Teslagrad is a nonlinear 2d puzzle platform game where different electromagnetic powers are used to enable you, a young boy, uncover the secrets hidden in the long abandoned Tesla Tower. Set in a steampunk styled version of old Europe, you must traverse through a ton of hand drawn environments as you unearth the story of a once forgotten conspiracy.
Teslagrad should be used as the example when proving that video games are art. I was instantly grabbed by how beautiful every hand drawn scene and character was. Another thing that is hugely impressive in this game is the story, not that it is the most amazing or intelligent story ever but that this game is story driven yet does not narrate at any point. In fact the only words used in the game are in the title screen and at the credits. The story is told by your interpretation of the beautful images you see on screen and, where a bit more is needed, by wordless puppet shows. Reading a book can generate a thousand pictures in the mind of the reader but looking at a picture can also generate a thousand words to the viewer and the art style and the steampunk like designs scream out adjectives in to your mind making the story clear and cohesive which is hugely impressive and worthy of mention. Well done Rain Games.
mentioned, Teslagrad is a platform game and a puzzle game. In terms of platforming, it is as you would expect with jumps and leaps to perform to make it through each level along with vines and ladders to climb to reach higher parts. Making your way around these platforms is all about exploring a room, much like the dungeon explorer type of games. You enter a room, take a look around and will find an exit or multiple exits. Use your basic platforming abilities to jump and climb your way around a room to reach an exit and explore the next room. Simple enough right? Well, it would be but that is where the puzzles come in. They are introduced quite early on and, while there are plenty of areas where basic platform skills will be able to help you reach your goal, as the game progresses, it becomes all about the puzzles. The puzzles work by using different electromagnetic powers gained by the boy. You start off with none, then eventually gain a pair of gloves that allow you to punch part of the scene and turn it either red or blue. The red and blue colours act as positives and negatives so you can either attract two items or platforms to each other or even repel them from each other. Further on, you gain the power to dash through certain solid objects or dangerous electric fences and even further on, you gain the power to encase yourself in blue or red (again positive and negative) which allow you to hover alongside part of the scenery depending on its colouring. With these powers, and more to come, you enter the room and need to figure out the puzzle within to reach the exit you are aiming for. Often these puzzles are quite obvious and relatively straight forward to solve though they are often very taxing in their execution.
It is the execution of the resolution to a puzzle that I found to be the most frustrating element of this game. I would have, and did, expect the puzzles to be difficult to solve but, once you have figured it out, it would be straightforward to make it through the room whereas in Teslagrad, I often found the puzzle to be instantly obvious but then found it would take me attempt after attempt to get through the room due to timings. Essentially, the difficulty in this game is because of the need for precise timing and I do mean precise. Be slightly off and you will often find yourself falling back to the start of the room or to your death. Having to flick between different powers at exactly the right time to try and land on a small platform or ledge just to accidentally overshoot it by a centimetre over and over again isn’t fun. Figuring out how to get to that platform in a puzzle game usually means success but in Teslagrad, it is only the beginning. Sometimes, the puzzles almost felt more like a long chain of combos in a fighting game where you really just need to press the exact button at the exact right time to get out. Having said that, I have found that I eventually make it through each time and it is quite satisfying when you do make it. One thing the game does do to help out with this is very generous giving of checkpoints which are basically given at the beginning of every new puzzle. This is important as if the constant failing of sections meant you had to replay large sections of previously completed puzzles, I would have turned it off very early in the game. Instead your restart is almost always the beginning of your current puzzle so you just retry and retry, often improving and making it further each time. There is only really one time the checkpoints feel inadequate and that is with bosses. You get a boss fight every now and then and these are quite similar to platform bosses of older games like Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog. You usually have to hit the boss three times and each time you do, they retaliate with an attack or two which are aimed at you or the environment so you need to dodge their attack and, when they destroy part of the environment, dodge while balancing precariously on ever decreasing platforms.
The problem with the boss fights is they are really quite difficult and you die instantly with one hit or fall and you will fail repeatedly and, it is really annoying when you have been fighting one for ages and have hit him twice, get hit once and have to restart over and over. Maybe it is just me and my lack of skill with these sorts of games but it is crying out for a checkpoint part way through fighting some of these bosses. The bosses do look great though and they don’t feel like they are put in just for the challenge. Pretty much everything in the game feels like an integral part of the unfolding story.
There are also collectables throughout in the form of 36 scrolls. These are a fine example of how everything in the game has a point though as each one of these scrolls is missable yet when found, contain a single, beautiful image which tells the back story of the game. They are key to understanding what is going on though they are very hard to find. Reaching them is often just another puzzle that is easy to complete but their locations are not hinted at in any way so I don’t see how anyone could find them all without either a lot of luck or an external guide.
All in all, Teslagrad is a strange beast of a game in that it is so cleverly made, interesting, often satisfying and generally quite beautiful and because of these things it should attract a wide audience but the gameplay seems aimed at the “expert gamer” market, rather than the casual user and I would imagine many casual users will get frustrated enough to give up on it before they experience the real joy of the complete story.
A lovely game with lots of clever and intriguing ideas but I found myself much more impressed with the story and how it looks then actually enjoying playing the game. People with more skill than me will undoubtedly find it a joy to play and a lot less frustrating but, even for the more casual gamer, if you like a story and like a developer who dares to be creative in their storytelling, there is enough here to make you want persevere and try to get better and make it further just to hear more of the story.