Puzzle Agent review
Adventure Gamers Awards
There are certain expectations that come from a new Telltale game, but the company’s latest offering is going to seriously defy those presumptions. The episodic developer has now launched the first title in its ‘Pilot Program’ called Puzzle Agent, which takes a significant step in a new direction with a darker tone and more puzzle-based adventuring than usual. Thankfully, while far more streamlined and simplistic than anything we’ve seen from them before, the change has resulted in no drop-off in quality, as this game is a charming lite adventure filled with quirky characters and challenging puzzles that anyone can enjoy solving.
In Puzzle Agent, players take on the role of Nelson Tethers, the sole operative of the FBI’s Department of Puzzle Research, a department that has not seen any field action in ages. After a startling dream and surprise phone call, however, Tethers soon finds himself on his way to wintry Scoggins, Minnesota, where he must investigate why the factory that supplies the White House’s erasers has suddenly stopped production. Thankfully, Nelson is the perfect man for the job, as it seems that all the local residents are obsessed with puzzles.
In a similar fashion to the Professor Layton titles, Puzzle Agent makes you work your way through Scoggins solving all sorts of standalone conundrums in order to advance the mystery, which takes increasingly crazy turns the deeper you dig to uncover the hidden secret the townsfolk are so eager to protect. The story typically takes a back seat to the puzzle-solving gameplay, as there’s only a very loose attempt to incorporate the puzzles into the actual narrative. This can mean anything from having to chart a path-based puzzle before you can use your snowmobile to solving brainteasers for confused individuals to gain their trust. While mainly serving to set up each new puzzle, the plot does manage to separate the challenges nicely through a fair chunk of interactive dialogue and short cutscene sequences that are compelling in their own right.
Destinations are selectable from a map screen, and you will visit several locations in town, from the Moose Ear diner to the eraser factory itself, plus a few areas beyond its borders, as Nelson goes tramping through the frigid woods to an ice fishing shanty and a local brotherhood lodge. Upon your arrival, you are greeted by the suspicious Bjorn, who misleads you to the town’s hotel (which happens to be right behind him), and you’ll soon meet up with the never-helpful town sheriff and a peculiar handyman that seems to be everywhere, among others. Each new encounter results in more misdirection and additional assertions that your snooping about will lead to no good. Few of the characters you meet delve too deeply into their personal lives, but each gives up snippets of information regarding their (or someone else’s) connection to the factory’s shutdown.
Whilst Tethers is always present as you explore, there is no freedom of movement allowed onscreen, as your actions are carried out simply by clicking on key objects. A single click anywhere in the scene results in a pulse-like animation that indicates all available interactions in the immediate vicinity, such as a speech bubble for dialogue or a magnifying glass for investigation. Unlike traditional adventures (and Telltale’s other games to date), however, such interactive objects are few and far between. Some areas have you jumping between scenes via doors or paths, but on the whole each new location is self-contained, and the game often holds your hand to ensure you never get lost, boldly displaying each new objective one step at a time.
Switching to first-person mode, the puzzles themselves allow a close-up view of the current obstacle at hand. Puzzle Agent has a total of 37 puzzles (a few them optional), which range from jigsaws to conditional word riddles to logic puzzles of all kinds, such as code decryption, route-tracing, and geometry challenges. Answers are input by clicking on the puzzle elements themselves or an onscreen keypad, but they don’t register until you click the “Submit” button once the required arrangement is complete, so you’re free to change your mind, experiment, and even reset to try again. One minor disappointment is the lack of any kind of note-making feature. Several math puzzles that would benefit from notation require you to find a pen and paper to solve manually. Old-school adventure gamers may be used to this, but it isn’t particularly user-friendly.
There is no puzzle skip option available, but if you need help, there’s a hint system with three tiers for every puzzle, providing a minor tip at first and working your way up to more blatant clues. Total hints are limited to the amount of gum you currently possess (chewing gum helps Tethers concentrate), but more gum is littered (literally) throughout the environment for you to collect along the way. Upon completion of each puzzle, you earn a grade that’s determined by how many times you guessed incorrectly and how much help was needed, which provides an incentive to avoid abusing the hints or rushing in with careless answers. Whilst you can go back and replay a prior puzzle at any time by viewing your investigation documents, your original result will always remain on your permanent record. Some puzzles are very easy, but a good number provide a welcome challenge, and I have no problem admitting that at times I had to make use of the hint system.
The game’s visual design borrows heavily from the Grickle comic creations of Graham Annable, a former Telltale employee who teamed up with the company again for Puzzle Agent. The simplistic art style features thick pencil outlines, much like a newspaper-styled cartoon, with purposely choppy animations and a heavy emphasis on bold colours. It may sound plain, but all of this comes together to create a wonderfully stylised presentation that stands out from the norm. The look may not be for everyone, but I personally prefer it over the 3D visuals of Telltale’s other games, as it feels much more personal and distinctive this way.
The voice acting is also fantastic, with each voice fitting perfectly. Tethers is entirely believable as a mild-mannered agent in a little over his head, and the heavy Scandinavian accents of the rural Minnesotans really bring the supporting characters to life. The subtle background music is excellent as well, aiding the game’s dark tone with chilling music played in time with grave facial expressions during tense moments. Whilst the game is designed to be humourous and light-hearted at times, the presentation comes together to portray Nelson’s growing sense of anxiety brilliantly. In this strange and eerily hostile environment, he is filled with dread at the strange behaviour and mysterious events he encounters, particularly the mischievous gnomes that keep appearing just to spook him.
Anyone looking for the next Sam & Max or Monkey Island won’t find anything like that here, but with Puzzle Agent Telltale took an intriguing step in a new direction towards puzzle-based adventuring, and the result has proven to be well worthwhile. While scaling back exploration and character interaction considerably, the game serves up a reasonable selection of challenging puzzles, along with an intriguing story and unique artistic design to match. It’s a shame there wasn’t more attempt to integrate the puzzles into the actual storyline, and some of the challenges are essentially just repetitive variations of the same theme. It’s also not a lengthy experience overall, totaling around four hours of gameplay, so it won’t keep you going for long. That said, puzzle fans in particular will find more than enough to keep them occupied, and with this successful pilot under their belts, it’ll soon be time for Telltale to answer the next question themselves: When’s the next episode?
Vastly different from Telltale’s other games, Puzzle Agent is a solid puzzler that provides ample challenge to go with its interesting story, all done with a unique style and cartoon charm.