To many, Telltale is the king of not only the point-and-click adventure, but episodic gaming as well. With their work on Sam & Max and Tales of Monkey Island, the developer has proven themselves capable of pumping out regular content and hitting release dates better than almost anyone else in the industry. One thing they aren't known for, however, is moving outside of their episodic point-and-click adventure style. That's not really a problem, per say, just a statement; no one complains that Valve and Bungie stick to making first-person shooters, either, it's just what they do. It's because of this that their most recent release, Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent, is so unique.
The release is part Telltale's Pilot Program, an change in their way of development. Instead of committing to an entire series before releasing the first game, they're planning to first release a pilot to test the waters, and to see if it's something people seem to want. They say it will allow them to take more risks, and try new things that they otherwise wouldn't be able to attempt. There's no doubt that Puzzle Agent is a step in a different direction for the publisher, though it's one that I hope to see taken again.
Developed in coordination with indie comic artist Graham Annable, Puzzle Agent is definitely something different. Besides featuring a unique, illustrated art style, it also has a much different tone than their typical games. While maintaining the Telltale style of humor, it's a dark story, bordering on horror at times. It follows Nelson Tethers of the FBI’s Office of Puzzle Investigations as he's sent into the field for the first time in years. Apparently, an eraser plant in Scoggins, Minnesota has ceased production, and inquiries as to the cause have returned nothing but strange puzzles. While this usually wouldn't be something the FBI deals with, Scoggins Erasers are the preferred erasers of the White House, meaning it's an issue of national security. Or something.
Upon arriving in Scoggins, Nelson finds a town full of people who don't want to talk, leading him to believe that something is amiss. He's able to get some help, however, and it's usually in the form of puzzles. Puzzle Agent is obviously inspired by the Professor Layton series, with minor point-and-click adventure elements tied in to make things feel more fluid. Some of the puzzles have minor, practical uses to the story, such as guiding Nelson through the forest without hitting certain points, while others are more arbitrary. For as great as it is to see another developer attempt what the Layton series has perfected, it's a bit of a double edged sword. Anyone going in and expecting a game up to par with Level-5's DS series is going to be disappointed by the lack of puzzles. This isn't the fault of Telltale, mind you, just an issue of a small pond with an incredibly big fish.
On their own, most of the puzzles found in Puzzle Agent are generally entertaining, with some bordering on brilliance, and others dipping down into frustration. There's very little punishment for incorrect guesses and a rewarding hint system, but it's a shame that they need to be used as much as they do. To make things even more confusing, the game doesn't actually explain why a correct answer is, indeed, correct. There were times where I literally had no idea how to go about solving a puzzle, leading to me guessing until stumbling upon a correct answer. After being rewarded my points, I still had no idea what I had done right, and really wish that the game would have explained how the puzzle was solved, either to reaffirm my methods or explain what I was missing. Other times, it really feels as though one or two extra guesses was necessary, something that wouldn't be as much of an issue if the game explained how the correct answer should have been come upon.
Issues with the puzzles are infrequent, though, and much of the game is spent enjoying the story and fantastic cast of characters. Every person in the story feels different, and it takes little time to really become involved in Nelson's story. Finding out the cause of the accident at Scoggins Erasers and learning about the history of the town is utterly fascinating, and something that I would hate to see end with this first game.
When the ending does roll around, it's a bit more abrupt than expected, and leaves plenty of questions open and room for further explanation. Or, it could be the end of the Puzzle Agent series. The way Telltale tied together the story is somewhat brilliant, even if it's not entirely fulfilling. They've said that games in the Pilot Program would be turned into full series depending on the reception to the first game, and that they're set up to have the transition go quickly and smoothly. Hopefully everyone else likes this game as much as I did, since I'm ready for a return trip to Scoggins, Minnesota as soon as it will have me.