The premise of Toem is simple: travel to see the phenomenon known as “Toem” and take a picture. It’s a journey plenty have taken before, including your grandmother with whom you live. With a fairly standard camera (except of course for its dynamic zoom feature!) she sends you off to take your trip. And while Toem the magical event is pretty cool, the real magic of Toem the game is the journey you take to get there.
Toem’s map is comprised of four distinct regions (not counting your house and the area where the event occurs). You move between those regions by bus, but of course buses don’t run for free. That is, they don’t unless you’ve done your part in serving the local community. For each region you get a community card which can hold a bunch of stamps. You get a stamp on your card when you help someone out. Once you’ve helped enough people, you’ll be allowed to take the bus to the next area. Most regions only require you to get about half of the local stamps in order to progress, which helps to make Toem a low stress experience – you can focus on the tasks you want to do and if clearing the areas isn’t something you care about, it’s quite simple to make your way through the game in a couple of hours.
So what kinds of tasks are there for you to do? Well your main tool for interacting with the world is your camera, and there are plenty of people in Toem who could use a picture taken for one reason or another. Maybe something of theirs is missing, maybe they can’t go to a place they want to see, maybe they just really need the benefits of your dynamic zoom! As you walk around, little star icons next to the dialogue boxes of characters will allow you to see that they’ve got a task in mind for you to accomplish.
I want to take a moment here to talk about the world of Toem. It’s gorgeously rendered in black and white, the art style charming and evocative. The little kids you see running around, the creatures you take pictures of, the goofy looking weirdos who need your help – everything has a distinct look and it’s delightful to discover what’s around the next corner. The sounds, too, are a real treat. I played on PC and just the act of clicking on a place to move to makes this satisfying little “boop” sound. The characters have little nonsense voices, a series of melodic little groans or huffs or honks that are silly enough to be fun but subtle enough not to be obnoxious.
The soundtrack is lovely and for big fans of diagetic music in games, you’ll be happy to know that it plays on cassette tapes loaded into your character’s “hikelady” (bah dum tss). You gain new tapes as you explore and can choose to load them up and play them whenever you like, or the game will naturally choose cassettes to play as you navigate the area. It’s a neat way to customize your experience a bit, allowing you to manage the game’s music as much or as little as you like.
Now like most games where your main tool for interfacing with the world is a camera, your camera has some different ways it can mechanically affect the world around you. Some creatures or objects react if you stare at them long enough through your lens (these are indicated with a helpful eyeball symbol). As described already you can zoom in for closer shots. You can flip the camera around to take a selfie, too. Some aspects of the world change when you take their picture, including strange glowing boxes which also have some practical impact on the world after being photographed. As you move through the game, you get attachments for your camera that expand your abilities and help you to complete tasks across the different regions.
The other way you solve problems in Toem is through your clothing. There are a dozen or so special clothing items in Toem, some found in present boxes while others are gained through tasks. You may not be able to access an area or speak to certain characters unless you have the right outfit on, and there are also some clothes that are important for dealing with environmental conditions like weather. They also do have the practical effect of changing your character’s appearance so you can use fun outfits to jazz up your pictures. Also, the different shoes make different running sounds, which doesn’t really impact gameplay but is a nice touch in terms of the solid sound design.
If you find yourself wanting to accomplish everything Toem has to offer, there are a couple things to keep in mind in addition to completing all of the tasks for each region. Your photo album has a compendium for photos of little critters that are unique to each region. Different ones react to your camera depending on whether or not they are shy, so figuring out how to get a good photo of each one can give you some interesting little puzzles to solve. There are also characters who, after being helped once or twice, will begin to sparkle to indicate that a special photo of them is available. On top of that, each region has a special photo op that gets placed onto your stamp card. None of this is required to progress the game but if you find yourself wanting as much of Toem as possible, those will push you a bit more than just trying to get the minimum number of possible stamps.
Toem is a low stakes and relaxing game that is easy to play in short bursts. I typically played for an hour or so which was usually enough to complete one of the game’s four regions. I found it to be the ideal palette cleanser after my last few games were all lengthy RPGs. The sense of community between the characters and the simple joy that comes from taking cute pictures of Toem’s charming world left me feeling happy and calm after each play session. I scooped it up on sale but it is certainly worth the normal price; while the main story can be crit-pathed in probably two hours or so, I easily got six out of finding everything there was to find. Toem was exactly what I needed in my gaming life right now, a brief but lovely experience that cheered me up and provided multiple short but fulfilling play sessions. I certainly recommend checking it out!