About a year ago TellTale Games released a game called Puzzle Agent, as the first release on a new “pilot program” they were trialling – a way of delivering new gaming concepts at low cost and minimised risk, to see how they perform in the wider audience. The idea being those that are successful can then be promoted to received a fuller release.
Obviously Puzzle Agent must have received a reasonable amount of positive flow for them, as they’re releasing Puzzle Agent 2 at the end of this month (30th June 2011). I decided to take advantage of a recent sale and pick the first Puzzle Agent up, to see what it was all about. Lets have a look:
Let me first address the type of game Puzzle Agent is, because it’s from TellTale’s “pilot program” you could expect it to be a little non-standard. However, if you’ve ever played any of the Professor Layton series (Nintendo DS) then you’ll already have a good grasp of the concept. If you haven’t played that series then let me try and explain: the central structure is that of an point-and-click adventure game, but where progression is controlled by way of brain teaser style puzzlers – logic puzzles, mazes, sliding puzzles, construction puzzles, maths problems, and so on. If this sounds odd to you, then you’re probably right – but, you know what, the Professor Layton games have proved that when executed well it works.
In Puzzle Agent, you play as Nelson Tethers, probably the only agent of the FBI’s Department of Puzzle Research. He’s sent on a field mission to Scoggins, Minnesota, to investigate why the town’s local eraser factory has shut down and get it running again – because that factory is the supplier of erasers to the White House. Scoggins is a small and remote town, one that is snowed over, requiring Tethers to travel around by snow mobile. And it doesn’t take long after arriving for Tethers to realise that things aren’t what they seem here; the town has a few dark secrets and the investigation quickly turns to the bizarre as Tethers tries to get the factory open again.
The game manages to maintain a slightly eerie atmosphere, and is down right creepy in places. The unique hand-drawn style art, audio track, and (intentionally!) awkward dialogue go a long way to set and re-enforce this mood (and don’t be fooled by the speech bubbles in the screenshots, the game is fully voiced, and well). The audio logs that Tethers records through-out the game are often sarcastic and humorous, and the characters you meet are varied and interesting. In terms of narrative, the game delivers a satisfying package. Unfortunately, it’s pretty short (a few hours) and ends abruptly, leaving me feeling a little disappointed as the game doesn’t feel to reach a solid conclusion, but the second game is almost here, which will pick up the story and continue onwards.
Outside of the brain teasers, the game still feels like a traditional point-and-click adventure game, with most of the usual elements you’d expect. There’s no inventory, and Puzzle Agent removes a common point of frustration from your traditional point-and-click adventure game; there’s no having to click on every pixel of the screen to make sure you haven’t missed anything. When you click in any open space, a circular “pulse” leaves the cursor and highlights anything nearby that you can interact with. With four or five clicks you can easily identify every object on the screen, thus removing this huge potential frustration. A small, but welcome, feature.
Most disappointingly, the game’s puzzles just don’t quite live up to the rest of the game. There’s 37 puzzles (the game is only a few hours long) in all, and while they’re fun and varied enough, several of them feature instructions that didn’t seem entirely complete. Even when I had the right answer I wasn’t convinced that I did, and so just turned in the answer with my fingers crossed, conversely at least once I was convinced I had the answer only for it to be rejected because of a piece of information missing from the instructions.
There’s a hint system, where gum collected from the world (it helps Tethers to think) can be spent to obtain a hint on a puzzle, and each puzzle has three hints. But, a lot of the time these hints aren’t that helpful, and you find yourself needing two or three hints just to make any more progress than you already had. The game also seems to make a point of making sure it gives you plenty of extra gum whenever you’re reaching a puzzle that will block your progress, somewhat reducing its value, and possibly over-encouraging hint use.
Unfortunately, game is short (a few hours) and ends very abruptly, but the plot is interesting with some unexpected moments; the game has an well executed atmosphere to it; the town’s characters are unique and well written; the art style is unique and works very well; but the overall experience is let down (only slightly) by some lacklustre puzzles. I found myself playing the game end-to-end, with the atmosphere and narrative keeping me hooked, so much so that I personally went a pre-ordered the second game immediately after finishing the first; I was simply left wanting more of the story. Lets just hope they tune up the puzzles to be of the same calibre as the rest of the game in the sequel.
So, if you’ve played and enjoyed any of the Professor Layton series, then Puzzle Agent offers a different spin on this small genre in terms of plot, but is a welcome addition and I recommend taking a look. If you’ve not touched the genre before, then I’d consider taking a look if you enjoy an occasional brain teaser, as the packaging that they’re wrapped up in here makes it very worthwhile.
And, if you’re at all interested in Puzzle Agent, or maybe on the fence, then note that the TellTale Games store currently has a sale running (until 30th June, I believe), so you can pick this game up for mere $1.25, and its definitely worth it.