Division of Puzzle Research: Puzzle Agent Series Review

Division of Puzzle Research: Puzzle Agent Series Review

The Puzzle Agent series consists of two games from Telltale stemming from them collaborating with animator Graham Annable that feel like watered-down Professor Layton games.

The series follows FBI agent Nelson Tethers as he investigates the shutdown of eraser factory in Scoggins, Minnesota. If that doesn’t sound odd enough for the federal government, Tethers works in the Puzzle Research division, and one of his co-workers is in the Vegetable Crimes division. With that said, Puzzle Agent is a modern callback to the silliness of the pre-Walking Dead Telltale game. Considering Annable worked on the Sam and Max games, this vibe makes sense, and the understated humor is what motivated me through the slower parts of the game.

Now like I said, the structure is identical to the Professor Layton games. You get straightforward story bits bookending logic puzzles of all sorts. So let’s break it down the same way.

The story is fun and quirky. Tethers is investigating the eraser factory because the ones from Scoggins are the unnamed President’s favorite. The townspeople are fascinated with puzzles and gnomes, unusual and slightly chilling for this small and snowy town. Those little lawn ornaments have never been as creepy as when they start showing up in unlikely places–and not always inanimate.

At best, the story progression is awkward. The dialogue and voice-acting is slow, and though that suits the small town, it’s not necessary. If the scrolling text in the speech bubbles went faster, I could forgive the slower voice overs. It especially doesn’t help that much of the dialogue sets the tone more than it furthers the story, making this molasses-style pace all the more impossible.

Both Puzzle Agent and its sequel feel less like two separate games and more like a two-chapter story, the first act being the first game and the other two in the second. The first ends with zero resolution, and the second ends with way too much.

Still I enjoyed the characters and the writing, my problems lying mainly with the chosen delivery method.

Now the puzzles were great though the game’s interface for them was a frustrating miss. You get your jigsaws, your ordering events, your who-ate-what dinner parties, your birds smuggling gnomes–all your average puzzle game offerings. They are all fun though sometimes so easy you don’t realize the obvious answer. Other times you can’t figure it out because the puzzle is vaguely worded.

This is the only time I feel it’s necessary to talk about the two games separately instead of as a unit. The first Puzzle Agent‘s puzzles are perfect. At no point were they unfair or poorly worded. Any time I got stuck or second-guessed myself, it was my fault. All you needed was the information the game gave you, your brain, and maybe a piece of paper if your spatial reasoning skills are shit like mine. After these great puzzles, the second game has a poor choice of words and insists you know concepts like binary code, astronomy, and calculus. Seriously, I only made it through one of the game’s puzzles because I knew dx comes after an integral sign, and googling binary code for the number four.

The frustrating thing both puzzles had in common though was their awful choice of an interface. At no point can you see both the rules and the solving area. If you’re solving a logic puzzle with five constraints, you better write those down or be okay with constantly flipping between the two screens. I used so much scrap computer paper to save on this. You solve the puzzles in a manila envelope, so it wouldn’t be hard to fathom you putting multiple pieces of paper beside each other. Ugh.

Overall, I don’t think these were great puzzle games, but they were a nice way of packaging some fun logic puzzles. Instead of feeling like a fleshed-game despite so few mechanics like the Professor Layton series manages every time, Puzzle Agent and Puzzle Agent 2 manage to make you cross your fingers you’re about to run into another puzzle before you’re bored or the game crashes.

Stay tuned.


Floating Frenzy: Gravity Ghost Review

Floating Frenzy: Gravity Ghost Review

Gravity Ghost is a physics-based puzzle platformer with an art style and tone that would hit even the Grinch in the feels.

The game follows a young girl named Iona around space as she tries to find her pet fox. Along the way you contact multiple animal guardians and deliver spirits to their woodland creature bodies. While exploring the universe, you’re also treated to flashbacks from Iona’s life. She lived on a rural island with her parents and siblings and was hard to tame. She spent all her time in the woods and was interested in what a local called “space geometry”. These are the first of a few tidbits that draw parallels between her life on earth and her journey through the universe. Though the premise and narrative are simplistic from the start, some moments will still knock you over flat. After finishing the game, I might have laid on the floor with my dog crying. Fortunately there is no photographic proof, so we will instead leave it as a…possibility.

The art style is even more heartbreaking, but in a good way. The contrast between the earth tones of the real world and the neon lights of space helps create the grounded and ethereal tone that run alongside to each other. The use of chalk drawing adds the nostalgic glow of childhood and a style I haven’t seen before. This game placed as much importance on art design as mechanics, and it paid off with a unique experience.

But what are those mechanics?

Essentially all you do is float around and collect stars. You pick up little star chunks to make your hair grow longer, and then use your mane to transform planets into Earth, Wind, and Fire–ahem, sorry–earth, wind, and fire. And that’s really it. No dying, no fighting, just endless anti-gravity frolicking on a serene and safe acid trip.

This gem is only a few hours long and perfect for relieving some stress in a way that’s different from other games. Instead of relying on the controversial concept of catharsis, the design lets you enjoy failure by orbiting around the wrong planet in peace. Though short, it has great replay value. Not because of a lot of content or procedurally-generated levels, but because the existing levels never lose their charm. The gameplay is a great pick-me-up and the story for when you need a good cry.

Stay tuned.

A Family Curse: Blackwell Legacy Review

A Family Curse: Blackwell Legacy Review

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was excited to find more to play from Wadget Eye Games, the publisher of A Golden Wake, and I had Blackwell Legacy waiting in my library. Like the former, it is a traditional point-and-click only this time with a lot more ghost hunting and dense puzzle solving.

The story revolves around Rosangela Blackwell whose aunt has just passed away. She grew up with practically no one and took care of herself, but all the pity in the world wouldn’t make me want to spend more than a short elevator ride with her. And although she works part-time for a newspaper, and her social anxiety and pessimism is exaggerated to the greatest degree.  Also her character traits are the reason for the impossibility of the game’s very first puzzle. Rosangela refuses to approach her neighbor in the park because she is surrounded by people, so you have to walk back and forth until you’ve tangled the leash of the neighbor’s dog around the lamp-post it’s tied to. This forces her neighbor to leave the crowd of three whole people to talk to her. For a title that presents itself with 2-D environments, this 3-D logic kind of solution is hard to figure out–especially in the very first puzzle! I’ve said before your success in adventure games is often based in your ability to interpret the developer’s kooky logic, but I was hoping for some kind of learning curve–not an impossible wall to climb. Here you can’t even use prior knowledge to understand. After nearly a half-hour of going everywhere and clicking on everything, I had to look it up. It’s an ego blow to avid point-and-click fans.

After this confusing start, Rosangela gets a call from her editor asking her to report on the suicide of a local college student right after she discovers her family’s ghostly secret. I won’t get into the details because it is explained fully so far into the game that I don’t want to ruin it, but mainly she comes from a line of mediums and has a paranormal partner. Your goal is what you’d expect: help the restless spirits make peace.

As for the rest of the frustration, I was the only person to blame. Not doing things in the right order will keep dialogue options from activating. I would miss objects I could click on, leaving me without the literal pieces of the puzzle. It hurt to have so much trouble with these because they were often my favorite mechanics. For example, the notepad with all of my information and what I use to talk to all the NPCs made me feel like a real reporter and detective, and if there is something I love, it is to live out my Nancy Drew dreams. Once I finally figured it out, it made sense, but I didn’t get the full immersion I was hoping for due to my confusion.

Between the story and the mechanics, the story is what shone here, or what there was of it. I expected the length, but it felt like a tutorial or prologue to a game. I got enough time to get to know the two main characters and the basic style. A series with five games over eight years, and it feels like the developers were already planning sequels. Unlike the common cash grab motive you suspect with many companies, here it is as if they knew they had a greater story to tell. I just wish a little more of it was realized ahead of time and put in the first installment. And the side characters were flatter than the coast. They were either caricatures or bland with few exceptions. The recently deceased collegiate’s roommate was great–a typical anti-establishment shell filled with normal and varied human reactions. I caught her in a small lie, and her defenses crumbled, turning her into a real person. The same isn’t true for the others. The RA was nothing but a vehicle for jokes about guys with girl names. The girls at the center of the mystery were all empty canvases with one trait a piece to give them a semblance of personality–and even the choice to give them any characteristics serves the mechanics more than the story.

I know it sounds like I didn’t enjoy the game, but I did. I didn’t get enough time to truly enjoy the good parts, and I don’t have any more games from the series waiting in my Steam library. I highly recommend playing it, but maybe try to get the series all at once; then you can get a fuller experience. But if you are happy with a three-hour introduction to the world, go right ahead and try Blackwell Legacy. It’s great fun.

Stay tuned.

Killing Him Loudly: Part 2

Killing Him Loudly: Part 2

This game’s difficulty is growing exponentially for me and is making me remember that science has never been my friend.

I grew up with puzzles. I had loads of workbooks and puzzle anthologies that I would sit with for hours. I would connect all of the dots, fill in all of the numbers, and solve all of the word searches–that’s my expertise. What isn’t seems to be real-time execution of solutions. Kill the Bad Guy has made me remember that physics-based puzzles are by no means where my talents lie. The only ones I ever managed to play with any competency were the flash games where the number of solutions were limited, and I usually quit if the mechanics or levels opened up. Also seems like a relevant time to mention that Angry Birds can kiss my ass.

There was one level where the best solution was simple–saw down a tree and wait for the perfect time to push it onto the bad guy. I think I spend a half hour on this level trying to time this perfectly and started to think that maybe I was doing it the wrong way. A video walkthrough just showed me what I had thought I was doing, only a millisecond off. It took a dozen more tries to get it correct. This is a game where hints, cheats, and walkthroughs are useless after a certain point because you still have to be able to execute it perfectly.

It also gets more difficult because after ten levels, stealth becomes more a factor. So much for my “quick and dirty” approach from last week. Here you have to take security cameras, policemen, and innocent bystanders into account. The game will sometimes give you twenty different objects to associate and use for assassination, but only a few can be utilized without detection; even fewer leave civilians unscathed. There’s a machine in some levels that–for reasons that cannot possibly comply with the city’s code–shoot ninja stars at your discretion once it is powered up. More time than I can count has it flown out at top speed, decapitated my target, and then slain a police officer. You’d think the solid impact of a person’s neck would slow it down a little. But then again, me and science don’t always agree.

The riddles have become more obtuse for more reasons than one. A few examples, if you will:

“It’s thanks to him that I got this job. Sent him my full appreciation!”

Here is a secondary objective that I completed but cannot figure out why. I killed him by blowing open a man hole with a geyser, sending him flying. Now that is the only way I saw to kill him, meaning I don’t know why that would be the answer to the puzzle. My only rationalization was that I made him “full” with water, but that contradicts my previous statement. If anyone out there knows about this level, please let me know before I get dizzy from the circles I’m running in over it. This is one that is so vague it is hard to relate it any way to the level’s environment, making it a lucky guess like I did.

And another one:

“That one deserved the electric chair for sleeping with my mom!”

Now this one was obvious after observing the level–there’s a wire and a fire hydrant which means electrocution–but it was next to impossible to kill him this way. The straightforward method was to kill him with a sabotaged parked car. This one is more difficult in another way–easy to figure, hard to complete. You had to reroute him for him to go anywhere near the water and placing the blockade a millimeter too far to the left and he walks around it. It is unpredictable when he will act like a normal human being and when he will act like a Sim. Either he realizes that a dirty dinner plate can never fully block your path or you stand there until you piss yourself and die.

And one last one?

“A real killer doesn’t set himself any limits.”

This example is a whole new kind of objective. These have nothing to do with the murder. It is a separate task that needs to be done in conjunction with setting up the perfect crime. In this level, there were a few blockades around the town that needed to be moved–that’s it. But it took me a few tries to realize that this one had nothing to do with the way of killing.

Now I was planning on finishing this game this weekend, but with the increasingly difficult levels and thirty more to go, it’s going to take me a couple more days to do. Stay tuned!

Killing Him Loudly: Part 1

Killing Him Loudly: Part 1

So my original plan was to start playing and covering Dragon Age: Origins, but then I spent two hours trying to decide on my character. So instead, let’s talk about the best murder simulator since The Sims.

Kill the Bad Guy is a puzzle game where you are tasked with–as you might have guessed from the title–assassinating different bad guys in the world using your environment. I’m not entirely sure who I play, whether it is an invisible ninja who can teleport all over the environment or a god-like creature who gets a kick out of smiting people in Final Destination-style ways; it’s only important that you are all-powerful, the way I like it.

The graphics are simple and entirely white with the exception of the usable objects in the level and the target himself. You click on the various items and figure out which can interact and which can be broken. It starts off simple with you activating a car to go out of control when he walk in front of it, splattering his blood all over the side of a building. As the levels progress though, you are given more ways to kill him with pieces of the city. The most satisfying was when I could bust a gas line and then set it on fire. For the longest time, I only noticed the lighters and could not figure out what I was supposed to do. I’d try to block his path with them, but then he would run away in fear. Then I finally realized I could interact with these pipes crawling up the side of two different buildings. You have to set it alight right as he is walking through so he catches on fire and runs around until he dies.

What makes this the most fun is how the game is all violence with minimal gratuity. I’m not squeamish, but I do tend to feel uneasy with blood in games. Maybe it’s from growing up on cartoon games, but whenever I can turn off blood in the settings, I do. Here the only realistic violence is right when he dies and his blood splatters. It’s so cartoony though, and all of the villains are identical, so it let’s me have fun with the assassinations without feeling sick. I mean, you even get extra points for spilt blood, and I’m still cool with it; that’s a feat in itself.

The scoring system is similar to most puzzle games with self-contained levels where you have so many stars for how well you do except instead of the stars representing a score threshold, each one represents the completion of a different task. You get a star if you finish the level in one day–the equivalent of one try–if you find the passport and the target’s tooth after it goes flying from his body, and if you complete the secondary objective.

But let’s break a few of these down because they are what make the game a little bit more complex. Though it is simple, this is where the different layers come in.

Both finding the passport and the tooth act as a timed hidden object puzzle. You must find the document while simultaneously setting up the environment for the bad guy’s assassination. To get all five stars you also have to do this during the first day. You then have about five seconds after the guy dies to find the tooth. You can see the trajectory as it flies away from his body but are still crunched for time as you hunt all over the barren city sector.

Then the secondary objectives act as a riddle. Each one is vague–almost an oversimplified version of the Riddler’s environmental scan puzzles in the Arkham games–only pushing you in the direction of the way it’s wants the murder to go down. Some are fairly easy to guess after looking the level. I mean, you’d have to go out of your way not to kill them the way you’re asked. For example, one is, “They say water isn’t a good conductor. Let’s see, shall we?” Then there are fire hydrants you can rig and power lines you can cut, making the best way pretty clear from the start. The only time I killed him every other way was when I accidentally cut the wire too early, and it hit him instead of the stream I had made in the street.

You are also rewarded extra points for speed and how much blood there is, encouraging you to play quick and dirty. This is counter-intuitive to how I think of any game with assassination, but for this, it fits.

Now I can’t say if I’ll finish this up over the weekend or if I’ll get a real start to Dragon Age. Right now I’m curling up in bed with Phoenix Wright, and pretending my work week never happened. Stay tuned.