Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
If Kholat wasn’t your cup of hot chocolate due to its lack of puzzles, then Telltale Games‘ point-and-click adventure game Puzzle Agent has more than enough small and big conundrums to solve, while also being a bit on the weird side of the snow.
Agent Nelson Tethers of the Puzzle Research Division, a much neglected branch of the FBI, has to investigate the disappearance of an eraser factory worker and the sudden closure of said building due to the mysterious appearance of red gnomes in the small town of Scoggins in Minnesota.
A puzzling town with puzzling people and beings
The plot is as weird as the townspeople Nelson meets who aren’t only suspicious of outsiders, but also have a penchant for puzzles. It all has a creepy Twin Peaks feel to it, mainly because Tethers likes to record his thoughts on tape as Kyle MacLachlan’s character did in David Lynch’s hit TV show. But there are also other parallels, e.g. a man who uses a strange rhythm and accentuation in his dialogue that is reminiscent of the man from another place speaking backwards and forwards at the same time, an effect achieved by first having spoken in reverse and then having the recorded voice being played forward.
Even more disturbing is the way how the Hidden People, the red gnomes, suddenly show up, sometimes even interrupting the player when solving puzzles, resulting in unexpected scare jumps. But just like the TV show, it’s not all scary stuff happening, as lots of humor is thrown in for good measure, mostly with spot-on dialogue that is similar to the Coen brothers’ Fargo movie in how Canadians are portrayed as not the brightest of folks. This isn’t meant disrespectfully, as the game simply targets stereotypes and adds its own weird twist on it, just as the FBI or US government is made fun of. The story might not be the most complicated and Tethers doesn’t have much depth either, but the former offers enough surprises along the way, while the latter is a very likeable character to play.
Going from puzzling place to another
Whoever played a Professor Layton title will be instantly familiar with the gameplay, as it neglects inventory-based puzzles and focuses on finding clues, interrogating people and solving logical conundrums which crop up during amusing conversations with the many NPCs who populate the town and its surroundings. The game is very linear and despite quite a few places to visit, every goal is clearly defined, so running around without knowing what to do next fortunately something that hasn’t carried over from the point-and-click adventure genre. Some puzzles are obligatory, while others are simply for completion’s sake or to pass some time if one is stuck on a harder puzzle. But as there’s always enough gum, the equivalent to Layton’s coins to unlock hints, sticking around, the solution to each problem isn’t far away, even for beginners.
The difficulty of the puzzles depends on one’s personal preferences to logic puzzles. Finding the right order of photos is one thing, but dividing a big space into parts where different bugs have to be put according to some rules is quite another challenge, as well as finding out where to place schools of fish so that a certain number reaches water while being split up or even eaten on the way without an indication where this happens. Making physical notes on paper about all the rules is essential to get one’s head around these problems. Even if many puzzles don’t have anything to do with the plot, they’re still fun to figure out and often quite inventive in their visual presentation, e.g. with a group of people being served a particular dish who also resemble food.
One can of course simply try out random solutions, but each time a wrong answer is submitted, fewer stars are given, resulting in a lower puzzle agent score, humorously indicated by a higher amount of tax payers’ money to be spent on the investigation. This doesn’t have an effect on the ending, but with an automatic save system and no individual save games possible, there’s a certain sting to one’s puzzle solving pride if one can’t go back and right this wrong.
A vibrantly weird comic come to puzzling life
The comic book art style complements the weird story with Graham Annable‘s unusual scribble drawings. Even the few character animations add to the atmosphere, as can be seen when some of the Hidden People move closer and closer, only to suddenly skip a few animations, resulting in both scary and comic situations. The varied soundtrack with moody piano pieces is also great, while the voice acting is very good as well.
Short but compelling puzzle solving
Telltale Games’ Puzzle Agent is a very short game with 3-5 hours playtime and rips quite blandly off the Professor Layton gameplay. However, with its mix of weird characters and scary setting (that admittedly rip off Twin Peaks), it’s quite a different experience. The puzzles are varied and fun, while the comic book presentation together with great audio doesn’t disappoint, either, making for a nice alternative to Level 5’s long-running series, as finding clues and talking to interesting people with their own little stories is just as engaging.
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