Sinister Reviews #07: Puzzle Agent 2

#07: Puzzle Agent 2 (Steam)
Genre: Point’n’Click Adventure, Puzzle
Platform: Steam (version tested), iOS, PSN
Release Date: July 2011
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games

Puzzle Agent 2 recounts a tale of strange disappearances, creepy forest gnomes known as “The Hidden People” and moon landing conspiracies. However, despite some wonderful set-pieces and addictive adventuring, the first sequel to the sublime Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent doesn’t quite make the leap forward that it should.

The events of Puzzle Agent 2 follows directly from those of the impressive original; once again following Nelson Tethers, FBI agent in the department of Puzzle Research, back to Scoggins (Minnesota) to investigate the disappearance of eraser factory foreman, Isaac Davner. The first few scenes recap the main events of the initial game and set the scene for this one, so if you’ve not encountered the original or have simply forgotten where the plot finished (the latter being my case, obviously), then you should be up to speed in no time. What follows is 2-3 hours’ worth of point-and-click adventuring around wintry Scoggins, following clues and talking to the locals; mixed in with Professor Layton-style mini-puzzles which, in this case, actually have some relevance to the plot rather than being a case of arbitrarily moving to the next stage: You’ll be fixing broken equipment, clearing paths across ice and arranging photos in correct order; each time solving a particular crime, or permitting access to the next area to allow Nelson to continue the investigation. There’s never a sense of urgency, so puzzles can be taken at one’s own pace without feeling like you’re behind the pace, and in that respect, Puzzle Agent responds like a casual game; albeit one that’s wrapped up in some of the finest exposition, indeed. And if you’re hoping all the mysteries to be wrapped up by the final curtain, then hope away, because you’ll be left with more questions than answers.
Puzzle Agent derives from the dark, hive-mind of Graham Annable, inventor of the wonderful Grickle universe. Annable’s recognisable crayon-ed art style is spread throughout the Puzzle Agent series, as is the dark, often unsettling, atmosphere of much of his work. Scoggins is a dour metropolis, formed of drab greys and browns communing with the grubby snow – forming an image of a slightly less-foggy and more-populated Silent Hill, with just as much strange activity – and is superbly rendered in the wobbly, ethereal, hand-drawn outlines. All text is supported by full voice acting, the dialogue is top-notch and the wonderful writing from the previous instalment continues, with interesting characters to chat to/interrogate; all with that Fargo-esque Minnesota twang. With various places to visit across Scoggins, you’re largely shepherded from scene to scene in a linear fashion; explicitly told where ‘next’ to go, instead of free-form meandering. Since there’s no inventory, nor objects to interact with, all you’re required to do at each scene is investigate every nook and cranny (sometimes initiating conversations with the townspeople, other times finding ‘hidden’ puzzles) until you’ve triggered the next key puzzle, unlocking the next scene. For a downloadable pseudo-indie game there’s not an insufficient amount of content; it’s just that, compared to a full-blown release or the more episodic structure of, say, Sam & Max, it feels a little on the misanthropic side to involve so much asset re-use.
The puzzles themselves are relatively standard brainteaser fare, tailored to Nelson’s investigation and the mysteries of Scoggins. You’ll find yourself aligning mirrors to redirect the Sun’s rays around meteors down to Planet Earth, figuring out mathematical sequences to discovertracing paths through mazes. On the whole, the challenge is fairly low: the puzzles clearly pitched at the ‘casual’ gamer or younger audience (perhaps a tourist from the highly successful Professor Layton), while the story and content tackle decidedly ‘adult’ themes – some of the cut-scenes almost surpass ‘creepy’ and head to downright ‘scary’. It’s a jarring mix, and those more accustomed to more traditional adventures may breeze through the challenges posed by Puzzle Agent. While they’re never too tricky, the puzzles are presented wonderfully; with beautifully drawn art and imaginative scenarios, managing to blend with the story far better than the equivalent Layton puzzles can muster. Compared to Layton‘s one hundred-plus puzzles, there only a measly thirty-odd on offer in Puzzle Agent 2; made all the more infuriating by too many being identikit copies of each other: There’s “move the blocks around to clear a path”, “figure out the number sequence” and “figure out the chronology of the CCTV photos” by the bucketload. Even the more unique puzzles are often too unbalanced – painfully simple that it’s not even a challenge, or at the other end of the spectrum requiring outside knowledge to solve: Exhibit A,  a puzzle involving cartoonish depictions of  different US currency, necessitating a Google image search in the Steam in-game browser for those gamers who live outside of the US; Exhibit B, a number sequence requiring that you know a certain iconic number to something like eight decimal places, which is clearly beyond the grasp of the vast majority of players. One can’t help but feel that it’s the sort of sloppy design that would’ve been corrected with even some basic playtesting but instead wasn’t challenged. Or worse, fiendishly included in order to force use of the hint system, which would otherwise go unused if it weren’t for some underhanded puzzle set-ups.
In this current millennia, Telltale Games are the undisputed kings of the adventure genre. This comes thanks to some wonderful, episodic adaptations of the Monkey Island and Sam & Max series, along with new inventions such as the Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People and recent movie tie-ins with Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. It’s perhaps telling, then, that the Puzzle Agent series comes from the offshoot Telltale Pilot Program; a structure set up to progress more risky, offbeat titles which serve to showcase the talents of smaller dev teams running on tighter budgets and toward shorter deadlines. It’s a shame, then, that this appears to resign the Puzzle Agent series to mere mediocrity: A franchise like this needs regular episodes, more often, and at a lower price; not a rehashed version of the first game twelve months later, covering almost exactly the same ground and re-using most of the same settings, scenes and puzzles. With little resolved at the end of Puzzle Agent 2, there’s the sense that Agent Tethers will once again make an annual appearance this summer for Puzzle Agent 3, but with the promising first episode taking a disappointing turn for the follow-up, let’s hope that the pace picks up and another unique adventure game series doesn’t die before it gets a chance to show off its true potential. [6]

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