Wot I Think: Nelson Tethers Puzzle Agent

You can't criticise the art.

Telltale have launched a new scheme called the Pilot Program. It’s an attempt to get new concepts out there without committing to a full series, the first of which is Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. (They must be cursing having released the second episode of Bone, meaning they can’t claim that was always part of this programme.) It’s certainly a different direction for the company, focusing on traditional puzzles rather than inventory-based adventuring. It’s a short game, completed in around three hours. I did that, so here’s wot I think.

Professor Layton.

There, it’s said. And may as well be said five hundred more times, with occasional “except not as good” comments scattered throughout.

The similarities between Puzzle Agent, and the enormously popular Nintendo DS series, are overwhelming. The game, based on the art of former Telltale founding employee Graham Annable, features a stoic, hat-wearing detective visiting an obscure town filled with puzzle-obsessed locals, gradually uncovering a seemingly supernatural mystery. Everyone he speaks to offers him a puzzle, as well as those found scattered along the way. And should you need a hint, screens can be searched for blobs of chewing gum hidden in the scenery. The only thing missing is a screech-voiced child, and a knack for creating great puzzles.

Nelson Tethers works for the FBI’s Department of Puzzle Research. He’s dispatched to Scoggins, Minnesota, where the “eh” voiced locals seem extremely shifty. The town’s eraser making factory has been shut down, and it’s Tethers’ job to find out why, and get it running again. After all, it supplies the President himself with his pencil-erasing needs.

So as you travel between a scant few locations, characters interrupt themselves to give you barely related puzzles. These completed allow progress, as Tethers begins to uncover a peculiar local conspiracy that appears to be related to some strange red gnome creatures. So, perhaps apart from that last bit, all is extremely familiar.

The real issue isn’t quite how blatantly and unashamedly the game is appearing to lift so many ideas from the Professor Layton series. Everyone of sane mind loves Layton, and more of the same, or similar, can only be a good thing. The real issue is how poorly it’s done.

The puzzles are pretty weak, bar a couple. There’s 30-something to find, of which far too many are jigsaw puzzles, or grids of rotating tiles. (Although to be fair, somehow there’s not one sliding tile puzzle.) The opening puzzle asks you to reassemble a torn note (as if it wanted to make it absolutely clear from the start how uninspired its content would be), and at one point, astonishingly, a puzzle involves tracing a tangled line back to its origin. These are the contents of every crappy kid’s puzzle book. Not an adult’s videogame. (And while the puzzles are often extremely easy, the game certainly isn’t aimed at children. Themes of death and kidnapping make it clear it’s aimed at grown ups, albeit in a family-friendly manner. And the harder puzzles can be way beyond the scope of those who might enjoy solving a maze.)

A few, it should be said, offer a challenge. My notepad in front of me is covered in scribbles after working out which fish had swallowed a key, based on a few ambiguous clues and some brief maths. When challenges aren’t about clicking fragments/grids into place, they tend to be the sort that requires you to find an answer based on a few incomplete statements. Essentially variants of, “If my mother is twice my sister’s age, and my father is wearing orange, how much soup can I fit into the third ladle?” And while these too become repetitive, they do at least force you to think.

More problematic is the delivery of many of the puzzles. Often they require an entire screen of text to spell out the clues, which isn’t visible on the puzzle solving screen. Rather than clicking back and forth, most of the scribble on my notepad is noting rules to save faffing. Others are extremely poorly worded, making the aim of the puzzle unclear. And on one occasion they’re so ambiguous as to mean perfectly correct answers are rejected because they don’t obey an unstated instruction.

Graham Annable’s art style is meticulously captured. The sparse, extremely slowly paced delivery is recreated spot on. Whether this is necessarily for the best is harder to say. The atmosphere isn’t quite as interesting as in Annable’s animations, less ominous, often just plain silly. But of more concern is quite how dull most of the dialogue is. Empty conversations work well in a two minute cartoon, but become frustrating in a puzzle game that lasts around three hours. Unfortunately there’s no way to have the full text of a character’s contribution appear instantly, meaning there’s no way to read ahead of the dull chatter to hasten the experience. Instead you’ll have to doodle as they bumble their way through the woolly chat.

There’s much promise in the format (admittedly mostly because it’s the format Akihiro Hino came up with for Professor Layton). With far, far more effort put into the puzzles, perhaps there’d be a greater motivation for investment in the opening threads of story this pilot trails. But as it stands, this is a pretty, but disappointing game, far too repetitive to warrant the deliberately slow pace. Being this similar to Layton it was always going to live or die by comparison. So far, it’s not looking well.

Puzzle Agent is a teeny $9.95 from Telltale, currently a one-off short game. You can see the trailer below.


  1. Lars BR says:

    Sad, had hopes for this.

  2. Naiive Melody says:

    Hmm. I’ve been seeing *extremely* positive reactions on Something Awful, and I generally trust Telltale. Rarely do I disagree with a RPS review, but I think I’ll still drop $10 and see for myself.

  3. Clovis says:


  4. DrDoc says:

    Too bad, the art style and story seems nice, but I do hate all those kind of puzzles.

  5. Ginger Yellow says:

    Damn. When you said “Bone”, I heard “Gravity Bone”, and got all excited. So is Bone any good?

    • John Walker says:

      No, it’s really not. Which is a shame.

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      It’s not as awesome as the source material, but it’s decent. I didn’t regret buying and playing the two games, and would have liked the series to continue. (But I have the book so I know how it ends anyway.) I was impressed by the animations at the time, but playing mostly adventure games, that’s not something I’ve been spoiled with.

  6. Lars Westergren says:

    This is the second “meh” review, but you know what? I’m getting this anyway. I’ve wanted something Layton-like for along time. I like puzzles, but sometimes it seems 99% of puzzle games for the PC are either Bejewled clones, or one of those “Where’s Waldo” games where you are given a list of words and have to find the objects in an image and click on them.

    I hope enough people buy it so that they do a second game and improve on the weak points highlighted by John. The PC needs more Telltale, and less “war is awesome” titles, IMHO.

    @Ginger Yellow
    I got the Bone episodes from the “Telltale everything” pack, but haven’t had time to play them yet unfortunately…

  7. The Sombrero Kid says:

    as much as i love professor layton i think the format is deeply flawed and can’t possibly sustain itself as a genre, professor layton is only as good as it’s too completely separate parts, there is no greater than the sum of stuff going on here and in all honesty it’s lazy to abandon all attempts to integrate the puzzles into the narrative context.

  8. Tunips says:

    Well that was two hours well spent. No, not playing the game. Watching those marvellously bleak cartoons. That man has skill with sound, picture and madness.

  9. Radiant says:

    I LOVED Professor Layton.
    It did seem like an enforced decision to make Layton hunt for coins like a man shaped coin bird.
    Although It was nice to see the games designers solve that meta puzzle with the addition of that coin hunting dog.

    It mystifies me that the reports from this game say that the puzzles are poor.
    I mean, its a PUZZLE GAME how can you fall at that particular hurdle?

    It’s like making an internet comment and not having random words in caps.

  10. Richard Clayton says:


    I’ve played an hour or so this morning.

    My view is that the puzzles shouldn’t feel like they are obstructions to the narrative rather that they should lead to exposition. This is why I enjoy adventure games.

    These puzzles, whilst charming at first are beginning to become a little tedious in the puzzle vs. narrative balance. So much so that they feel like the blasted mazes in earlier (and badly designed) adventure games. There seems very little reward for doing so.

    Take out all that puzzling and how much story do you get for your 3 hours? I cannot tell you as I’ve only dabbled with it but I suspect very little.

    Also I couldn’t help feeling that I was playing a free flash game – albeit a high production value one. The animation style is simple but so is the interaction. Clicking on an object does not lead to any animation or much sense that the character is part of the scene.

    I have to say I’m not really sold thus-far and I was really looking forward to this. I don’t think it has enough style or humour to get away with what it is trying to do.

    By the way, John, I found that a mouse click would skip the dialogue.

    • lhzr says:

      i think john wanted to skip the dialogue only after reading it, not skip it completely. his problem was that the text was displayed too slowly, thus forcing him to wait until the character finished talking, rendering the ability to skip dialogue useless.

      i had the same problem with monkey island 1 SE.

      BUT. showing the whole text at once, before the character finished talking would lessen the impact in much the same way that subtitles for movies do. you know in advance what a character is going to say so all the timing and delivery subtleties will be gone. this can ruin jokes and dramatic moments alike, so it’s prolly for the best if subtitles appear in sync with the voice. of course, in this case the dialogue needs to be tight and not bore the listener.

  11. malkav11 says:

    The Bone games were not very good, no. But they also had the issue that they are essentially straight adaptations of the comic into an adventure game format, rendering them pointless as it is easier and more enjoyable to simply read the damn comic in the first place. (Which I highly recommend doing, it’s amazing.) Telltale seems to have subsequently figured out that if they’re going to use a license for their games, they need to do something -new- that the licensed material hasn’t already covered. Bone could have, for example, been a prequel covering the trio’s adventures in Boneville that led to them getting chased out. But no. Wasted opportunity.

  12. Jad says:

    Well that’s disappointing. What I was hoping for when I heard the concept of the game was something a long the lines of Machinarium. While that game did have a number of context-appropriate/inventory puzzles, many of them were just straight-up abstract puzzlely-puzzles. And they were brilliant.

    Which is, of course, the most important thing. I’m willing to tolerate mediocre puzzles in stuff like Monkey Island or Ben & Dan because the puzzles advance the story and working through them usually results in lots of hilarious dialog. But context-free “Big Book of Puzzles” puzzles need to be really good for game to be worthwhile.

    I’ll still try it, as I bought it to get that 50% off on Sam & Max Season 3 deal.

  13. Xocrates says:

    I’m actually surprised at how negative the reaction is. I’ve played the game and although I wouldn’t say it was great, it was by no means bad.

    Is it worse than Layton (a game they often mentioned as the inspiration)? Maybe, I don’t know. I don’t own a DS and don’t intend on getting one.

    I’ll grant that the game repeats several types of puzzles a bit too often, and some are a bit iffy, but the game isn’t nearly as bad as the review makes it sound.

    Although granted, I don’t recall RPS liking a telltale game with the possible exception of S&M season 3 which they seem to feel is sort-of kinda good in a good day.

  14. Bas says:

    I enjoyed it. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but I’d buy a sequel for $10.

    By the by John Walker, which puzzle didn’t accept correct answers due to an unstated requirement? I must have missed it.

    • Krimson says:

      I’d imagine it was one where you had to fit stuff together. If they’re in the right places but they haven’t ‘clicked’, your report is rejected.

      Then again, this only happened to me once, and it’s not exactly an unstated requirement. I don’t remember a requirement which wasn’t stated outright, which suggests that a small amount of common sense should suffice.

  15. Berto says:

    Oh the surprise! Another adventure game (well… kind of) John didn’t like :p
    Kidding. I think i’ll try it anyway, 10€ is a fair price.

  16. deadpan says:

    I’m not sure the whole ‘pilot’ idea is a good plan for Telltale, which has a history of really weak first entries in their series. Sam and Max Season 3 is the first series they’ve done with a decent first episode.

    It’s may make more sense from the developers perspective not to commit fully to untested ideas, but I would have given up completely on Sam and Max and Tales of Monkey Island based on their first episodes. I only stuck with them because people said they got a lot better, and they were right.

  17. Kua says:

    That feels a lot like Fargo – definitely a good thing.

  18. Richard Clayton says:

    Ok. Just finished it and I have to be honest: I really quite disliked it.

    3 hours of senseless puzzle solving to hear 5 minutes of dialogue.

    Many of the puzzles were dull, poorly explained and some badly executed.

    The dialogue is flat and humourless and the storyline rather weak.

    I was looking forward to this title as I hoped that Telltale’s “pilot” idea would do as they say:

    “Telltale has created the pilot program as a means of cultivating fresh creative ideas and fostering innovation, similar to the broadcast industry’s television pilots.

    Telltale’s pilot program will introduce new video game concepts, content and play designs that can then be migrated to the company’s episodic gaming model. ”

    This isn’t a fresh idea! You’ve simply created a series of “mazes” to pad out 10 minutes of linear and rather poor gameplay and a lack lustre ending.

    I had high hopes from Telltale (can you tell!?!).

    • Richard Clayton says:

      I might also add that I found little fun to be had, either.

  19. Saul says:

    Machinarium mixed this stuff with more traditional item-gathering. It had an untangle-the-wires, amongst others, but I still think its one of the greatest adventure games ever made.

    • Richard Clayton says:


      I’ve just bought and played though Machinarium to compare and I agree. Machinarium’s puzzles felt intrinsic to the narrative goals of the game and generally it worked very well. A lovely little game.

  20. Alex says:

    It’s probably the third bird puzzle, which can be ‘solved’ in three different ways.

  21. Kadayi says:

    Finished this today. Loved the Art style, and storyline. Puzzles were a bit variable in terms of quality but not a bad first effort. The ending was a bit out of the blue, but I liked the whole mix of foreboding to it. Hoping that they opt for more episodes as I’m interested to see where it goes from there.