Let’s get his name out of the way quickly. Whenever puzzle games surface in conversation, the elephant in the room is Professor Layton. The ever-so-English academic brought a hither too unexplored type of adventure to the masses. Since his arrival Blue Toad Murder Files and others have trodden similar paths, though none have toppled his top hat as the benchmark, most lacking the charm, depth and variety.
Step forward Agent Nelson Tethers, an employee of the FBI’s Department of Puzzle Research. If there’s a man out there who can put that DS-residing toff through his paces, it’s him.
Drawn to the snowy Minnesota town of Scoggins, this lawman finds a community obsessed with puzzles, drawn to secret societies, and still tied to their Nordic roots. In amongst it all Tethers must investigate why the President’s eraser factory has been taken out of commission; a man of such seniority cannot be seen with Tipp-ex.
Moving around the town you’ll meet the locals, from worried wives to shirty sheriffs, all with a tale to tell about the factory. More often than not they’ll also offer up a brainteaser too, loosely based on the topic of conversation. Some links may be tenuous – one sudden shift in conversation saw the topic of bird couriers appear from nowhere – though they generally stay within sensible boundaries.
The variety of teasers posed to Tethers is broad indeed. Although all essentially logical, path finding, picture recognition, wordplay and some number crunching will all get you scratching your head. The majority are of an impressive standard, both in terms of pitching and their general composition. A handful of puzzles do recur, but not so much as to appear to be there purely for padding. With each occurrence they push you that little further, taking their basic concept and slowly ratcheting up the difficulty.
Only very rarely does the phrasing of a puzzle become an issue, but even then a quick hint can easily clear up confusion. Indeed, with the majority of the puzzles the clarity of the task at hand is exceptionally clear; the problems lie elsewhere.
Navigating with the PS3 controller is clunky to say the least. The premise of holding down a shoulder button to bring up selectable options and menus is a sensible one, leaving the screen uncluttered. Actually selecting items in puzzles and on maps however is a minefield; unintuitively, any item selected goes mildly transparent, something that isn’t always noticeable on certain backgrounds. Cycling through multiple objects, especially those arranged in anything but a grid formation, is similarly irksome. One can only assume the PC and iPad versions suffer far less from these problems.
Although worth noting, navigation is not going to condemn Puzzle Agent. The leverage it has over its rivals comes not from the UI but from the cinematic edge that it is presented in. Alongside the humour, there is a darker side promoting suspense and intrigue, as if it were a full-blown cable TV movie. With dramatic cutscenes, tension building music and a plot that could pass for an X-Files script, Telltale have done a superb job of creating a story that you actually want to see through to the end. Quite a change from most puzzleathons who think any old tosh can be used to segue the brain teasers.
In part this comes from cartoonist Graham Annable, whose creative direction has brought about such a unique style. Each character brims with personality, and seeing the changing emotions play across our Agent’s face as he moves between rock and hard-place is wonderful. With an aesthetic mixed between newspaper strip and Looney Tunes of the 50s, the pencil lined art could have come straight from his sketch pad whilst his occasionally twisted sense of humour sits well within Telltale’s catalogue.
I’d like to bring the pachyderm back in for one final mention. Puzzle Agent has something that Layton sorely lacks, and that’s edge. Not in a swearing or violence sort of way, but in presenting an episode that is as much drama and intrigue as it is game. Riddles and story will draw you on. Not to mention The Hidden People.