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Review: Puzzle Agent

Justin McElroy

We're pretty comfortable with most games that walk a fine line between "inspiration" and "plagiarism." Bullets of Shooting is basically just Explosions of Valor, except set after an apocalypse wrought by space bugs rather than space robots. We all know it -- it just doesn't bother us that much.

What new Telltale adventure Puzzle Agent asks is, "Would you still be as forgiving if the genre was a bit more ... granular? Say, for instance, a collection of puzzles loosely tied together by a point-and-click adventure narrative?"

... So, would you?

Gallery: Puzzle Agent (6/28/10) | 7 Photos

See, Nelson Tethers, the lone employee of the FBI's Department of Puzzle Research, wants to be Professor Layton bad. He's got a search for "affordable top hats" bookmarked on Amazon. He's currently holding auditions for a youthful, plucky ward. He doesn't have a British accent, but I'm betting he's already booked a few dialect classes.

None of this is mentioned in the game, of course, but it couldn't be more obvious as you play. Tethers has been led to a remote locale (Scoggins, Minnesota standing in for St. Mystere) where the oddball, curiously puzzle-obsessed residents appear to be hiding a larger, supernaturally-tinged secret. Tethers, like Layton, gradually uncovers that mystery by solving puzzles hidden throughout Scoggins, relying on collected hint coins chewing gum when stymied.

The problem is that the puzzles Tethers bumps into just aren't as fun or clever as those in Layton's world, and they suffer from too much repetition. One such puzzle required me to build a path for Tethers' snowmobile that would safely get him from A to B by bouncing him on ice between angled logs. There's no trick, you just have to slowly plot a course that works. Not only is it less brain teaser than geometry class problem, but this type of challenge pops up no fewer than three times in the game's three-hour span. That's the worst repetition offender, and there are some good puzzles to be had, but more often than not I finished a puzzle not feeling smart -- just persistent.

One would hope then that Puzzle Agent would be able to hang its hat on the charm of its lead and the denizens of Scoggins, but there are some significant problems there too. Tethers may be a genius with puzzles, or be heroic or clever or cowardly or have passion about ... anything, but you don't get a sense of that from his behavior. As it stands, he's just kind of a schlub. I wanted desperately to like him, I just wasn't given much reason to.

In fact, a similar critique could be leveled against the whole of the game's tone. It wants to be quirky, funny, oddball, mysterious and a little unnerving, but it never goes far enough in any of those directions to be particularly effective. What you're left with feels like Brett Ratner trying to make a David Lynch movie, and the result is unfortunately mushy, even more so when compared to the specific, deliberate charm of Layton.

Perhaps, considering the industry's rampant "borrowing," it's a little unfair to complain about Puzzle Agent feeling gratingly uninspired. But Telltale forgot one of the most basic rules: If you're going to crib enough to be compared to a franchise as solid and beloved as Professor Layton, that's got to be a comparison you want to invite, and one to which you can stack up well. Poor Nelson Tethers just can't.

Maybe it's the hat.

This review is based on the PC review code of Puzzle Agent provided by Telltale.

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