Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release Date: June 30, 2010
Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is Telltale Games’s pilot project, wherein players guide the title character through a mysterious case in Scoggins, Minnesota. So what’s in store for you should you pick up this game? Let’s find out.
You take on the role of Nelson Tethers, the sole member of the FBI’s puzzle-solving sect, as he’s given the mundane-sounding task of retrieving more erasers for the now-short-on-erasers White House. The White House has been supplied by the remote town of Scoggins, whose Eraser Factory is now kaput for reasons unknown. As Nelson, you are to investigate the circumstances surrounding the factory’s closure and get it back online. When you and Nelson arrive at Scoggins, however, you find out quickly that something else is happening….
The general mood of the story is hard to pinpoint; I can’t tell if this is supposed to give off a genuine sense of eerie mystery or a parody of such the same. Regardless, I enjoyed this most when I wasn’t taking it too seriously. I recommend you do the same should you ever wish to try this out. You’ll need that brain power to solve the puzzles, after all.
And while I can’t say too much about this without spoiling too much, I can say this: If you never liked gnomes, this game won’t change your mind.
This game is more than happy to tell you that cartoonist Graham Annable is the lead designer, and it shows in the artwork you see from beginning to end. In fact, most everything looks like a pencil sketch dashed with solid but somber colors. The characters are thin but distinct; you’ll know who’s who based on how they’re dressed and how their faces are drawn–and let me tell you, the people of Scoggins have some interesting expressions. The simplicity makes anything you need to see easily visible without cluttering up your field of view; you’ll never have to wonder where the Hint or Reset buttons are, for instance, because they’re always on-screen in a very-easy-to-spot location.
The bottom line here is that the art style is very good at doing its job while being memorable at the same time.
Rating: Very Good
The audio of the game is great. The music is subtle so that it doesn’t disrupt your thought process as you plug away at the puzzles or try to figure out the bigger mystery surrounding Scoggins. The sound effects are also subtle in that they’re distinct without being a complete blare-fest. The one exception to this, the scare chord, is implemented well; it appears where it’s supposed to and grabs your attention. Lastly, the voice acting is done very well; every denizen of Scoggins is given a distinct voice and personality that the actors seem to capture with ease.
The wonderful part about adventure and puzzle games is that the controls are always simple. In this case, we’re talking about a simple point-and-click interface. The main menu takes the form of a file folder with a puzzle piece stamped on it. You can find it in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Clicking on this shows you your current puzzle rank, the number of puzzles you’ve solved, a list of the story-based puzzles you’ve done; you can also view Nelson’s journal to see what he’s done and what he has to do next, as well as a prominent button that will say Main Menu, which will take you back to the title screen.
When you’re exploring, you can click on anything odd you find–such as gum that double as your hint supply–or on people with whom you’d like to speak. Alternatively, you can click and hold down the mouse button on a particular location, and a ring will spread outwards that will show you the different people or objects with which you can interact. Little icons will tell you what you can do, such as green arrows telling you where the door is; speech balloons pointing out to whom you can speak; and puzzle pieces to show you where a puzzle needs solving.
Speaking of which, each puzzle is presented in the same way. First, you’ll be briefed on the context; then you’ll be given the chance to work those brain cells of yours to varying degrees. Occasionally, you’ll be given some particular facts or instructions to follow right after you’re given the context. The main puzzle-solving screen has several buttons, most of which are self-explanatory. You can access up to three hints per puzzle, and you can rotate through each of them at your leisure. If you submit a wrong answer, you’ll be given the chance to retry the puzzle.
Successfully completing a puzzle will award you with a high score that will be recorded in the main menu. However, the more times you retry and the more hints you use, the lower your score will be. The ranking doesn’t mean much, though, so don’t sweat over it.
In short, the controls are simple and easy to figure out. On a side note, you can speed through the dialogue scenes by clicking your main mouse button, which is handy when you don’t want to listen to the same scene repeat itself.
As with any adventure game–or just any game that’s heavily driven by its story–the flow is linear. You go from Point A to Point B by encountering Obstacles One, Two, and Three at the same places at such-and-such time. Puzzle Agent is no different in this regard. You can choose to solve a few extra puzzles along the way, but these aren’t significant deviants. Some additional puzzles become available to you along with the ones you’ve already solved after you complete the game, but again, it’s not much. On top of this, each puzzle has only one solution; there isn’t even a degree of randomization to mix things up if you’ve decided to start a new game from scratch. You’ll only find any degree of replay value in achieving a higher score on a more difficult puzzle than you did the first time.
When I add everything up, I can’t imagine someone’s playing this more than a couple of times before putting it away.
Rating: Below Average
Strictly speaking, every puzzle’s difficulty depends on an individual’s problem-solving skills. That said, every puzzle game requires the solutions to be evident without being obvious; make them too obscure, and you’ll either beat your head against a wall in frustration or you’ll stop playing the game altogether. In addition, one ought to gradually build up to more difficult puzzles; two easy ones followed by a tough brain-buster in the first five minutes into the game makes for some topsy-turvy balance.
Unfortunately, Puzzle Agent suffers from the latter case. The balance in general is flighty; sometimes, you’ll know exactly what you have to do, and other times, you won’t know where to begin. The first three and the last three puzzles go from easy-peasy to cranium-crunching hard, and they’re spaced very close to each other. Several of the puzzles are visual-based, be it an arrange-the-pieces-so-they-don’t-overlap type or a rotate-the-tiles-to-form-a-coherent-picture type; they’re by far the easiest of the puzzles to solve, even though they can take up a significant amount of time. Compounding the flighty balance is the hints you receive; they can be everything from painfully obvious to horrendously vague, regardless of whether you’re using one hint or all three. So while you pick up plenty of gum to supply you with hints, you may still be just as stuck as you were at the start.
Thus, the balance of this game goes all over the place; the distribution of easy puzzles and difficult ones is haphazard, and your hints can be anywhere on the useless-useful scale. The result is that you may very well run into a puzzle that frustrates you enough to make you stop playing from as early as the third one you’re given. The game’s only saving grace is that you can take as long as you want to solve the puzzles, but that’s an opportunity you’ll take only if you haven’t sworn off the game already.
The premise of a man in an unusual profession isn’t anything new. The premise of someone coming to a small town with a secret also isn’t anything new. In fact, there isn’t much about Puzzle Agent that’s been done in any stand-out way aside from the art style. Even so, I found myself amused by what I saw despite forever scratching my head over how seriously the game was taking itself. I have no idea what Telltale Games intends to do with this title later down the road, although they certainly have room to do more with what they’ve established.
Puzzle Agent hasn’t done much in a new way, but it has much to work with should this grow into a series.
I love a good puzzle, and this game had plenty of those in store for me despite the zig-zagging difficulty. Several puzzles require a good visual eye to solve, and while that’s no issue for those who have such an eye, I can see those without that or a lot of patience would grow bored with this quickly. As much fun as I had solving the puzzles, though, one of them almost killed the entire game for me. Thus, the addictiveness of this game is there, but its hold is more fragile than it should be.
Avid puzzle fans will love this, as will those who are fans of Graham Annable. Those who are unfamiliar with the latter and aren’t quite as addicted to puzzle-solving may not be as charmed, though, for reasons I’ve already addressed. I don’t see this appealing to anyone outside of a small niche of dedicated fans, especially since the puzzles can take anywhere from two minutes to a whole hour to solve. The game saves your progress automatically, which might help you out if time is an issue.
To be honest, though, you’ll want to play this when you have such time to spare; otherwise, you might as well not bother.
Much of what I said in the Balance section apply here. The flow goes as fast as you’re willing to go, and any mention of solve-this-puzzle-before-something-bad-happens doesn’t mean much of anything. In truth, you can’t lose; you just receive a lower score, as I mentioned before. This is a relief, if only because frustration of varying degrees can come from the puzzles themselves; a game over screen would’ve been like adding salt to a wound. But my point regarding the difficulty in general remains.
The puzzles come in a good variety, and even the three that require you to place logs in strategic places change in their complexity. In fact, they’re the only set that becomes more difficult as you progress. Now if only the other puzzles followed suit, but I’ve said enough about that.
On that note, I don’t have much else to say for this section. The game is what it is, and as bizarre and off-balance as it may be, it doesn’t shy away from any of it.
Graphics: Very Good
Replayability: Below Average
Appeal Factor: Poor
Final Rating: Above Average Game
Short-Attention Span Summary
Telltale Games has delivered Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent, a puzzle/adventure game hybrid that promises to work your brain cells to the core. For the most part, it does. Unfortunately, the game’s difficulty goes all over the place instead of becoming progressively harder, as some of the solutions aren’t evident at all and the hints aren’t always useful. Needless to say, you will find plenty of challenges and you will work that brain of yours should you try this out, but there’s a very real chance you’ll disregard this title altogether out of frustration. Try this out if you’re a fan of puzzles, but don’t bother if you don’t have the patience or the time.