I almost didn’t write this review. I almost didn’t have the patience to get to the end of Teslagrad. And that would have been a terrible shame, because it’s a beautiful and intelligent game from start to finish. It just does one thing wrong that nearly killed the whole experience for me, a thing that you really need to be prepared for if you want to see the rest of what it offers.
Teslagrad is unsurprisingly set in the city of Teslagrad, a sprawling, steampunky place with one hell of a tower in the middle of it. You play a small boy of auspicious ancestry who flees capture one night to find himself in that very tower. This is where most of the game will take place, with you working to unlock the upper floors as you find new abilities to advance. The theme of the game is magnetism, so your powers will allow you to attract and repel objects to great effect. It’s a neat, tricky gimmick with some clever puzzles, but it’s a very directed experience with few branching paths and no sequence breaking.
It’s not a long game, either, clocking in at around three to four hours from start to finish. There are secrets to find, however, in the form of 36 scrolls (also the game’s only achievements). You’ll have to do some searching and some challenging puzzling to find them, and you need 15 to get to the endgame anyway. There’s an alternate ending if you find them all so there’s a few more hours of magnetic wizardry if you want, but it’s hardly necessary. The actual platforming handles well, aside from a bit of that floatiness that tends to plague indie platformers. It’s nothing damning, and it does allow for some fun physics shenanigans in a few of the puzzles.
You’ll also face off against a few bosses, and this is where the game nearly lost me. Like the rest of the game, the bosses are clever and beautiful and challenging, but one little detail transforms them from climactic battles to infuriating slogs. You see, you have no health in Teslagrad. One hit kills you, usually starting you back at the beginning of the room. Coupled with bosses that have challenging patterns that must be memorized, this is a recipe for intense frustration. You might have to repeat a pattern three or four times as it speeds up and gains new hazards, and one wrong move will see you starting from scratch. Some of the puzzles are equally lethal, the standout being an anti-gravity ascent through a field of electricity that took me dozens of tries.
There is a very real possibility that Teslagrad will make you rage, and it’s such a tragedy because the game is otherwise brilliant. The art style is gorgeous and animated in incredible detail, the story is excellent (told through charming puppet interludes), and the setting is a real stand-out amidst a sea of steampunk dreck. I have to recommend Teslagrad for its many strengths, but there’s no shame in checking out of this one when it gets too tough. Approach this one with as much patience as you can muster, or give it a pass if you’re prone to fits of controller-flinging.