Publishing your first ever game on a console is undeniably a particularly exciting time. It is a proud moment met with anticipation, that largely swirls around waiting to see how critics and punters will react.
That response can be an invaluable learning experience, and that is certainly the case with Crystalline Green’s Totem Topple. Created through the combined efforts of a four-strong team at King Game Jam, their knowledge was brought to bear to craft this vertical tower defence game in the space of a gruelling 24 hours. I can’t even begin to image how mentally exhausting that would have been, but, after some post-Game Jam polish, it thunders onto the Nintendo eShop as a budget release.
Sadly, that budget label applies in nearly every way, and most damningly as a game that required far more tinkering under the hood. The publisher over promises in saying that Totem Topple presents “a fresh twist on the tower defence genre,” falling way short of achieving such admirable ambition. Players are tasked with defending a totem pole from demon spirits hell bent on knocking it down, which is certainly a concept that most won’t have come across before. But the underlying game mechanics lack refinement, resulting in an experience that overwhelms in the challenge hidden by its otherwise simplistic facade.
The structure is easy enough to understand, with players left to steadily construct their totem pole by selecting from beak, wing and head components. These fire arrows, grant protection and increase your totem’s height respectively, and managing your resources to create them becomes a focal challenge. Supplies are earned through defeating demon spirits, and the cycle completes in which you either strengthen your defences or rapidly move to replace anything that has been destroyed.
There’s always a certain joy to be found in building what you believe to be impregnable defences and seeing how well they hold against the impending enemy assault, but as soon as the first wave appears Totem Topple’s problems soon make themselves glaringly known.
Totem heads each promise to grant their own stat bonuses, whether that be increased health, damage or rate of fire, but they make no real discernible difference to gameplay. Only the change in rate of fire was noticeable, with the totem pole soon crushed to a pulp by swarming demonic spirits regardless of how sturdy it is promised to be. Wings work in a similar way, while beaks easily remain the most important as they are your only method of defence. That said, arrows only fire sideways which in itself feels like an added disadvantage when spirits are flying at you from all directions.
It is in that lack of strategic interplay that the game significantly falls short, the player losing interest as they realise their calculative thinking isn’t swaying anything in their favour. The difficulty ramps up all too quickly, often mercilessly slaughtering your totem to the point that you feel dissuaded from spending the necessary time to learn the game’s limited intricacies. Switching between Classic and Frantic modes doesn’t really provide much differentiation either, the second providing a faster-paced arcade setting with preset construction choices that only aggravates quicker.
Totem Topple draws inspiration from Native American culture, woven in as part of the game’s minimalistic aesthetic whereas a tribal drone provides a monotonous soundscape that backdrops the experience.
Off-TV Play, Miiverse integration and online leaderboards are all appreciated additions, but it is in Totem Topple’s inability to retain your interest that sees it ultimately suffer. A sound concept with lamentable breadth, we witness a foundation on which something great can potentially be built. It just hasn’t reached the dizzying heights that it aims for, just yet.