Untethered from Reality
Anyone who’s played the Professor Layton games knows they’re good—so good, in fact, that the formula they use could support an entire genre. Just as “Doom clones” are now “first-person shooters” and “GTA clones” are now “sandbox games,” perhaps “Professor Layton clones” will someday be “puzzle adventures.”
Unfortunately, Telltale Games’ Puzzle Agent 2 won’t help make that happen. Of all the things Layton does right, Puzzle Agent manages to copy only the basics, making it not really a “clone,” but a second-rate knockoff. Here, you’ll walk around, talk to people, click randomly on the screen to collect hint coins (which take the form of chewing gum), and solve logic puzzles that are tangentially related to the plot. So far, so Layton. But other than that, it’s a mess.
Whereas the Layton games go for a light, cartoonish vibe, Puzzle Agent 2 tries to combine the Coen Brothers’ Fargo with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks . From the former, we have an overabundance of exaggerated Upper Midwestern accents (specifically, Minnesotan ones with long O’s and an overuse of the phrase “ya know”), coupled with some gruesome scenes. From the latter, we have a tape-recorder-wielding FBI agent who sets out to investigate strange and possibly supernatural happenings in a small town full of oddball people.
This setup could definitely work if handled well; Twin Peaks plus Fargo should make for a very “curious village” indeed. But that’s a very difficult thing to do. Even Twin Peaks and Fargo themselves sometimes made you wonder whether the conversations were intentionally awkward or whether the actors just couldn’t act. In Puzzle Agent 2, there isn’t even a question. The actor who voiced the main character, Agent Tethers, cannot act. He just reads his lines into the microphone. Perhaps he was going for the matter-of-fact way of speaking that Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks had, but he doesn’t get there. The other actors are a mixed bag, but few manage to turn their weird lines into something truly unsettling.
Another element Puzzle Agent 2 botches is the storytelling. If you failed to play the original Puzzle Agent, you’ll want to invest in it (it’s only $5) before starting with the sequel, because you’re pretty much just dropped into the middle of things. Evidently, in the original game, Agent Tethers interacted with Isaac Davner, a foreman at the local eraser factory. Now, Davner is missing, and everyone’s acting as though he never existed. What’s worse, he’s not the only person from the town who’s disappeared of late. What ensues is a difficult-to-follow tale that involves evil gnomes, a bizarre cult, astronauts, eerie dreams, and a variety of oddly behaving local characters. The story unfolds in a basically linear fashion, though you can explore the town outside the story if you want. Most of your conversations go the same way: What do you think of the disappearances? Do you believe in gnomes?
I could forgive all that if the puzzles were great. Unfortunately, they’re not. Whereas the Layton series has super genius Akihiro Hino handling puzzle design, Puzzle Agent 2, well, doesn’t. Most of the puzzles are ridiculously easy, and when they’re hard, the difficulty usually comes from confusing instructions or bad design, not a clever logic trick you have to perform. The instructions are in desperate need of a copy editor, and some puzzles presume a lot of knowledge. For example, one requires you to know pi to ten digits, and another requires you to know binary.
Perhaps the worst problem I encountered was in a puzzle where I had to move electrons along a grid to their receptacles. I didn’t use hints, and therefore didn’t solve the puzzle the way the hint system said to. So, even though I had found a perfectly legitimate solution, the final electron simply refused to move into place; it just sat there below the receptacle, ignoring the arrow I’d placed that told it to move up.
The puzzle types are standard fare, too: What’s the next number in this sequence? Can you get all the animals across the river without one eating the others? Can you assign people to hotel rooms without violating certain conditions (Jane can’t have a room next to John, etc.)? Honestly, if this is all I get out of Puzzle Agent, and there are only about 35 puzzles total, I’d rather just go to a puzzle website for a few hours and skip the story.
The controls are just point-and-click for the most part, and as long as they stick the basics, they work. However, some puzzles require you to click and drag items into place, and even this simple task is a bit too much. Most of the items seem to “stick” if you don’t drag them just right.
One element of Puzzle Agent 2 that actually deserves praise is the art style. The graphics were handled by the artist Graham Annable, who created a world that looks like it was drawn by crayon, with bleak colors to bring out the harsh Minnesota winter. While the writing and acting never make the characters come to life, each of them has a unique look. It’s too bad Annable couldn’t have lent his talents to a more deserving project. Similarly, the music does a great job of bringing out a creepy vibe, only to be brought down by the game’s weaker aspects.
People who love puzzles want more Layton games. Those of us who get sick of Layton’s light and often cheesy atmosphere wouldn’t mind a clone that had a darker story. Unfortunately, Puzzle Agent 2 isn’t the game we’ve been waiting for. It’s bad news that Telltale Games, a leader of the point-and-click genre, saw fit to publish it. If this is what made the cut, were all the other Layton ripoffs even worse? Is it so hard to design a decent variety of puzzles that only Hino can do it?
Perhaps there won’t be a whole genre of “puzzle adventures” after all—not because gamers don’t want one, but because there aren’t enough good puzzles and good stories to go around.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.2 Graphics
This is a big high point for the game. The world looks hand-drawn and bleak, which is perfect for the dark Minnesota setting. 2.8 Control
The game handles pointing and clicking, but stumbles when it comes to clicking and dragging. 3.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The dramatic music helps to create a creepy vibe, though unfortunately it gets no help from the tepid voice acting.E 2.8 Play Value
There are only 35 puzzles, many of them are poorly designed, and the story isn’t too impressive. 3.1 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best