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.