Developer Telltale Games Publisher Telltale Games Genre Puzzle Platform PC, Mac, iOS Release 30th June 2010
It seems like every time I talk about "Point and Click" adventure games, I always lament how they're a dying video game genre. Sadly, it's a harsh reality that point and click games are going the way of the Dodo, replaced by third person adventure games which can offer so much more depth and more interesting gameplay mechanics such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent
, which if it were made 10 years ago, would have most likely been a point and click game. There are some, though, that still fight the good fight against the crushing inevitability that one day, point and click adventures will just fade away, one of the most predominant figures in this battle is Telltale Games, creators of the Sam & Max
series and the new episodic Back to the Future
Oh yeah, these guys are awesome.
Last year, Telltale teamed up with cartoonist Graham Annable, who -- frankly -- I've never heard of, but hey, what resulted was Puzzle Agent, a distinctive-looking point-and-click adventure-come-brainteaser-game. I'll get this out of the way now, since it was all I could think about while playing the game... Yes, it's an awful lot like Professor Layton. Now, I'm not saying that all point and click adventure games weren't puzzle driven, because that would be a lie. However, most games of that style tended to very subtle about puzzles, often you would find items, interact with the scenery and occasionally have a puzzle where you'd enter a new screen to put something back together. Most adventure games of old would just have to combine a bunch of items together and that would be the "puzzle" aspect of the game. Where Professor Layton differs was that it made a very strong distinction between "story/world" and "puzzle" (although I suppose "brainteaser" or "riddle" would perhaps be a better phrasing of the game's puzzles) by having the game completely shift paradigm whenever a puzzle reared it's head. And this is exactly what Puzzle Agent does as well. There's a bunch of other similarities to Puzzle Agent and Professor Layton as well, but I don't want to bang on about it too much. There, I said it. Let's move on.
The game's story follows FBI agent Nelson Tethers, head of the Puzzle Research Division. As one may expect, there's not that many puzzles that need the attention of the FBI and thus, has a sleepy, uneventful existence in a basement office. This all changes when a call comes down the line telling Agent Tethers to head out to the sleepy, ice-covered village of Scoggins to discover why the Pencil Eraser Factory, the sole Pencil Eraser producer for the White House, has shut down. What he finds is a rural town full of unusual characters, each more unhelpful than the last and strange rumours about "whispers" and "hidden people". These "Hidden People", it should be no spoiler to anyone, are the little red gnomes which have become synonymous with the game. These things are terrifying
, you wouldn't think it from the outset of the game nor their extremely comical appearance, but their use in the game was done down to perfection. My only complaint about the story was... Well, this may be a bit spoiler-ish, so read the last bit of the paragraph with care; there's no conclusive ending to the game. There's no pay-off regarding the gnomes other than they're creepy. The game just sort-of... Ends. Abruptly. It's very disappointing in that regard, but the build up and overall story is fantastic otherwise, especially the writing which is in true Telltale fashion (witty and clever).
This puzzle type gets reused too much.
The whole game primarily revolves around you solving puzzles and there are a great deal of puzzles to solve... Sadly, a lot of these puzzles are the same puzzle, only with slightly different stipulations. For instance, near the start of the game you're given a Snowmobile puzzle, which you must direct the Snowmobile across a grid by placing logs which lean forwards of backwards (think back and forward slashes on a keyboard), when the Snowmobile hits them, the path the snowmobile changes course and you must guide the snowmobile through various objects like traffic lights when getting to the destination. This same gimmick is used like 3 different times and are mandatory
puzzles. You have some more creative puzzles through-out the game but they're completely optional. If you play just the mandatory puzzles in the game, you'll come across most the puzzles or some variant of a given puzzle at least twice. And given how short the game is (about 3 hours at best), this is a massive sin. The game is also (most likely purposefully) vague about the conditions in which you can successfully complete certain puzzles. It can be highly frustrating.
See all these fun places to visit? Most of them aren't in the game. What a tease.
However, as I say, if you go off the beat-and-track with the story and look around for some optional puzzles, there's a good deal of variety in the game. Outside of puzzles, you'll be doing very little other than following what the story tells you to do. You'll move around the town with the use of a map with pre-defined areas you must visit, you can go inside the occasional building here-and-there and... Well, that's about it. Locations often have chewing gum stuck to the scenery which you can collect and these can be exchanged for hints, of which three will be handed out per puzzle. One feature the game has which is quite interesting is the "sonar-click" as I like to call it. When you click on the screen (where there's no interactive hot-spots) it will pop up with objects that you can inspect within a certain range of the initial click. You can use this to find objects to inspect (shown with a magnifying glass), puzzles (shown with a puzzle piece), chewing gum (shown as... Chewing gum) and people to talk to (shown with a speech bubble). The game also has a nice conversation system which shows you when the conversation will lead into a puzzle (optional or otherwise).
This is quite a big spoiler, so if you want to go into this game all new and fresh, stop reading. Right now
. So, during the game, you'll come across several puzzles where Scoggins gnomes will appear within the puzzle and take something from the puzzle to prevent you from completing it. This is usually resolved straight away
and there's very little consequence for them doing so. It just happens abruptly and you're taken off-guard. As I said before, with the short length of this game, this gimmick becomes over-used very quickly and starts to lose it's effect. It's very cleverly done, though. The last puzzle in the game even has a variant of this, where a piece of the puzzle falls out of a machine... But rather than the gnomes taking it to impede your progression... It throws it back up for you. And you just repeat the puzzle again. Why? What's the point? First time it happens, that's cool. Multiple times in close succession? Not really that cool. Over-using a monster-closet or scare/creepy moment only weakens it's effect in the end.
The gnomes, man. The gnomes!
Atheistically, the game the game is a very distinct game to say the least. The hand-drawn cartoon effect is very memorable, however there is a jarring disconnect between two distinct animation styles going on within the game. Sometimes animations are quite fluid, others are very jerky. Almost as if you're watching the storyboard version of the animation, rather than the full animation itself. It's strange, but, it works. It feels like the game was done to a tight budget, not just because it looks all hand-drawn, but because of how little animation there is... Also how short the game is could give you an indication how how low the budget was. But hey, for a cheap point and click adventure, who am I to complain? The game looks great, all criticisms about animation aside.
The game's soundtrack helps, but is extremely forgettable. It's like elevator music, it serves it's purpose to slightly amuse or entertain while the game plods along, but there's nothing which will stand out. Perhaps that's all the game needs, a compelling soundtrack which just fits into the game world. Perhaps so perfectly that it just seems natural, taken for granted in a way. Don't wish to sound pretensions (not that I can't, given I review an entertainment form) but that's what I feel. The soundtrack also does a fantastic job handling the gnomes' appearances through the game, building tension. Voice work for the various characters in the game is fantastic, as usual from Telltale.
Puzzle Agent is a very solid budget title. You can grab it off your favourite digital download service for PC, Mac and on the Apple App Store for iPhone and iPod Touch. I highly recommend you do, especially if you want a primer on Professor Layton and it's appeal. Overall, it's a very entertaining game, a bit on the short side, but for it's low price it's a quality product with an intriguing plot. Best news of all, there'll be a sequel coming out Summer 2011. Hopefully, this will iron out some of the animation woes and improve on the game's length.