An Awesome Deviation From Telltale's Usual Wheelhouse
Puzzle Agent, the hybrid puzzle adventure game from Telltale Games, marked a new attempt at something unique from the point-and-click adventure specialists. Borrowing a gameplay style not unlike the Professor Layton series, and featuring the artistic style of Graham Annable, this title from Telltale does some interesting things to the already-unique genre. Billing itself as a lighthearted faux-investigative horror thriller, it seeks to differentiate itself from the developer’s usual wheelhouse by adding in the direct puzzle element, and an interesting narrative, with some excellent results.
Puzzle Agent’s named protagonist, Nelson Tethers, starts his journey glued to his desk, finishing up a crossword on a newspaper, quickly getting bored and nodding off to sleep. Visions of a large man dressed in a old-fashioned diving suit haunt him. The man writes something on his newspaper. Suddenly, he screams, looks around, and finds the man to be gone. In his panic, he rips the crossword he was working on to shreds by accident, triggering the first puzzle of the game. This lead in seems rather odd, but works so well with the theme. Tethers finds his way to the rural town of Scoggins, Minnesota, where he finds the town full of people who are just mad about puzzles. The story overall is a set of odd twists and turns that leave you guessing (and sometimes pointing at the obvious) that rarely disappoint. Many points of the story lead you directly where you need to go, and will sometimes allow you to go off to the side to solve other puzzles in the meantime. These moments are few and far between, however, and they give little reason or reward to finishing up those loose ends.
The actual meat and potatoes of Puzzle Agents, oddly enough, is its puzzles. Almost every townsperson will have a puzzle for you to solve, and most of them fit into the main storyline in some way or fashion. These puzzles are pretty well put together, and sometimes even seem relevant to what you are doing. There’s no absolute tension in any of them, but that’s to be expected form the genre, considering its roots.There are only a handful of side-puzzles to solve, which was somewhat disappointing, since it really gives you no reason to seek out the additional characters and dialogue that was put in for those encounters. The dialogue ranges from genius to mediocre, but never goes into the territory of ‘bad’, giving Scoggins a very interesting and fun, if a little spooky, personality. An interesting game element that is introduced early on is Tethers' addiction to chewing gum. It "helps him focus", giving an explaination to why they are the collectible "hint tokens" of Scoggins. They are hidden almost everywhere in the town's expansive screens, but they aren't so plentiful that you'll get a hint for every puzzle. The puzzles are only occasionally hard enough to warrant hints, however, though the ones that will may boggle your mind.
The graphics of Puzzle Agent aren’t anything to write home about, but given Graham Annable’s very rough drawing style, it’s easy to write that off as an artstyle thing. It would have been nice if they had cleaned up the graphics a little bit, as characters and backgrounds scaled to different metrics seem a little off at times. This can be chalked up to the theme, but still seems like something they could have done to make the layout a little easier to look at. The graphical elements are generally well done, and the filing cabinet approach to viewing past puzzles was a very nice way of organizing those challenges you’ve already completed. The sound, both voicework and music, are very well done, however, and are definitely worth a mention. Some of the music pieces can really get to you if you’re not watching out for them. For such a silly, lighthearted game, I found two instances where the musical theme and the sound actually made me jump. I had never seen a puzzle or adventure game set up the player for such a feeling as well as it had. The voicework is done by and for a good cast of characters, each relatively unique in demeanor. The lack of variety in characters' looks seems to be a play on how monotonous the town simply is, but while that's all well and good, the overall feel of the game becomes more bland and monotone as a result.
Overall, Puzzle Agent was a very fun and interesting turn from Telltale’s usual point-and-click adventure games, and a great lighthearted faux-horror story if you’re willing to follow along. It does well what has been done before, and does a few tiny things that haven’t, and those things mix into an excellent experience.