Posted: December 28, 2013
What looks like a children's book is actually a dark story punctuated by challenging puzzles (and sometimes vice-versa).
Puzzle Agent takes place in the morose corners of the Midwest. Sure it's a clichè setting for mystery thrillers, but how this setting is expressed in a "children's book" art form turns that clichè into an interesting contrast. Graham Annable's art profoundly brings the story to life, and what a strange story it is. I say that in a good way.
The main gameplay draw in Puzzle Agent are obviously the puzzles, which are interspersed throughout the game as the story unfolds. The formula is basically narrative-puzzle-narrative-puzzle-narrative reminiscent of the Professor Layton games for the Nintendo DS. No, Puzzle Agent is not a Professor Layton rip off. Both titles are really just video game versions of puzzle story books that anyone born before 1990 grew up with. Also, although this is a Telltale game, this is not really a point-and-click adventure since there are no branching paths. Just keep on clicking the next obvious thing to progress the story.
There are a good variety of puzzles ranging from logic to spatial reasoning. As someone who scored in the 98th percentile of the American standardized test, the SATs, I would say just over half of the puzzles offer a solid challenge for the average Joe. But then again I may have gotten dumber over the years since I sat the SATs, which isn't necessarily an IQ test in the first place. The puzzles that are easy are indeed the weakest aspect of this game, but they're so easy that it can literally take 10 seconds to finish them, getting you straight back into the intriguing narrative or better puzzles. It only gets frustrating when an easy puzzle is a slight variation of a previous one. The game could seriously use less of those rotating tiles, piece fitting and pathfinding puzzles which often can be solved by simple brute force. The piece fitting puzzles in particular are somewhat broken because the pieces automatically latch onto the correct position when in close proximity thereby essentially solving itself for you.
I do like how a few puzzles meld with the narrative. At certain plot points, the game interrupts you midway through solving a puzzle with an animation happening on the puzzle pieces directly, momentarily bringing you back into the story. In one part, someone off-screen steals a puzzle piece while you solve that puzzle. You can't experience narrative like this in puzzle story books. Here Telltale have shown us an example of what they do best: how they can transform traditional forms of media into a better experience through new technologies. I just wish there were more moments like these.
The one other issue I had with a few of the puzzles is that sometimes the rules are vague. For example, one puzzle asked you to determine the winner of a tournament with nothing more than statements made by the contestants. However, the format of the tournament was never mentioned (spoiler alert: it's single-elimination). Another involves fish and food chains, but it was never clear what eats what and whether there can be a fish within a fish within a fish... ya know, fishception. There are 72 puzzles (37 in Puzzle Agent 1 and 35 in 2) and I counted no more than 5 that suffered from ambiguity or outright misses necessary information to be solvable. It's a small percentage so I don't think it's that big of a deal. It just sucks when a brilliant puzzle was spoiled because the rules weren't crystal clear.
Overall, I enjoyed Puzzle Agent's story, art and most of the puzzles. Also, you should know that this review covers Puzzle Agent 1 and 2 since they are each half a game and half a story. Telltale really should've called them Episode 1 and 2.