Wot I Think: Puzzle Agent 2

By John Walker on July 1st, 2011 at 12:00 pm.

Puzzled reviewer.

Telltale’s Puzzle Agent 2 came out yesterday for ten bucks. The original did not please our puzzling eye, so how does its sequel fare? I’ve finished it, so you can find out wot I think.

Of the criticisms levelled at Telltale’s original Puzzle Agent, the two key mistakes were a lack of decent puzzles, and complete incoherence in the telling of the story. Seeming to misunderstand somewhat, this sequel manages to be worse in both areas. Once again Graham Annable’s characters are brought to extremely static life, in a game that so shamelessly copies the Professor Layton series that you wonder why they forgot to be good, too.

So as Agent Nelson Tethers, you return to the strange, Fargo-esque town of Scoggins, because of… er… the reason. It’s to do with the first game – you remember, don’t you? Because the game sees no reason to remind you at the start. But as it happens, at the end of the last game the “Hidden People”, a race of red gnomes, kidnapped a character named Isaac Davner. And then it sort of ended. Here it sort of begins.

So again you travel about the mysterious town, occasionally clicking on an object or person that springs up a completely irrelevant puzzle. About 35 of them in total. Solve the puzzle, get judged on your performance, and then sit through some more stammered, awkward conversations.

The conversations are like this deliberately – it’s part of the Lynch/Coen Bros style they think they’re capturing. But sadly there’s not a glimmer of interest or wit in the telling, so you’re in fact drumming your fingers as people slowly jabber about nothing, waiting until it ends. I chose to play good puzzle games on my iPhone during these times. The conversations end up on a loop, almost every one becoming about whether that person believes in the Hidden People, and if they care about the disappearances in the area. Again and again. Because while there’s a new element of story regarding astronauts and lunacy rays, it’s a simple rehash of the first game, so many of the same places and people.

After promising there would be less puzzle repetition this time around, it’s just as bad. The same few dull puzzle concepts are repeated over and again, failing even to scale in difficulty. Rearrange some objects to create a path, pick the next number in a sequence, rotate some tiles to make a pattern… Just hopelessly unoriginal, and almost all extremely easy. They’re shameful in comparison to those in the Layton series they’re so unashamedly mimicking. Level-5 has Akihiro Hino, inspired by a love of Akira Tago’s puzzles. Telltale does not. And the result is dull and occasionally horrendously explained challenges that mostly take 30 seconds to solve, or are obscured by instructions as badly written as:

“Two Earths are receiving light from three suns. A sun is connected to one planet gives full power to one Earth. [sic] If connected to 2 Earths that sun shares power evenly. How powerful is the third sun?”

A couple of puzzles were interesting. One number puzzle I struggled with had a very elegant solution. But more often they were either extremely obvious, or poorly explained. And one puzzle assumes a knowledge of US coins based on their size and colour – not exactly knowledge automatically shared by the rest of the world.

What should be the saving grace is the story around it. Layton games contain some weak puzzles too, but the games are so relentlessly charming you quickly forgive. But Puzzle Agent 2 is just babble. Characters are introduced and then instantly forgotten. Plots begin and go nowhere. The central story is such gibberish that its complete lack of a conclusion is barely a surprise. And it’s all told so poorly, jumping inanely all over the place, that you frequently wonder if you somehow missed a cutscene. Rather than ending, it just forgets to carry on.

Which is to say, it gets all the same things wrong as the first game, thus making it even worse. The fact that you still can’t click on the screen to load the full text of a line of dialogue – instead it just skips the audio and subtitles completely – shows contempt for basic operability. There’s been no discernable attempt to improve the calibre of the puzzles, no useful effort put into meaningful storytelling, and the same failure to create the unnerving ambience with which the game so clearly thinks it’s brimming. It’s a rehash of a rehash of someone else’s idea, and it shows.

Made longer, and made with the influence of some established puzzle designers, it could go somewhere. Actually use the plot as something other than a broken line on which to dangle damp puzzles. Create characters for a reason. Have it written/directed by someone who genuinely understands how to do creepy. Do something with it.

, , , , .

47 Comments »

  1. AbyssUK says:

    This makes me sad :(

  2. frenz0rz says:

    Damn, I was hoping this one would be better. I love his animated shorts on youtube.

    • Dharoum says:

      Yes, his youtube animations are amazing. I got the feeling you somehow criticized graham, cause of lack of story and static characters. I’m not sure if you meant to criticize him, but if you DID, then let me tell you, his humor is fantastic and his characters can be really to the point, I just think telltale leaves him too little artistic freedom. I’m still waiting for a grickle movie!

  3. Premium User Badge

    amateurviking says:

    I am also saddened by this turn of events. Although I think I have just bought this as part of the telltale pack on steam so I shall have a go anyway.

  4. Meesh says:

    Coincidence: I fired up Puzzle Agent yesterday since I realized I’d purchased with some steampack and had yet to play it. Not terribly impressed, considering the Layton games get it so spot on.

    The result when clicking on dialogue is that the audio AND text is skipped can only be the result of one sad fact: No one at Telltale can read faster than the audio is spoken…

  5. karry says:

    “Layton games…//… are so relentlessly charming”

    …really ?

    • Shadram says:

      Yes.

    • LionsPhil says:

      From what I’ve overheard of them being played, they’re sappy, which probably works on John. I bet he cried at the ending of The Diabolical Box. ;)

    • johnpeat says:

      Horses for courses on the Layton games – personally they drove me nuts with a mixture of “sappy” story and puzzles which ranged from fun to just plain “badly worded” or worse…

    • MikoSquiz says:

      Relentless I’ll agree with. Frankly I find them gooey and cloying. Even though the puzzles are several orders of magnitude better in Layton, I’ll take the genuinely charming Puzzle Agent any day, thanks.

    • qrter says:

      Yeah, the Layton games are a lot of fun, but not because of their storylines, which are pretty awful, I’d say.

      Personally, I liked the story in the first Puzzle Agent a lot more than any of the Layton games’ plots.

    • Nick says:

      I found they got less charming as the series went on, especially the last one, it rather irritated me.
      First one was excellent though, not a bad puzzle in it /blocks out all memory of god damned sliding block puzzles.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Rinox says:

    I enjoyed Puzzle Agent a whole lot as a gaming laptop snack while on vacation earlier this year. Although I did notice some of the things mentioned in the article, it never bothered me. The game isn’t long enough for them to become a nuisance tbh, which can be good or bad depending on what you like.

    The kind of creepy-but-not-really atmosphere in the backwater cold Minessota town felt just right for me personally. I never felt like were trying hard to be unnerving or super creepy tbh, mainly because of the drawing style and humour. So…I’ll probably buy it anyway, and maybe disagree with John on it too. ;-)

    • JFS says:

      Same here. It wasn’t a great game from a purely gaming perspective, but see it as a little work of art and it becomes quite nice. Little lo-fi, but quite nice.

    • Roarster says:

      Yup, I enjoyed the first game as well. It wasn’t particularly challenging and the ending was, well, barely an ending at all but I found the dialogue funny and the Twin Peaks meets Fargo style was pretty much unique in video games.

      Despite this review, I’ll probably still pick it up when it’s got a decent discount on it.

    • Bhazor says:

      “Twin Peaks meets Fargo style was pretty much unique in video games.”

      Oh really?

    • DrGonzo says:

      I’m afraid Deadly Premonition is nothing like that. I was so excited to play it, but it was just terrible. I mean TERRIBLE. If you’re not a hipster who likes things ironically constantly, you will hate it.

    • qrter says:

      Yep, I thought they got the tone right with the first game too.

    • Dominic White says:

      @DrGonzo – I’ve gotten unironically yelled at by ironic hipsters for not being ironic enough.. and I loved Deadly Premonition. It’s basically a Twin Peaks fan-game, and while the combat is very wonky (just play on Easy, you pretty much sleepwalk through the combat) it gets better and better the further you play.

    • Kaira- says:

      @DrGonzo
      I’ll have to be with Dominic here, Deadly Premonition was quite brilliant game (though combat was sucky, writing was off the wall, graphics were what they were and controls… eeeeh). It’s somewhat strange how it just is better than the sum of its pieces.

    • Buttless Boy says:

      Deadly Premonition is fucking awesome.

  7. Vague-rant says:

    I got Puzzle Agent as part of a pack in a Steam sale and it… was alright. Nothing to make me buy a sequel though. I didn’t mind the simplistic puzzles as it was more of a chilling out game for me but the plot really failed to connect.

    Much prefer the Blue Toad Murder Files (3.40 on Steam!), which is similar in terms of puzzliness. It lacks the art style, but I think has more character. I also suspect all the voices (male and female of various accents) are done by the same guy, which is a major plus.

    • LionsPhil says:

      I believe it is the one guy, and he does a surprisingly good job. Adventure game it isn’t, but nicely presented string of puzzles it is.

      It was a daily special a few days ago. Gentlemen, to your time machines!

    • Vague-rant says:

      For the summer sale its 66% off again. I got it in that daily sale and have enjoyed the first few chapters. The multiplayer does feel a little tacked on, but then I didn’t really buy it for that (and frankly the fact its there and functional was a pleasant surprise). Whilst its not an adventure game neither is Puzzle Agent, so I felt the comparison was apt.

  8. Sublett says:

    Damn shame.. I played through Puzzle Agent about two weeks ago and thought it was pretty nice! I kind of liked the quirky story and characters. Will most likely buy Puzzle Agent 2 either way.
    I see a lot of mention about Professor Layton, however, being only available for the DS, I wonder if there are any PC alternatives? I like the idea of story driven puzzle games like this.

    • Vague-rant says:

      *Ahem* Blue Toad Murder Files (3.40 on Steam!). Try the demo.

  9. Premium User Badge

    Anthile says:

    I was surprised when I was looking through the Steam catalogue and saw this, mainly because the first Puzzle Agent wasn’t the kind of game that makes you want more. It’s just not very good, boring and too easy. Too bad Telltale didn’t learn anything and even did their shameless recycling again.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Churning out mediocre-at-best licensed games are what Telltale do. I remember when gaming used to lynch developers like that.

      Also when adventure gamers weren’t so desperate for a fix that they’d buy up anything with more puzzles than gunshots in it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Rinox says:

      To be fair, there aren’t many games like Puzzle Agent out there (regardless of what we might think of its quality).

  10. DBG says:

    I disagree with your statements and i officially call you my worst favorite game reviewer, John.

  11. TheCheese33 says:

    What if you’re someone who absolutely loved the first Puzzle Agent?

  12. airtekh says:

    Hmm, I quite liked the first Puzzle Agent. Might wait and see if this gets discounted at some point.

  13. mwoody says:

    The fact that you still can’t click on the screen to load the full text of a line of dialogue – instead it just skips the audio and subtitles completely – shows contempt for basic operability.

    I actually finally got around to trying the free Back to the Future episode I had sitting around yesterday. After about an hour, I quit for exactly this reason.

  14. Demiath says:

    Although I never finished it, Puzzle Agent was one of the first adventure games in maybe 10 years that actually grabbed my attention and got me interested in its gameplay challenges and story…and I’m old enough to have fooled around a bit with the genre classics like Manic Mansion, Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Under a Killing Moon, Gabriel Knight, Longest Journey etc. Since I thoroughly suck at conventional adventure game puzzles and don’t even appreciate them in theory, PA’s mini-games were a definite step up from the obtuse pixel-hunting and unabashedly anti-logical item combinations that at some point in history were mistakenly believed to be solid enough to form the basic building blocks of a whole genre.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Museli says:

    I found the original to have a perfectly acceptable fun:cost ratio. Given as Puzzle Agent 2 is currently a fiver on Steam, and comes with a free copy of the original to play or gift, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who didn’t dislike the original, or isn’t totally turned off by the concept.

  16. FecesOfDeath says:

    Loved the first one, which I played on my iPod Touch. The dark, dry humor is right up my alley, but I guess some people have different tastes when it comes to humor. The puzzles were fine, too, though some of them required using a pen and paper to figure them out.

  17. FalconEagle says:

    I liked the first one, I played it on iOS though, and sadly I just purchased the sequel on Steam. I am afraid I won’t like it due to the change of platform. The first one was pretty entertaining to pick up and play then play again later. I should have bought it for iOS…

  18. Premium User Badge

    Tom De Roeck says:

    I liked the first Puzzle Agent. I thought it was creepy, and I liked the characters. But I can be forgiving on games that convey an atmosphere well, I guess.

    I also liked The Longest Journey: Dreamfall. So maybe there is a correlation there?

  19. jamesgecko says:

    I’ll pitch in and say the first Puzzle Agent really wasn’t very inspiring. The engine didn’t really work well for a few of the puzzles, the puzzles weren’t very interesting, and the characters/setting in general weren’t nearly as entertaining as Monkey Island.

    I stopped playing an hour in, when it crashed. I didn’t feel like continuing. A few months later I tried again and the same thing happened. Now that I know it doesn’t have a proper ending, I probably won’t finish it.

  20. august says:

    Another dubious review from a website that would have me believe New Vegas was poor and Curse of Monkey Island was ugly.

    No thanks.

  21. A-Scale says:

    I really think Walker missed the boat on this one. Maybe you just lack the cultural connection to find the game interesting? It might be a little like a mystery story about a trip to a backwater town in Wales would sound to Americans. Try to consider your unusual cultural disconnection a little more next time, I really feel like you’ve done Puzzle Agent a disservice.

    • groggyrat says:

      Try to consider your unusual cultural disconnection a little more next time

      LOL @ americanocentrism. Do you really find being non-american anything “unusual”, or did you just not stop to think that US citizens make roughly 4% of the world’s population, and I would estimate around 20-30% of the world’s fluent English speakers?

      Would you like to estimate how many of the people who bought Puzzle Agent 2 are Americans? I would guess around half. There’s nothing unusual about John’s nationality or his potential;”cultural disconnection”.

  22. Sombre says:

    I’m not quite sure what the purpose of this really is. While I’m aware that John is trying to give a subjective view on how he feels the game plays, I’m not quite…sure, why he was picked to review it. It’s already very well documented that, while he might be somewhat of a puzzle game/point and click enthusiast, he’s surely realized by now that modern TTG games are not to his taste, yet he still picks up the review (WOT) for them, expressing a general distaste for the game , whereas a different reviewer not so jaded on games in this genre might have been able to shine a more positive outlook on it.

    It’s just a shame really

    • Sivart13 says:

      The purpose is, Telltale’s games shouldn’t only be reviewed by people who like them already. There are plenty of sites out there willing to give middling-score reviews to these half-baked games, and if the only people who review them are the people who can put up with them, that’l look like it’s the common consensus.

      There’s plenty enough people in this thread concurring with John’s opinion to see that it’s one worth having on record.

  23. DeanLearner says:

    I bought this yesterday and went to play it before realising I’ve got the first one. I don’t remember buying the first one (I see people mention it’s part of a pack they bought, but I don’t know why I wouldn’t have at the very least tried it before).

    It reminds me of peanut butter on toast. It’s not great, but when it’s all you’ve got, it’ll do.