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Wot I Think: Puzzle Agent 2

Extremely puzzling

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.

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