Growing up, I played a lot of games.
Chess and backgammon came first, believe it or not. Then card games and epic Risk battles. And when my best friend and I weren't cramming plastic numerals onto a map, we were playing video games. I'm talking old-school video games: Sea Battle on Intellivision. Or arcade shooters like Twin Cobra.
But then, in high school, those games slowly but surely gave way to role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons) and strategy/warfare contests (BattleTech). Unlike Risk (which lasted a few hours) and Twin Cobra (which we played 'til our hands cramped up or we ran out of money), my role-playing habit became practically all-consuming. I loved learning the systems, mastering arcane rules and creating characters. So much so that by the end of my junior year, these games were eating up virtually every moment of my free time, pilfering precious hours from more important things like ... homework.
Eventually, I was lovingly forced to take a long look at the increasing amount of time I was devoting to these games—and the spiritual worldview they were teaching me. I realized that these fantasies were just that: fantasy. Not reality. I went cold turkey and never much looked back.
I share that history for two reasons that relate to Too Human:
One, this action/adventure game for the Xbox 360 reminds me in some broad ways of both the fantasy and sci-fi games I was into back then. Two, more than anything I've played recently, Too Human kept egging me on to play "just one more level." So much so that it triggered memories of a time in my life when gaming seemed like the only thing that mattered.
Gameplay in Too Human is as simple as its elaborate backstory is complex. First, the simple: Too Human invites players to step into the armor of a warrior defending humanity from a never-ending horde of robotic foes. He's a cybernetically enhanced Norse god named Baldur who battles against an onslaught of marauding machines with a mysterious hunger for human blood.
These enemies have names that could have been lifted directly from D&D, or J.R.R Tolkien, for that matter—goblins, dark elves, trolls, GRNDL—but their advanced weaponry is pure sci-fi. Baldur is equipped with a combination of medieval armaments—swords, hammers and staves—and an assortment of futuristic versions of weapons such as pistols, rifles and cannons.
As Baldur (and the troops who accompany him) pursues the mysterious source of these mechanized malefactors, he works through level after Halo-like level. Baldur shows up. Enemies attack. Baldur dispatches them by blade or bullet. Technically, Too Human isn't a third-person shooter. But it may as well be. Combat is intense and constant but not bloody or gory until near the end of the game. (More on that in a minute).
Victories naturally result in higher levels, where players reap skill points and gain access to an increasingly exotic array of weapons and armor, much of which can be further customized with charms and runes that have vaguely magical abilities.
Which leads us to Too Human's spiritually convoluted narrative structure.
Norse Mythology, Meet The Terminator
As might be expected from a game that's equal parts fantasy and sci-fi, the storyline holding it together is an odd mishmash of the spiritual and the technological.
Too Human is set in a post-apocalyptic world caught in the grip of an epic struggle between man and machine. The backstory, as described in the game's instruction book, sounds like crib notes to The Terminator: "Before the Dawn of the Gods, the great machines stalked our planet, bent on destroying humanity. As the war escalated, man and machine exchanged nuclear and antimatter weapons, leaving a once-lush world frozen in a thousand-year winter. Humanity now teeters on the brink of extinction."
A small group of super-soldiers known as the Aesir is humanity's lone hope for survival. These warriors are so advanced, in fact, that they're considered gods. Accordingly, the game features an elaborate spiritual worldview that appropriates Norse mythology and fuses it with some elements that mimic ideas found in Christianity.
The god ODIN reigns supreme in Too Human's bio-enhanced take on the Norse myth. There's a twist, though: ODIN stands for Organically Distributed Intelligence Network, and we learn that this "being" is responsible for creating humanity from flesh and cybernetic material. Baldur is ODIN's favorite son, and the other Aesir fighters correspond with important gods in the Norse pantheon, such as Heimdall, Freya, Thor and Tyr. Their enemy? Rebel son Loki, who has disobeyed ODIN and aligned himself with the machines.
Throughout the game, the soldiers Baldur fights with occasionally invoke ODIN's name much the same way a Christian might refer to God: "It's better to die with honor and spend eternity with ODIN than to die without honor and spend eternity in Hel." Hel, short for Helheim, is an infernal destination where the dishonorable dead go to rot for eternity. It's also the game's final level, where the foes are no longer robotic, but horribly disfigured humans whose skin is charred and bones are visible.
In contrast, when warriors perish honorably in battle, they're scooped up into the arms of golden, angel-like female warriors known as valkyries, who transport them to the eternal paradise Valhalla. The other notable parallel with Christianity is the presence of the World Tree, a cybernetic organism full of knowledge. Access to that knowledge comes courtesy of gateways into cyberspace guarded by three women called NORNS (Non-Organic Nano Systems), whose radically different personalities seem to correspond to something akin to the oracles of Greek mythology.
This mash-up of sci-fi and spiritual content is most apparent in occasional cutscenes and when soldiers blurt out their prayers to ODIN. What's more frequent is salty dialogue among soldiers. Mild profanity is frequent, with such phrases as, "What the h---?" "Let's kick some a--, by ODIN!" and "You're soldiers, d--mit, act like it!" peppering most battles.
Profanity isn't the only problem. We also hear references to getting drunk and a few lusty, suggestive comments. One of the NORNS is quite seductive, for example, and in one scene she appears to cut her shirt in two between her breasts. Elsewhere, she wears a translucent top.
Even having documented those content issues, I still think my biggest concern with Too Human hinges on that less tangible idea I began this review with: I just wanted to keep playing—and that reminded me of my out-of-control season as a teen gamer.
Perhaps the game's relatively simplistic battle controls—shove the right analog stick toward any enemy and watch Baldur bash him—makes Too Human more accessible to an oldster like me than games with more sophisticated combination attacks. But there's got to be more to it than that.
At the very least, my experience illustrates why games, perhaps more than any other entertainment media, demand a special kind of discernment. Too Human won't appeal to every player the way it does to me. But any time a video game—or any game, for that matter—tempts us to trade reality for fantasy (especially when that fantasy is rooted in spiritual counterfeits), a flashing warning light should go off in our heads. My hard-won advice? Don't turn it off.