By Marty Mulrooney
Puzzle Agent is Telltale Games’ first foray into their online ‘pilot’ scheme, where they create a single game episode to see how well it works, with a view for later expansion. I don’t think they could have chosen a better starting point! On a technical level at least, Puzzle Agent is stunning: the artwork of Graham Annable brought to life. But of course, any game with the word ‘puzzle’ in its title had better deliver some solid brainteasers…
Starting somewhat backwards from the usual AMO review format, I have to mention once more that the graphics here are a triumph. Is this real 2D? If it isn’t, I can’t tell: it looks stunning. Wide shots like the one above look crisp and clean, whereas close-ups betray the pencil lines of the artwork… on purpose. Load times are nonexistent and everything runs very smoothly. The whole thing has a wonderful comic-strip-brought-to-life vibe that is quite simply gorgeous.
Merged with the setting of Scoggins, a snowy location in small-town USA, the aesthetic values of Puzzle Agent begin to skyrocket. The atmosphere is wonderful, a mix between director David Lynch, TV shows such as The X FIles, films such as Fargo and Insomnia… and Grickle. The voicework is also excellent: I wasn’t sure due to the game’s use of authentic speech bubbles whether vocals would be employed… but they are and the accents of the Minnesotans in particular are fantastic. Luckily, Nelson Tethers sounds great too, a true everyman that you slowly grow to love as he timidly reports his findings into an antiqued Dictaphone.
But why is Nelson in Scoggins? Well, it seems like the eraser factory that supplies the White House has mysteriously shut down. Furthermore, the people of Scoggins are all thinking and talking in riddles. So the FBI sends Nelson Tethers, from their Department of Puzzle Research, into the field for the first time in a long time… alone.
This is where the real meat of the game begins. Unlike Telltale’s past adventure games, there is no inventory here. Nelson seldom collects items and strictly only observes the environment rather than actually interacting with it. There is the ability to move back and forth between locations and speak with the various locals. But to progress, you have to solve a multitude of puzzles.
Some of these will progress the story, whilst others are optional. Upon finding a puzzle, players are given their assignment file, explaining the challenge. They are then shown a rule sheet explaining the do’s and don’ts of said challenge. Then comes the challenge itself, filling the screen.
These challenges start off easy (I was worried they would remain too easy) but quickly ramp up in difficulty. Luckily, Nelson can finds wads of gum throughout the environment and pick them up (don’t ask!) Each time you ask for a hint (up to three per puzzle) Nelson will use a piece of gum (it helps him think… yuck!) This was an idea I really liked as it gives the player a reason to explore and also helps if you become completely stuck.
Of course, using hints or submitting wrong answers lowers your score: to get rated ‘Top Agent’ (which can become strangely addictive) you have to use no hints and get it right first time. There is never a time limit so this is definitely possible, but I didn’t manage it with all of them. Thankfully, even the tougher puzzles seem fair and I always felt very satisfied when solving them, even if I had to use a few hints to get myself started on the path to success.
Some puzzles seem fairly generic such as rotating tiles and putting together items in a jigsaw, although these are admittedly still fun. It was the the puzzles that thought outside the box though (such as a dinner table where the guests all look like food items) that I really relished and enjoyed. Sadly, some puzzles are reused but never in exactly the same way: I could understand this decision because it made sense, but I still wished at some points that the brainteasers could have felt more organic, rather than just pinned on top of the unravelling mystery.
This mystery itself is the real reason I love Puzzle Agent so much… and also why it left me slightly disappointed in the end. Telltale and Graham Annable have crafted a great little thriller here: totally daft yet strangely compelling. Exploring for clues feels great as well and uses a brilliant new mechanic: pressing the left mouse button radiates out small ripples on screen, showing interaction points in the near vicinity of where you clicked. You almost wish this was a good old-fashioned adventure game at times, because the design seems so well suited to it.
But it isn’t and I’m not sorry for that either. Puzzle Agent feels pretty unique. I really enjoyed solving the puzzles on offer and the narrative kept me gripped right until the very end… before simply stopping. The whole story works towards one moment and then… I can’t tell you! Suffice to say, it all feels wrapped up without wrapping anything up at all. If the game had cut just as players reached the big reveal, it could have been perfect: who wouldn’t want episode 2 after that?
Sadly, it continues for a short while afterwards with a bolted on cutscene and loses some steam as a result. I wasn’t even sure the game had ended! Apparently the final release will include credits so this should offer some much needed finality. My review copy also included some small bugs (especially with speech bubbles) but I have been assured these will be ironed out for the final release.
Overall, the game grabbed me because of its strong design: the puzzles were just a bonus. I also had mixed feelings about the actual adventure elements, which worked well but of course were not as beefed up as they were in Telltale’s other franchises. If a full series is born from this I will likely remember it much more fondly as an origin story: I really want to know more about the mysteries of Scoggins and the Hidden People. As it stands, Puzzle Agent isn’t perfect but it is another wonderfully designed, charming game from Telltale Games: I hope to see more of Nelson Tethers in the future!
8 OUT OF 10
Graham Annable has kindly agreed to have a chat with us about Puzzle Agent next week so stay tuned!