Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Come For The Puzzles, Stay For The Craziness

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent provides plot plus pointless puzzles.
Author: Aram Lecis
Published: June 16, 2011
You may have heard of Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent before now. The game, created by noted cartoonist Graham Annabel, has been available to the Mac/PC/iOS crowd for the last 9 months, and in fact the sequel is due out in just a few scant weeks. If you have, you've probably heard all the "Twin Peaks" comparisons. While Puzzle Agent does have more than a nod and a wink connection to the David Lynch masterpiece, it's far more comparable to the Professor Layton series on the DS.


Puzzle Agent tells the story of FBI agent Nelson Tether, the top puzzle solver the bureau has. A strange "dream" leads Nelson to the Nordic town of Scroggins in an attempt to find out why the eraser factory (which supplies erasers to the White House) has shut down. I won't divulge the details, but I will say the town is full of quirky residents with delightful accents who won't do much until you solve a puzzle for them, and the writing and humor are up to the usual Telltale standards (excellent). Be forewarned, Puzzle Agent is another episodic game, and this installment doesn't really wrap up the story at all in the end.

Graham Annabel has whipped up some perfect artwork for the game, and the clearly hand drawn characters look like perfect caricatures of the goofy stereotypes at play here. Puzzle Agent runs in almost a stop-motion sort of way (think like one frame per second) that I thought was a product of my outdated hardware when I played on my iPhone, but, surprisingly, is how the game was intended. It's not a bad thing, per say, but at times it did feel like the game was stuttering. There aren't a whole lot of locations in the game, but each of them has a unique charm.

Obviously the core of the game, despite the great story, is the puzzles themselves. Surprisingly, the puzzles are easily the weakest part of Puzzle Agent. There are 37 puzzles in the game, but they all play off the same eight or so basic puzzle themes, and none of them proved to be very difficult at all. They tend toward spatial reasoning puzzles (like lining up pipes, or dividing fields) and there is no randomness or variation, so Puzzle Agent is an one-and-done scenario. Often times the greatest difficulty in any given puzzle is deciphering the directions themselves. If you do get stuck, gum is found stuck all over Scroggins, and chewing a piece will "work Nelsons brain" and provide a hint (or three if you really need them) so you shouldn't ever get really bogged down on any one puzzle.

It's clear Puzzle Agent was developed for something with a touchscreen or mouse, and Telltale didn't do much optimizing for this port. Controlling the game is far more difficult than it has any right to be, especially considering there is no action to speak of. Each screen has a number of hotspots, and you hold down R1 and move the left stick to cycle through them. This same technique is used within the puzzles themselves, and when there are a group of selectable objects clustered together it is obnoxiously difficult to get on the right one. In the map screen you can't tell what location you have highlighted. It's kind of a mess, considering how easy it would be just to have the left stick act like a mouse; instead they chose to emulate a touchscreen.

Even with those flaws, this is still a good game. I'm just not positive this is the best platform for it. The price is pretty steep for a game you can get through in three or four hours and won't ever touch again. Certainly if you've played it on another platform already, there isn't a need to come back. But if you enjoy a good story, don't mind a few easy puzzles, and think you'll be invested in future episodes, Puzzle Agent is worth sharpening a few pencils for.
The Verdict
7.5

A puzzle game that doesn't do puzzles all that great, but does feature a nifty offbeat plot and a world populated with eccentric characters. The art style is eye-catching, but the UI doesn't fit well with the PS3.

7.0Graphics:

The hand drawn everything is really nice, only when things get zoomed in it looks awfully artifacty, like they didn't have very high-res assets to work with.

8.0Sound:

The voice acting is excellent, and other than that, well, it's a puzzle game. What do you want?

4.0Control:

Shockingly poor considering the genre. Telltale chose to awkwardly emulate touchscreen controls, rather than just give us mouse-like control. A grievous error.

7.0Gameplay:

The story? Snappy! The puzzles? Pedestrian. They are just a tad bit too bland and samey and the game is short and has no replay value. Seriously, you better like the story.