Among many other things, 2020 made it clear that a calmed and relaxed game can be a huge help during the toughest of times. Animal Crossing was the best example of the fact, at least if we talk about the mainstream, but it wasn't, and won't be, the only game exploring quieter gaming waters, those that make you feel as if you were sitting in front of a fireplace as the rain patters on the window. Cue Toem, a new example of all this.
Developed by the Swedish studio Something We Made, this is a puzzle-filled adventure where your 'weapons' are your wit and an old photographic camera. It tells a simple story, the one about a young creature who leaves their grandma's place and sets off on an expedition to experience the magic of TOEM, a special event happening at the tallest mountain nearby. More than enough to house a rather distinct journey.
This is all about immortalising moments. In other words, it turns the now-so-popular Photo Modes into the core gameplay mechanic. But, bear in mind, Toem is colourless. Everything is painted in black and white (with a bunch of greys added to it), and seen through a floating camera that might seem isometric at first, but then allows the player to rotate and zoom in and out at will. It's a game that puts great trust in the bizarreness, uniqueness, and at times closeness of its design and atmosphere to, for example, show close-ups of completely flat characters with no sign of shyness. Even if the lower resolution will not show their best look.
With this premise in mind, and the goal of climbing to the top of the mountain, you go about your day visiting different areas, taking the bus, and completing challenges. There lies the sauce of this game, even though its distinctiveness is provided by its atmosphere and characters. Every new place you reach (the woods, the beach, the town, or the mountain, all inspired by Scandinavian environments), you will meet a series of the most diverse and multi-coloured (in a figurative way!) creatures asking you to perform different tasks in order to collect more stamps.
However, I would've loved to find more of these, and they're a bit obscure at times. Some times you only need to photograph something that suits a specific request or to find an specific item. Other times you need to use the camera's dynamic zoom to search around, a feature that is acclaimed as if it were 32nd century tech in-game. By the way, you can upgrade your camera with a tripod or with the accessory every photography lover would kill to have: a horn.
You don't complete these tasks in an altruistic way, but in order to take free bus rides to the next destination. Every "level" or small region takes collecting a number of stamps as payment for the next ride. As the game progresses, you end up shouting to a deaf climber, helping a balloon celebrate its birthday party, playing three-card Monte with a ghost, aiding a food influencer, finding monsters, becoming a boy scout, supporting a spy agency, or infiltrating a model catwalk. And I'm omitting the crazier stuff.
And you have to look the part as well, either wearing a wet sock, a foam finger, sunglasses, or a pair of wooden shoes. Customisation gives room for some hilarious stuff in a game like this, but it adds some sense to it. For example, the sunglasses make for better sighting of the ghosts (of course!), the coat allows you to take pictures in the snowy environment without shaky hands, and then the diving suit is a must to... well, to dive. There's utility to every item, but you'll also have some laughs with the looks of your character.
Toem is all this and it also conveys an interesting personality, in-between the tale for kids and the many nods and references to more mature things of the world. It isn't demanding nor wholesome, and that might be a plus. It gives you space to breathe, lets you explore calmingly and it invites you to fail when it comes to solve the little puzzles. And if you're one stamp shy of progressing, go take a selfie, take a pic of those stressed workers, capture that butterfly over there or immortalise the old lady who turned her car upside down when bragging about her driving skills.
But it's a completionist world, and the game also thinks about those who will want to explore every nook and cranny. For them, there are more stamps than those needed to travel, other than a characters and animals compendium and a series of special pictures for each place. Therefore, Toem doesn't end when you witness its magical phenomenon, and you'll keep playing afterwards. Toem is over whenever you decide it's time to hang up your camera.
You'll be reluctant, as its characters are too loveable. A few might give too vague hints, but all have something special about them. Their design, their lines, the tasks they give you... they're difficult to forget, including the model who parades with a paper hat or the street band that stains your lense. Because, despite its minor shortcomings, Toem really is unique.