Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cheap Thrills: Puzzle Agent

Telltale Games has been putting out a series of quality episodic adventures in recent years.  I haven't been covering their products as Adventures of the Week, because these games are relatively new, and I don't want to compromise anyone's fun with my usual spoiler-heavy analysis until some time has passed.

But I also write these occasional Cheap Thrills posts about games under $10, and last year Telltale came out with something that qualifies -- an inexpensive "pilot" called Puzzle Agent, based on Graham Annable's artwork as seen in the Grickle books and on his YouTube channel.  I acquired a copy as part of Telltale's 2010 charity bundle, and a couple of factors recently conspired to motivate a playthrough.  One, Puzzle Agent 2 has been announced, so clearly the pilot was successful and there's more good stuff where this one came from.  Two, the pseudo-2-D, limited-animation look of Puzzle Agent, and its faithful preservation of Annable's art style, might presage Telltale's upcoming Walking Dead and Fables games based on the popular comic books and graphic novels.

As an example, here's the title screen -- this is actually a 3-D image, as the camera pans around a bit while waiting for the player to do something, but it looks like a 2-D Graham Annable cartoon:

Puzzle Agent uses the Telltale Tool engine for presentation, but while there are a few dialogue trees, it isn't a traditional adventure game -- it's more akin to the Nintendo DS Professor Layton games, with a more-or-less linear story tied together primarily by creative and challenging puzzles.  The wonderfully loopy story sends FBI man Nelson Tethers of the agency's Puzzle Research division to Scoggins, Minnesota to investigate problems at the factory responsible for producing all the erasers used at the White House.  Tethers will encounter recalcitrant locals, Nordic traditions and otherworldly beings as he finds his way around town, solving puzzles at every turn.  The characterizations and voice acting are in the grand Telltale tradition, which is to say, nicely understated and funny, interesting to watch, and consistently well-written (though there are some typos remaining in the onscreen text that the actors and voice directors clearly corrected in the recording studio.)

The art style is expressive and cartoony, with nice rough pencil lines that capture Annable's style really well, with appropriately raw, chunky animation.  The world is rendered in 3-D, but generally presented in 2-D -- the camera is static and the cutout-style characters are presented facing the camera full-on; the 3-D only gives itself away when the camera moves or flat textures are seen at oblique angles.  It's a cost-effective approach to design that's completely effective visually.  The game's snowy Minnesota world is bleak with splashes of detail; it reminds me of Michigan's Upper Peninsula where I grew up, with a dash of Twin Peaks for flavor, and I enjoyed exploring the weird world of Scoggins.

The puzzles themselves vary in difficulty -- some are straightforward and unique, some repeat, starting simply and escalating in difficulty as the story develops.  In my playthrough, I occasionally relied on the built-in hint system -- hints are limited, but Nelson can increase his supply by snagging used chewing gum during his travels; the town has a seasonal gum shortage, and chewing gum helps our hero to think, you see.  Multiple, unlimited solution attempts are allowed, with scoring based on the player's number of tries and use (preferably non-use) of the hint system.  Most of these are classic logic and pattern puzzles in a variety of styles -- they are varied, well designed and implemented, and many of them even tie into the story in some way.  Here, we must arrange logs to deflect Nelson's snowmobile along the bumpy snowdrifts to reach his target destination, passing through both of the town's traffic lights:

Puzzle Agent is priced at US$4.99 for the PC or Mac download, and it's also available for the iPhone and iPad.  It's well worth the price at 3-4 hours' worth of story and gameplay (your mileage may vary), and the game's 30+ puzzles are made available in a free-play mode after the story is finished.  If that sounds appealing, check it out here or in Apple's iTunes store.

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