There wasn’t a huge queue for reviewing Talking Tom Candy Run. It’s an endless runner, ported from a mobile game, based on a favourite YouTube series for younger viewers. As a bunch of cynical game writers, we’re probably not the demographic that Outfit7 had in mind. But every game deserves its day, and we’ll put our prejudices in a pot and make sure the lid stays on.
As an endless runner, Talking Tom keeps it simple. It’s completely traditional in offering a left-to-right, two-button experience. The game will merrily hurtle along, and you will jump, double jump and slide to avoid the various obstacles that pop into view. Everything works as intended, and the simple joys of a runner are present and correct. Passing comment on this is a bit like doing an MOT on a Little Tikes toy car: everything runs as it should, and you feel a bit mean for wanting more.
There are some natty power ups. A magnetism item pulls collectibles towards you. Others make you invincible, ten-times the size, or rocket you through the level. They’re nothing revolutionary, but they give you a break and make you feel like the MacDaddy, at least for a few moments. You will also be subject to a tidal wave of collectibles in the form of sweets, which up your score and feel satisfying when you’re mega-sized and hoping to beat your Personal Best.
What makes Talking Tom Candy Run fascinating, though, isn’t within the endless running – it’s in the surrounding meta gubbins.
On completion of a run, you will gather sweets, and the sweets can be returned to your sweet shop from where they were stolen (there’s an extremely light story about a thief cat stealing from your shop). Get enough of your sweets back and you can move on to the next shop, which needs an even greater number of sweets. So far, so Tom Nook.
You will also come across treasure chests of various rarities as you run, which open up to reveal sweets, gems and character cards. Get enough character cards and you can unlock new characters who have differing abilities when they swallow a power-up, and then go on to level them. Get enough gems and you can purchase more chests, specific gem-locked characters, and unlock further shops.
I felt my claws coming out as I explored these systems. It’s a free-to-play mobile setup, then, but with the payments stripped out. In a way, it’s fascinating to experience, almost as an experiment: what would a free-to-play game play like if you stripped out the cash-grab and did the bare minimum to make it a paid game?
You can probably guess the answer. At first, it’s bemusing. But the game moves on at such a lick, unlocking more and more things for you, that you don’t mind too much. Score multipliers unlock and stack on your character regularly, and you’ll be finishing your first shop within three or four runs.
But it’s when you move beyond the first hour that the problem comes into view. Things slow down. Rewards become sparse. Many unlockables are locked behind gems. Undoubtedly, these would have been given out in small quantities on mobile, where the primary way of gaining them would have been via your wallet. With microtransactions unceremoniously ripped out, the only way to get the gems is to grind. The same is true of the characters: getting access to them is easy, but levelling them means chests, and that means the grind again.
There are chests available with sweets, but the real doozies are unlocked with – you guessed it – gems. Some chests are available for free, but these are on a time cooldown: a blatant hangover from mobile gaming that sticks out like a sore thumb on a paid product. I would suspect that the gem rates were massively dialled up for the Xbox One release, but – let’s be clear here – they’re still a bottleneck.
It doesn’t take much effort to imagine what a more ground-up, fundamental rework for Xbox One could have done for the game. Levels, star ratings per level, highscore tables, a progressing narrative: all of these could have done wonders for the grind, and even brought in some competitive play (there is a couch co-op mode, but these play out as pitched races rather than something more systemic). Instead, we get endless repetitions, and Store screens that have been lifted wholesale from the mobile release. For £8.39, that’s a hard sell.
Not everyone will care about these shortcuts and mobile hangovers. I handed my 5-year old a pad to see what they made of it, and the results were a jam-covered thumbs up. The endless running was a hit, but she never once engaged in the shop-stocking or the levelling up of characters. Perhaps that’s the best way to take on Talking Tom: stay for the gameplay, ignore the frills. But if the endless running is what keeps them playing, there are definitely better examples out there. Some of them are even free.
Talking Tom Candy Run on Xbox One is a competent endless runner and perfect as an entry-point for young players who might recognise the titular Tom. For more critical players, though, you’ll feel your hackles rise at the laziness of a free-to-play game dressed up as something paid for.