Review: Puzzle Agent
It’s interesting to go back and look at TellTale’s earliest games, when it was clear they were still finding their footing. Each of their titles was a stab at a different part of the genre, with Puzzle Agent taking on the puzzle adventure segment that Professor Layton was popularizing at the time. Built around inspiration from works like Twin Peaks and Fargo, this little title has all the parts of a great adventure game. And if it had been made by a more experienced studio at the time, it certainly would have been.
The titular puzzle agent is Nelson Tethers, a timid sort of fellow employed by the FBI as head of their Puzzle Research division. A mysterious disaster strikes the eraser factory of Scoggins, Minnesota and Tethers is the man sent to puzzle out what happened. Events quickly take a turn for the sinister, however, as the townsfolk begin to reveal dark secrets about their quiet little burg. As the puzzles mount, Nelson closes in on a secret he’d honestly rather not uncover at all.
In practice this plays out like any other point and click adventure you’ve played, boiled down to its barest essentials. Each scene has a handful of interactables, whether they be people, points of interest, puzzles, or exits. Talking to folks is generally what’s going to move the story along, occasionally with a few dialogue options to question on. They’ll give you a puzzle to do or direct you to the next one, and you’ll carry on in linear fashion. There’s no inventory and very little exploring to do, aside from clicking around for bits of gum that can be used as puzzle hints.
That leaves the meat of the game as the puzzles, and it’s a pretty lean course to be sure. Puzzles in Puzzle Agent are presented with their own rules, whether they be line puzzles or word puzzles or sorting puzzles or so on. Thankfully there are no dreadful sliding block puzzles but the old stand-bys of drawing boxes with the fewest lines or connecting wires or rotating tiles are all here, often repeated with slightly different subjects. There are 37 puzzles in all, none of which provide much challenge or any truly stand-out brainteasers.
So it’s not much of an adventure or a puzzler. It’s not much of a looker, either, despite using the unique art style of Graham Annable’s Grickle comics. They took the heavy, scratchy lines of that and mashed them into a 3D engine that produces faux-2D scenes and the whole thing looks rough and weird, like the lines are trying to escape their vertexes. And God help you when they zoom in on faces, because it looks like someone rubbed their entire body on a charcoal sketch. The sound design is actually quite good in comparison, with some solid voice acting and musical accompaniment.
There’s one place the sound really shines, and it’s the one place that makes Puzzle Agent worth experiencing. I mentioned there was some Twin Peaks influence here, and that’s not just for show. Once you dig into the mystery of Scoggins you’re going to run into something surprisingly creepy, and the game’s going to do a thing that’s going to scare the pants off you. I knew it was coming on my second playthrough and it still got me, it’s that effective. If there’s anything about the game that’s worth seeing it’s the bizarre backstory to all the things that happen around you, because they really go all-in on the weird and unsettling bits.
A full playthrough of the story and all the puzzles will take you under three hours, not a long time but enough to introduce some quirky characters and get them through the strange events of the game. Puzzle Agent suffers greatly from being made so early in TellTale’s life, hiding some fine writing and story beats behind empty scenes and basic puzzles. It’s very much a poor man’s Layton, but if you’re looking for something a little more off-beat then there’s a bit of weirdness to turn up in this little title.