Review - Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Since I've always had a fondness of adventure games, I was bound to check this out sooner or later. Telltale Games have released another point and click game, and have once again demonstrated that they both know what they're doing with the genre. The easiest way to describe this game is to say it's like a shorter version of a Professor Layton game, but with much better visuals, voice acting and story.

You take control of the title character Nelson Tethers, a FBI agent in the fictional department of Puzzle Research Division. After a prophecy scene that wouldn't be amiss in an episode of Twin Peaks (the developers even cite David Lynch as an influencing factor, along with the Coen Brothers and Stanley Kubrick), Tethers receives his first actual field assignment to investigate the Scoggins Eraser Factory's mysterious closure. All inquiries to the town have only resulted in strange puzzles being sent back. Since the factory supplies the White House with erasers, the FBI wants a full report and the factory to be reopened as soon as possible before a national emergency happens. It may sound like a plot from a children’s book but the result is anything but.

Unlike standard point and click adventure games, the game has a unique control system. The game doesn't have you deal with an inventory and back tracking around the world trying to find where Item A combines with Item B. Instead, the game is broken up into a number of locations. You don't take control of Tethers directly, but instead click around on the screen at various points of interest. Helpfully, if you click on a blank area you'll get a radar effect where any points of interest near that point will be highlighted briefly. It's a nice touch, and avoids the "pixel hunt" trap that several games in this genre tend to devolve into. The cast of characters is fairly small, but it makes up for it by having them well rounded and with great voice acting. Tethers alone has a nice, memorable voice that really suits the character.

Puzzles in the game are triggered either through dialogue or by clicking on certain hotspots. Similar to Layton's outings, every puzzle in the game has three hints available. Each hint is more detailed than the previous one, and is not available for free. Instead of spending hint coins, you chew a piece of gum. Gum can be found in almost every location so if you spend some time searching you shouldn't run out of it even if you're really stuck in some of the puzzles.

So far, I seem to have described a Professor Layton game. As far as the gameplay itself is concerned, it's a pretty accurate description. What sets it apart though is the story, art and atmosphere. For the most part, it's deceptively innocent. Tethers investigates, people seem weird but no one seems particularly harmful. Then "The Hidden People" intervene and all hell breaks loose. I've got to say they're some of the genuinely creepy antagonists I've faced in a game. They manage to freak you out and mess with your mind, not to mention actively interfere with some puzzles. Bonus points to you if you don't jump in your seat the first time they actively mess with you. I sure as hell did! I would not recommend this for younger kids to play. I really liked the climax and how it was resolved.

The art style deserves special mention. At first glance it seems simplistic and crude, but it's part of the charm. It really adds to the atmosphere, especially when things start to get weird.

My main complaint with the game is that it's criminally short. A seasoned adventure gamer can blow through the game in a few hours. Anyone that's finished a Professor Layton game should breeze through most of the puzzles. A few of them can feel a little repetitive, but that pretty much comes with the territory. Most of the puzzles can actually be bypassed entirely. Puzzles are grouped into two categories- story and secondary. All the story ones have to be completed in order to finish the game, but the secondary ones (although skippable) open up extra scenes of dialogue. It may not sound like much, but the scenes are pure gold. They add a layer of depth to the characters, and have a few comedy gems. Without them though, the game would be a lot shorter.

I played the PC version of the game. However, there is a version out on the iPhone/iPad marketplace. Based on the control system and the easy to read display, I can see it being a good port. I would even go as far as to say it would probably play better on that hardware than the desktop machine version!

Overall, this is a top quality game. It's addictive, has a visually impressive art style and has an excellent script with great voice acting. The soundtrack does loop a few tracks, but they don't overstay their welcome or become annoying. Here's hoping Telltale will start making more episodes soon, once they've finished the Back to the Future series. The second episode, Return to Scoggins, has been announced. I know I'll be picking up a copy on the release day.

Played on PC, also available on iPad / iPhone / iPod Touch

V. Smyth

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