Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, WiiU, Xbox One
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Rain Games
Release Date: April 14, 2015

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PS3 Review - 'Teslagrad'

by Brian Dumlao on April 24, 2015 @ 1:30 a.m. PDT

Teslagrad is a puzzle platformer with action elements, where magnetism and other electromagnetic powers are the key to moving throughout the game, and thereby discover the secrets kept in the long-abandoned Tesla Tower.

Sometimes, we take the video game porting process for granted. Big publishers and developers often have enough manpower to simultaneously handle multiple platforms or hire another developer to port the code if the original developer is too busy to do so. Smaller devs and publishers can sometimes do this, but it depends on whether they get enough help, the complexity of their code, or if they're willing to delay a version to achieve release parity. Then there are the few that don't have the manpower to get their game onto as many platforms at the same time and don't want to have someone else port it. Along with dealing with various release outlets per territory, this is what happened with Teslagrad, a game that was released last year on the Wii U and the year before that on the PC. After a few months in the European and Japanese markets, the North American markets can finally see what the fuss is all about.

As an infant, your father left you in your mother's care when he went off to battle. Years pass, and the guards of the kingdom are raiding houses, causing the populace to flee. Your mother, concerned for your safety, sends you away, and you end up in a large tower that's full of danger and strange contraptions. With nothing to lose, you explore the tower and hope to find some answers at the top.

There's more to the story, such as the tale of the kingdom's rise and eventual corruption, but what makes it memorable is how that story is told. There's no dialogue in Teslagrad, either through text boxes or speech. All of your actions tell the current story, while the backstory is told exclusively through drawings and paper figure stage plays. The story beats are clear enough, but this silent form of storytelling is both impactful and artistic, making it a very strong catalyst for seeing the game through to the end.

The playable opening in which you flee your pursuers may make you think that it is a pure platformer, and if that were the case, the game wouldn't really have the best of impressions. The controls are simple enough, since you can only run and climb, but the jumping can feel a bit floaty, and that creates situations where you perform long jumps in areas where short jumps are preferred. Your tendency to grab things automatically at an edge is fine, but your lack of fine-tuned control over the platforming basics leads to a few instances where you get caught through no fault of your own. It isn't completely broken, as you can still make it to the tower, but the floatiness doesn't give you much confidence at the beginning.

Once you reach the tower, Teslagrad really picks up, as you're introduced to the ideas and principles of magnetism, which are represented by the colors red and blue. You quickly discover that like colors repel each other while opposite colors attract. You can also change the colors of some of the magnets and objects with your magnetic glove, the first item you grab in the game. You eventually gain access to other items that let you manipulate magnetism for your benefit. A magnetic cloak gives you any polarity you want, so you can perform magnet-assisted jumps or stick to ceilings. If used in conjunction with some of the larger magnets, it can also help you fly. Later on, you gain access to a staff that lets you change the polarity of an object from a distance. Lest you think the game is only concerned with magnetism, there is one item you gain fairly early that lets you dash around the environment at short distances and even lets you go through both natural and manmade barriers, but only on a horizontal plane.

The game plays out like a Metroidvania title since you have free access to the entire stage instead of being restricted to specific sections at a time. The whole tower is connected, so there are several paths available, but the combination of insurmountable obstacles and your lack of powers act as natural roadblocks. Even with the title's open nature, it does a good job of leading you down a specific path without feeling like you're being forced to do something, a trait that is central to making the Metroidvania formula work.

What the game lacks from the formula is constant combat. For the most part, you're not asked to vanquish enemies, and your encounters often involve trying to avoid conflict since you carry no means of defense. You can use the magnetic staff as a weapon, but you obtain it so late in the game that fighting enemies is a distant secondary objective. You're forced into combat via the various boss fights, but they're infrequent enough that combat feels like a rare occurrence.

In lieu of fighting, Teslagrad is overflowing with puzzles of all types. As mentioned before, magnets play a huge part in this game, but so do electrical barriers. You'll see a number of puzzles that are designed to let you figure out how to manipulate objects via magnetism, so you'll get a clear path to the next area. Some of those puzzles also involve using normally benign enemy contraptions as a means to help you activate switches or traverse areas via magnetic means. Other puzzles require dexterity above all else. Switching your polarity to help clear gaps and using the dash ability to get past barriers is normal, and you'll often need to juggle polarity and dashing to get past electrical floors with long stretches between safe zones. Mixed in with all of this puzzle work are scrolls, which act as keys to reaching the final area when the minimum of 15 is obtained. If you snag all the scrolls, you'll get the alternate ending.

While the experience is substantially improved due to the ingenuity of the puzzles, it is marred by a few things. The control issues in the beginning are gone by the time you reach the tower, but they've been replaced with a slightly unpredictable physics system. No two magnet-assisted jumps are alike, and the activation time between polarities differs enough that some obstacles are conquered by luck rather than a solid, repeatable solution. The game also runs on a one-hit system, where you'll immediately die at the touch of something dangerous. You won't perish from falling from great heights, and you can't get crushed by being sandwiched between two objects, but touching electric barriers, lava, or grazing a lethal enemy always results in death. The infinite lives help, but more often than not, you'll restart an area from the beginning after your death, and that can mean restarting the entire boss battle or a long process in setting up puzzle pieces. With lots of areas that can be tricky to navigate, that one-hit death system can feel discouraging.

For a game that refuses to use voices, the rest of the sound elements have the duty of carrying the game, and fortunately, they do a good job. The effects are crisp, and each sound comes in clearly, from the clanging of metal for changing polarity to the attacks of bosses. The music is melodic but remains mournful yet thoughtful. It isn't depressing, but it is an adventure track that doesn't particularly scream high-octane action or a grand journey ahead, something that works well with the game.

Graphically, Teslagrad is in the same field as some of the more stunning indie games, like Braid and Bastion. The backgrounds have a hand-drawn look that is enhanced with the visible watercolor brushstrokes that provide texture to make some of the drab colors stand out. Contrasting this is the art style of the enemies and main character, whose round features and black oval eyes make them look like old cartoons from the '30s and '40s. Their bright colors serve as standout features, and their animations are mostly smooth, save for a few stunted ones for ambient characters, like crows in some scenes. Added to this mix of styles is the light bloom used for magnets and magnetic pieces, which stand out and make them just as important as everything else in the visual palette. The game falters a bit when transitioning between some areas, as you'll either experience a frame rate drop when going into crowded areas or full-on loading icons when transitioning between areas, stopping an otherwise seamless flow in your exploration.

It may not have perfect physics at play, and the one-hit system can lead to frustration, but Teslagrad is a good game for puzzle platform enthusiasts. The small amount of powers at your disposal makes for some interesting puzzles that test your reflexes and mental abilities, and the story is told in such a way that it makes the simple tale very compelling. The presentation is also very beautiful, even with the small hitches that creep in from time to time. While there is no shortage of puzzle platformers on the PS3, Teslagrad is worth checking out.

Score: 7.5/10

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