Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent (iPhone Adventure Game review)

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Telltale Games is the force behind a recent resurgence in adventure games, with quirky properties such as Tales of Monkey Island and Sam & Max. Graham Annable is an animator behind the quirky Grickle series. Both Telltale and Annable have found success not through mainstream hits, but by developing a strong cult following for their low-budget work. On paper, then, their collaboration Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent should work perfectly. The results are disappointing.

Annable’s off-kilter sense of humor does come through in this game. The premise, that a mild-mannered member of the FBI’s “Puzzle Division” must investigate an incident at the White House’s favorite eraser factory, will please his fans. (Spoiler: It involves gnomes.) Needless to say, everyone he meets in town (spoiler: they’re quirky!) requires him to solve puzzles first.

However, Annable’s art fares less well. The iPhone game is full of fuzzy pictures and compression artifacts. At the best times, it’s distracting, and occasionally it even makes the story and puzzles hard to follow. We’ve seen the graphical feats the iPhone is capable of, and there is no excuse for this kind of performance (especially not when the game’s main draw is its artist).

I'm leaving these pictures uncompressed and at full size, so you can see the problems.

The art issues aside, the gameplay itself is fairly disappointing. All adventure games are a series of puzzles, but this one doesn’t even aim beyond those minimal requirements. Out of consideration for the modern casual gaming movement, Puzzle Agent goes out of its way to avoid challenging the player over the course of the game: Conversation trees with the NPCs rarely go more than one level deep, every option that leads to a puzzle is clearly labeled (you wouldn’t want it to be a surprise!), and if the player seems lost, the game will just tell them what location or person you should visit next. The game’s problems are represented by the pre-chewed pieces of gum that can be found on each scene to unlock hints: The idea may be worth a chuckle, but it seems kind of stupid (and gross) if you think about it for more than a few seconds. Gum is so plentiful that the player can get hints on every puzzle if needed, and even this attempted meta-game is derailed by the fact that the game highlights all hotspots on the screen if the player mis-clicks somewhere. Yes, in addition to telling the player where to go at every step of the game, it even points out the answers in the hidden object game.

Good thing the game is telling me what to do!

So the overall gameplay is a disappointment, but most people are going to be concerned with the quality of the puzzles themselves. How do they work? Sadly, these are largely bad as well. While the game as a whole was designed to avoid challenging the player, the puzzles just seem designed to avoid challenging the writer. The main difficulty lies not in solving them, but in interpreting the instructions correctly. The early puzzles are so simple that I stared at them for a long time trying to find the twist before I finally realized there was none. Later puzzles become slightly more challenging for the most part, but the main challenge still lies in figuring out whether the puzzle is worth second-guessing or not.

Arranging logs to bounce to the hotel is easy. The only challenge is realizing that the question marks are a hotel. The real trick is that Nelson must "pass" the traffic lights. Even after figuring out that the tree-stump-looking-things are traffic lights, what does "pass" mean? Go through them, or the square next to them? Only one way to find out...

The variety of puzzles is worth pointing out. They include logic, matching, jigsaw puzzles, and planning routes, among others. Of course, some of these are more successful than others: The pieces of the jigsaw puzzles automatically snap together if the player moves them close to each other, and so moving them around randomly is usually easier than trying to look for patterns in the jumbled mess crammed into an iPhone screen. (One end-game puzzle involves creating a pattern that has space between the pieces. I have no idea how this would be solvable if the hadn’t done it all for me.) Some logic puzzles (“if a blind man has 5 patterns of socks, how many must he take to ensure a matching pair?”) weren’t challenging back in elementary school; others, such as the more complex route-creation ones, did feel worth my time. But overall, most puzzles were so disappointing that it wasn’t even exciting when I found a new one. It certainly doesn’t help that to “submit” the answer to a puzzle, the player must sit through the same 19 seconds of animation each time. I can’t imagine that anyone thought these animations would be interesting more than once, so I have to conclude that this is a stalling tactic to make the game feel longer.

This puzzle was pretty good, despite the confusion about which blobs are "bear traps" and which are harmless obstacles that the solution relies on. But the real confusion is that the instructions simply say the blocks will freeze when in "their place". Can you tell if "their place" is in order (1, 2, 3) or not? Guess wrong, and they will freeze in an unexpected position!

The game does have bright spots: The occasional puzzle or joke is interesting, as is the way that the gnome-based conspiracy starts to bleed into the puzzles in the later game. However, every success is countered by multiple failures. This is a game for people who want to feel clever without working too hard, and are willing to sit through time-wasting videos to achieve that goal.

Grade: D+

After solving a puzzle, the player can click a "How?" button to have the logic explained to them. Too bad half of these answers don't say anything more than "You did it!"

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