aided by a basic flashlight as well a “spectral scanner” vision mode, which is a trippy visual effect that allows you to spot hidden message fragments and signals, as well as resources that are used to marginally upgrade your weapon and shield systems. These fragments and signals end up doling out most of the story, which is primarily text-based, so finding them is essential for understanding what’s happening. They aren’t hidden too far out of the way, but a few will require you to pay close attention to your surroundings. Then again, the distribution of resources to collect borders on overkill — there are so many of the shiny objects scattered around in every crevice of Tölva that I could feel myself bugging out at the thought of trying to collect them all.
Robot factions will dynamically attack bases and attempt to reclaim them.
Two other robot factions roam the surface of Tölva – the Zealots and the Bandits – but aside from some vague motivational differences in the fiction, they both function pretty much the same way: they mainly just harass you when you move about the landscape. The cool part is that whenever you take over a bunker, which is sort of a field base, the robot factions will dynamically attack these bases and attempt to reclaim them, requiring you to double back and drive them off to maintain control of its robot upgrade terminal, where you can spend those collectible resources.
Combat is fairly straightforward shooter fare, with your robots having access to laser-based weapons, including assault rifles and beam rifles. Shooting feels decent if a little unspectacular. Your robot chassis is also equipped with a shield system and an area-of-effect attack which can be used to disrupt enemies or heal allies. These two abilities do provide some rudimentary tactics to the action, as you’ll need to time your shields to mitigate incoming fire – allowing for a retreat – and use your AOE attacks to turn a battle when things aren’t going your way.
The combat is spiced up slightly by the appearance of dropships and sentry bots, but most of the fighting will be on sloped terrain against other bipedal robots, so there’s not as much variety in battle as I’d hoped for. I did enjoy the enemy AI popping shields and falling back when they were in danger or, conversely, charging at you when they have a three-on-one advantage. You’re even encouraged to scout out enemy bases and paint targets before making a final assault. Still, you’ll be having many similar encounters over the course of your journey, pinging an enemy with a few shots and hanging out behind a rock until your reload animation is done. The shooting kind of overstays its welcome, even though combat is about one-third of the core experience.
It is amusing running around with your robot posse.
Things improve a bit when you get access to a tool that allows you to reprogram other surveyor drones to help you in combat. It is amusing running around with your robot posse, even if they just kind of do their own thing and get distracted so easily when ordered to attack that they can’t be relied on. The easy respawn system mitigates some of this and keeps it from being too annoying, but at times my teammates wouldn’t really help in the right way, which caused a bit of frustration. In addition, there isn’t a lot of robot variety, as 90 percent of what you see will be a bipedal chassis.
Technically speaking, The Signal From Tölva isn’t exactly a looker in terms of high-definition graphics, but the aesthetic does work to create some strong atmosphere, especially with some of the more visually arresting moments at night. The subtly of the sound design also helps in this regard, as there are some great moments of surprising audio that really set the mood. While the action is generally smooth, there were a couple of framerate dips (even on the recommended specifications), and I found it occasionally developed a hitch after several hours of play without restarting. Not a big deal, but I did have to respawn to resolve this issue.
Decent gunplay and the initial novelty of the AI aren’t going to pay the freight on their own, sadly. An experience like The Signal from Tölva needs to have a compelling plot to drive you forward, and in this regard it only partially succeeds. The delivery of the story just feels a bit too thin early on, and the nuggets of information you find are too disparate to really latch onto. I was drawn towards the central mystery a bit later on, but the repetitive nature of waypoints, resource collection, scanning, and random combat kind of ground me down eventually. I was still interested to find the truth, but getting there at times felt like a chore. I guess when you’re waiting for another shoe to drop, it sometimes works better to have it drop sooner rather than later, giving you immediate hope that deeper revelations await. And while multiple endings are available based on which final areas you visit, the story ends abruptly no matter what, and I was left wanting something more.