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Review: Puzzle Agent

Posted by on June 14th, 2011 | 2 Comments | Tags: ,

At about this time last year, Telltale Games, the creators of the Sam and Max series of episodic adventure games, announced they would be instituting a new pilot season, where a single standalone episode would be released in order to test the waters prior to the full scale creation of seasonal productions like Sam and Max. It was a bold move which marked the first time that the video game industry had borrowed a step from the television markets for video game production. The first title chosen to spearhead this effort was Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent, created by former Telltale employee Graham Annable. Now a year later, Telltale has announced that Puzzle Agent 2 is not only in the works, but is due to be released on June 30th for PC, Mac, iPad and iPhone with a tentative summer release for the PS3 version. It was always planned to release the original Puzzle Agent onto PSN before that date, but when hackers shut down PSN for a month that idea came into question. Luckily Puzzle Agent 1 is now out on PS3 for download. But how does this port of Puzzle Agent measure up to its PC counterpart?

One could describe Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent as an “American Professor Layton,” but while this statement is accurate its glibness undermines the unique qualities of Puzzle Agent. In Puzzle Agent, you take on the role of FBI agent Nelson Tethers, the lone agent working within the FBI’s division of Puzzle Research. Tethers is a relatively quiet individual content to do crosswords at his desk and chew gum in order to help him solve brainteasers. However, his life of relative solitude is shattered when, after a nightmare involving a creepy astronaut, he receives a call from his superiors telling him to investigate the town of Scoggins, Minnesota and figure out why the local eraser factory, the supplier of erasers for the President himself, has been shut down.

There are several influences that have dictated the way Puzzle Agent looks. From the outset there are obvious parallels that can be drawn to The X-Files, Fargo, and Twin Peaks. These elements combine very well with Annable’s sketchy art style. Indeed the lines forming characters and objects in the environment don’t even appear to be inked and Puzzle Agent as a whole looks like it was just drawn with charcoal pencil before being colored in a pastel color palette. Sometimes it appears as though the frame rate is affected by this, but do not attempt to adjust your TV sets dear readers, because everything this game does is intentional. In fact, the art style compliments the off-beat characters who inhabit the town of Scoggins and it also aids in conveying a sense of foreboding about the mystery surrounding the eraser factory.

But at its core, Puzzle Agent is about puzzles and point and click adventure. Puzzles in the game are designed pretty well and the types run the gamut from questions of logic to snap-to jigsaw puzzles. Unfortunately the types of puzzles can be a bit of a problem as many of the story critical puzzles tend to be the same leading to some repetition. An in-game hint system is also provided. The hint system in Puzzle Agent is unique in that in order to use a hint you need to have gum. Unfortunately for Agent Tethers, the town of Scoggins is out of gum and so he must resort to finding used gum from the environment to help with the puzzles. Of course, using hints or submitting wrong answers affects your end of puzzle rating, but unless you’re going for the trophies this shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

On the PC, Puzzle Agent is a great game because you have the freedom to control the cursor, and the player isn’t prohibited to moving from anchor points either within an environment or within a puzzle. In fact, one of the most infuriating things about this port from the PC to PS3 is navigating around a puzzle. In some of the jigsaw puzzles I found that after assembling the majority of the pieces together I had a very hard time moving the selection back over to an unused piece. This problem is also needlessly compounded by lack of control consistency. Some puzzles and environments seem to work better with the D-pad, whilst others prefer the left stick. There isn’t any real consistency regarding which one should be used all the time, and as a result simple tasks like clicking on a person or piece of gum, or making selections in general becomes frustrating and time consuming.

Additionally, some of the HUD elements within a puzzle, such as the submit button for submitting your final answer, are hidden off screen until you hold down R1. You may say this is because Telltale wanted to free up more of the screen for solving a puzzle, but that doesn’t really make any sense when you consider that the TV you have your PS3 hooked up to is probably going to be significantly larger than a computer monitor. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t lock the HUD elements to the screen the same way that the PC version does.

Overall, Puzzle Agent has an interesting premise, but this first episode does not do enough to flesh out the characters to the level of depth we’ve come to expect from a Telltale game. This is due in no small part to the game’s pilot status. Additionally, given the obvious comparisons to the Professor Layton series for the DS, Puzzle Agent has an enormous legacy to live up to. However, with the impending release of Puzzle Agent 2 this summer it’s likely that the story will most certainly pick up. And considering the feedback that Telltale has gotten regarding the game, I think we can expect some of the HUD related issues to be resolved and better optimized for use with a Dualshock 3. Currently, Puzzle Agent is available on PSN for $9.99 in the US store. But if you’re really interested in playing this game either wait for the inevitable bundle to emerge with Puzzle Agent 2, or get it from Steam and play it on PC for $4.99 (£ 3.99 in the UK). You can also pre-order a copy of the PC or Mac versions of Puzzle Agent 2 for $9.99 from Telltale and get a copy of Puzzle Agent 1 for free.

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. For more info on our review policy click here. This review is for the PlayStation 3 version of the game.

General Info

  • Navigating the environment can be difficult with either the D-Pad or left analog stick.
  • HUD elements are hidden when doing a puzzle for no really good reason.
  • Selecting something in a puzzle can take an exorbitantly long time.
  • Due to its pilot nature the characters are not fleshed out as much as they could be.
  • Story critical puzzle types don’t vary as much as they should which can lead to some repetition.