A delightfully eerie and expertly atmospheric game, Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is a worthy debut for Telltale's innovative Pilot Program, even if it occasionally suffers from vague puzzle instructions and unclear hints.
Quirky, mysterious and chock-full of dark humor, Puzzle Agent is just shy of exemplifying the perfect launch title for Telltale's new game-release strategy. Dubbed the Pilot Program, Telltale's new agenda tests out audience reactions with a short "pilot" episode of a new IP before launching an all-out episodic franchise, allowing the company to try new ideas at minimal financial risk. With roughly one-third the size of the average team, the Telltale developers worked with alt-cartoonist and former Telltale staffer Graham Annable to create its first trial-by-fire title in Puzzle Agent, a Professor Layton-esque point-and-click adventure with a unique flair reminiscent of the best independent games.
Puzzle Agent follows the eerie journey of Nelson Tethers, an FBI agent of the Puzzle Research Division looking into a mysterious accident at an eraser factory. Tethers' investigation takes him to Scoggins, Minnesota, a snowy Fargo-esque town that, despite its unassuming appearance, clearly has something to hide. Funny accents and hometown charm belie the town's darker nature, but through Tethers' sarcastic self-reflective commentary, a series of brain teasers, and some absurd run-ins with the locals, a simple hunt for answers soon takes a turn for the bizarre.
The game's dry humor, interspersed with surprisingly creepy moments, will make you laugh as much as reel back in terror -- often simultaneously. Most of Puzzle Agent's unique feel can be credited to Graham Annable's simplistic charcoal-like drawings, but the purposely awkward dialogue and frequent chills also go a long way in setting the mood. It's embarrassing to admit wanting the lights on to play a 2D puzzle adventure, but even during the puzzles, Nordic cultists and evil red gnomes have a way of scaring the bejeezus out of you.
Despite the game's artistic ingenuity and dark humor, Puzzle Agent just doesn't live up to its puzzle-adventure counterparts when it comes to sheer brain activity. Decently challenging, varied, and simply entertaining, the game's puzzles should have easily matched the game's wit and presentation. One level, you attempt to determine the winner of an arm-wrestling match using vague eye-witness statements. Another, you're arranging a furnace flume in the vein of classic puzzler Pipe Dream for Windows.
Some puzzles take a bit of note-taking while others are just a matter of spatial reasoning. But whatever the type, most of the pilot's 37 brain teasers have vague instructions that take more brain power to decipher than the actual puzzle. Even hints, which you earn through collecting used gum from the streets of Scoggins (ew), are frequently misleading. It's not just frustrating, but it takes away from the quality of the puzzles and knocks your Agent Rank down a notch in result.
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