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Wot I Think: Nelson Tethers Puzzle Agent

Featured post 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.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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