It can be all too easy to consider the heyday of platformers to be long past. After all, you’d be hard pressed to walk into a store and find one that wasn’t a Mario title. However, the Indie Revolution has kept this genre alive. Actually, it’s done more than that. The genre has thrived, and some of the best platformers of all time have been released in the past few years. Sure, you won’t be seeing Super Meat Boy or Fez lining the shelf next to Nintendo’s mascot, but that doesn’t really matter. The industry has changed to a more digital model, and that change has actually been the key to keeping the old sentinels of gaming relevant in the modern age.
I mention all of this because it seems unlikely that a game like Teslagrad would have been made if not for the shift in how games are purchased. While the ideas and style are novel, I can’t imagine a big company like EA or Ubisoft fighting over the rights to publish a 2D platformer, or at least one that wasn’t already associated with a classic franchise. That would be a shame really, because Teslagrad is a pretty enjoyable game with plenty to offer.
Apparently morally opposed to things like dialogue or cut-scenes, the developers of Teslagrad decided to craft their story purely through visual means. As such, there’s no introduction, you don’t know the name of your character, and you won’t meet any chatty passersby to fill you in on the details. What you will find are a handful of rooms that play out little puppet shows. These pantomime the history of the town, and give you an idea as to why you can use seemingly magical powers to move your way up a ridiculously tall tower.
It all boils down to a kingdom under siege and an alliance between magical and militant powers. However, the militants aren’t content to simply save their own land. They’d prefer to use the magical powers to conquer the world. This creates a rift and ultimately leads to the downfall of the magical society. It appears your character is on a quest to put things right.
It’s hard to get too emotionally attached to the goings on here, but that’s okay. Many of the greatest games of all time had little to no story, and others yet left the story to a paragraph or two in an instruction manual. Also, as we’ve seen earlier this year with Ducktales, adding cut-scenes to this type of game can actually be a hindrance. I think the game does fine without them.
As for the presentation, the game hits all of the right notes. Teslagrad is clearly a land inspired by steampunk, but the looks isn’t overdone and manages to fit in nicely with all of the nifty powers at your disposal. Of special note is the lighting, which creates glowing colors that pop off the screen. The animations are fairly limited, but still manage to bring life to the characters and enemies on screen. It should be noted, though, that the game can get hectic at points. If your computer has any problems running the game at all, you’ll find the game unplayable at a few key locations. For example, one boss fight featured dozens of expanding balls of light flying around the screen. These balls of light also obeyed the game’s physics, meaning the game was suddenly requiring a heck of a lot more out of my poor computer. It can become downright unplayable. Be warned. This is a game where you’re going to want to be able to beat the minimum system requirements.
Aurally, there’s not much to talk about. The music is pretty low key for most parts. It fits as beautiful background music, but it only really jumps up during big boss fights. It’s pretty nice to listen to and keep you fairly relaxed as you play. The effects are nice, but not really anything special. It wouldn’t hurt to play this game without sound at all, which says a bit. Still, there’s nothing offensive here, and it can be quite pleasant if you give yourself over to it.
When you first start up a game, the controls are really simple. All you can do is run and jump. If you can grab onto a ledge, you do have the ability to pull yourself up. That’s about it. The jumping is a bit stiff for my tastes, but is precise enough that a veteran of the genre shouldn’t have too much trouble getting used to it. The game is less about stomping on enemies and picking up power-ups though, and more about precision jumps and quick thinking.
That’s where the kid’s abilities come into play. They are acquired bit by bit as you make your way through the earlier sections, and really turn the game into a heck of a brain teaser. For starters, you’ll earn the ability to throw charged punches. These punches are color coded red and blue to represent opposite charges. The basic premise is that like charges repel each other while opposites attract. It’s basically magnetism 101. There are platforms and other objects you can punch in order to charge them. So, you might need to switch one platform from red to blue so that it attaches itself to a nearby red one. Using this simple mechanic, you’ll need to solve all kinds of devious puzzles involving switching things back and forth until you get where you need to go.
The next power you get is the blink ability. This allows the kid to teleport a set distance straight ahead. The rules for this leap are set, so you can only move left to right or vice versa. You can’t go up or down, and you can only teleport so long as there is open space ahead of you. However, you can teleport through objects, allowing you to get through grates, gates, and other such things. The blink ability is less about solving problems and more about precision gameplay. For example, you’ll come across many gaps that are simply too far to jump. You’ll have to jump and then blink at the right time in order to get across. There are also times when you’ll need to blink or risk not being able to make it from one side of the room to the other in time before a gate closes or something crashes down on your head. Still, this ability is used in puzzles a bit. For example, the only way to punch a certain switch is to jump over a pit, punch up, and then blink back before you fall to your death. It’s definitely interesting.
Finally, there’s the cloak ability. This allows you to charge the kid with either red or blue energy. This allows you to use magnetism to your advantage even when there aren’t things to punch. For example, you may be unable to reach a platform, but you might notice a colored boulder on top of it. By cloaking yourself the opposite color of said boulder, you can attract it down to your level. Then you can simply hop aboard the fallen rock and get to the platform. Individually, these powers are all interesting, but become pretty darn cool when you combine them together. This game has some incredibly cunning puzzles and tons of reflexive jumping to satisfy even the most diehard of fans.
Believe it or not, this game still utilizes boss fights. However, due to the fact that you play as kid with no physical prowess, you’ll have to rely on your smarts to win fights. As such, the boss encounter combine the best elements of puzzle solving and platforming. For example, one boss requires you to lead him to a specific spot so that he stops chasing you. He’ll then start firing off projectiles. You’ll then need to dodge those projectiles until you hit a switch that opens a door. Then, you’ll use the cloak to reflect said projectiles through the now open door and right into the boss’ face. The kicker is that the kid dies with one hit, so you can’t live dangerously. In order to get by, you’ll have to make a perfect run. While it can be frustrating when you get stuck, the thrill of victory is worth it.
So what we’ve got here is a smart, challenging game that will certainly appeal to those looking for a more hardcore platforming experience. It will also appeal to those looking for a more subtle approach to storytelling and design. Basically, this is the kind of game that Indie fans eat up like hotcakes. It also happens to be a pretty darn good game to boot.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Teslagrad isn’t perfect, but it is still a heck of a puzzle/platformer. The subtle approach to story and intriguing aesthetic make it a world that you’ll want to get to know, even if you can’t. The real star is the gameplay though, as a solid suite of mechanics allows for truly interesting level designs and challenging gameplay. You’ll die a lot when you play, but that’s part of the fun. The only issue is that the cutesy style belies the hefty requirements. With all of the physics and lighting effects that go into this game, you’re going to want to meet the recommended requirements for sure. If you can only meet the minimum, you’ll likely find several sections that don’t run well at all. Still, if you can run this game, you probably should. This is one that proves that old school gaming still has a place in the modern world.