Happy July 4th, everybody! On this special Independence Day review, we’ll be looking at a puzzle game from Telltale, Puzzle Agent 2. What does this have to do with the 235th anniversary of the birth of my homeland? Nothing at all! But as a puzzle fan, I was looking forward to giving it a try, so here it is.
The visuals of this game are unique. They are based upon the work of Graham Annable (if you aren’t familiar with the work, you can find his website here) and as such they have a very definite style. Characters have a pencil-drawn look to them, almost sketchy. The nature of the pencil outline goes a long way to making the visuals stand out. When characters are far from the “camera”, the effect isn’t very pronounced, but closeups reveal a texture that gives everything a much more handmade look. The gritty, blurry lines that trace out shapes during extreme closeups may be a turn-off for some, but I think that it was an effective choice. Despite the simple style of the artwork, there is no shortage of characterization. The cast of characters, particularly considering the length of the game, is impressively large, and every one of them is visually unique and has a look to fit the personality, from the nervous yet friendly hotel hostess to the obstructively incompetent sheriff.
In keeping with the handmade vibe, the animation in the game is extremely limited. Lip sync, character movements, and virtually all other sprite animation tops out at about two frames per second. Once again, the relative simplicity of the animation may be a turn-off for some, but it suits the style well, giving it an almost “animated storybook” feel.
There are lots of fun little touches that I got a kick out of. My favorite was the fact that you spend this game working a case unofficially, which means that you can’t submit your solutions directly. To get around this, you are having a friend of yours submit them through his own department, the department of vegetable crimes. The way this pans out visually is the fact that each solution is slipped into an envelope, which is then slipped into a vegetable themed envelope, and stamped with all sorts of agricultural designations.
This being a Telltale title, the expectation is an adventure game, and this comes very close to the traditional adventure game formula. You must solve puzzles to progress the plot. Unlike the typical adventure game, though, the puzzles are distinct elements in and of themselves, taking the form of brainteasers of various familiar forms, similar to games like Professor Layton. You’ll have the standard “Find the next number in the sequence” type puzzles, along with sliding tiles to block light, sliding tiles to reveal images, rotating rings to arrange symbols, and even placing mathematical equations in order.
The puzzles range from the childishly simple to the exceptionally hard. To help you when you get stuck, you get pieces of gum to be used as hints. This is explained in-game as gum helping you to concentrate. You can use up to three pieces of gum per puzzle, each giving you a progressively stronger hint until the third essentially tells you the solution. Gum is earned by being found stuck to walls and trees and the like… which means that Nelson Tethers’ favorite brand is evidently ABC (Already Been Chewed) Gum. You are assigned a number of stars for your solution to each puzzle, ranging from 0 to 10. Your rating drops for each incorrect answer (which wastes taxpayer dollars) and the number of hints you needed. Puzzles can be replayed once they have been found, but understandably you can’t improve your score, since you already know the solution. Sometimes you will encounter a puzzle that cannot be solved at the moment it is discovered, because you do not yet have all of the pieces.
There are a few gameplay elements I really appreciated. The one that stood out most to me was the method that they used to prevent the usual pixel hunting that many point and click games degenerate into. When you click the mouse, it causes a sort of radar blip to expand outward from where you clicked. If there is an interactive hotspot nearby, it will show up with a helpful icon. Things that can be investigated show up with a magnifying glass. Gum wads are marked with… well, gum wads. Exits and entrances are marked with arrows, puzzles get jigsaw pieces, and people get speech bubbles.
When you open a dialog with a person, you are given a list of topics to discuss. Anything that has been fully explored gets crossed out, and if you aren’t the sort who wants to work though all available options, the topics that lead to a puzzle are marked with a puzzle piece.
By the very nature of a puzzle game, this doesn’t have much in the way of replay value. The presence of the hint system means that play time can vary greatly, depending on how dedicated you are to figuring it out on your own. On the plus side, beating the game does unlock a pair of additional puzzles, and allows you to revisit any other puzzle in the game, even ones you may not have found during the playthrough.
When I saw the nature of the visuals in this game, I had anticipated there to be no spoken dialog. Simple, stylized visuals usually go hand in hand with subtitles and mumbling. Such was not the case. Each character speaks all of his or her lines, and the performances are all fairly decent. The setting of the game is the Northern Midwest, an area that lends itself to some very distinctive accents, including Scandinavian and the stereotypical “don’cha know” Midwest speak. There weren’t any standout performances for me, but they all did the job well enough to make the game work.
This is the sequel to the first Puzzle Agent game, and picks up a short while after the first one left off. A town called Scoggins, Minnesota has been experiencing a rash of disappearances. The main character, Nelson Tethers of the FBI’s Puzzle Division, had come to town in the last game to help get the eraser factory running again, but the case had too many unanswered questions, so he cashed in his vacation time to investigate on his own. You quickly find yourself in what appears to be an extended Twin Peaks parody, where the mysterious goings on begin to reveal links between disappearances and a cult known as the Brotherhood of Scoggins and a local legend about forest gnomes known as “the hidden people.”
Everything is presented in a very lighthearted manner, and takes a number of zany turns along the way. Considering it is simply the framing device for a sequence of puzzles, I would say it went far above and beyond my expectations.
If you like puzzles of all sorts, Puzzle Agent wraps up a long list of them in a clever and uniquely presented story that should give you a few hours of enjoyment. If you don’t like puzzles? Well, then you should probably avoid a game with a name like “Puzzle Agent.”
8.2 / 10: A fun challenge for puzzle enthusiasts.