Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
True episodic content operates on a simple concept: having a reliable core that can be systemically updated with new content for every new release. In Sam & Max’s case this was a point-and-click world that could easily be stuffed with new objects and locations, similarly for Monkey Island, and as for Half-Life… oh, yes, forget that example. The point is, between releases, it’s the code that stays the same and it’s the artists and designers that do most of the work. As it should be.
Puzzle Agent 2 seems to have taken that philosophy a little too much to heart. Whereas the narrative and art direction remain its strong suit, the quality of the catalogue of puzzles has taken a distinct step backwards. Although there was a certain amount of repetition of concept in Agent Tether’s first outing, it was only notable in the manner that with each repeat visit the challenge became steeper. In our return to Scoggins there is no such air.
Favourites such as chronologically arranging photos, bouncing Tether’s (or derivatives) around a map, and resource splitting all return in abundance. In themselves, none should be considered as being bad puzzles; they simply outstay their welcome primarily because of a lack of variety and evolution from their basic premise. By the end it felt as though none of the puzzles could surprise you, so heavily reliant as they were on certain types, which is a disappointment considering the comparative variety seen here before.
When Telltale does strike out into more traditional number or logic puzzles, they generally prove successful. The way they are dressed up cannot disguise the lack of pizzazz that accompanies such things and many will have you reaching for the hint button, but there’s a purity to them that many of the templated puzzles lack.
Stringing these conundrums together we find a plot that continues to embrace the spirit of both Twin Peaks and the X-Files. Unhappy at the resolution of his previous trip to Scoggins, Minnesota, Agent Tethers returns to the snowbound town in an effort to tie up some loose ends, seek out missing friends, and crack the secrecy over the Hidden People.
Though having played the previous Puzzle Agent is not a prerequisite, enough familiar faces return and old twists are mentioned so as to possibly alienate those unfamiliar with Tether’s prior case. Most of the town’s locations are revisited but an equal number of new neighbourhoods do open up so as not to make it feel like an exercise in asset recycling. Residing within the new districts are some of the more notable of the town’s residents, including sassy foreign puzzlers and eminent researchers, adding a touch of glamour to the otherwise archetypal townsfolk.
With each location and character, the animation style continues to bring the adventure to life in a manner that PA’s stable-mates may have lacked. Graham Annable’s newspaper-strip, raw pencil edges combined with the range of outlandish expressions that can only be achieved with sprites give greater edge to the cinematic direction. Be it the guilty expressions playing over the local hotelier’s face, or the creeping horror overtaking our chief protagonist, the subtleties and the overall effect would probably not have had the same impact if rendered in a more polygonal fashion.
The tale itself continues on apace, letting go of the handbrake on occasion to allow the writer a dip into the absurd. Despite a natural progression, the contrast from what unfolded previously is one that I can see splitting opinion. Themes are ever more reminiscent of an X-Files episode out of control but still the reins are held tightly so as not to stray too far into madness.
With such a turn the question is surely going to be asked: where will Tethers go from here? Once again the case could be considered wrapped up, although as with all good shows there’s definitely wriggle room for a sequel.
Should that happen, however, it’s clear that Scoggins is in need of rejuvenation. The stage and players may be ripe for mystery, given the dark forests and secretive community, but that aspect mostly carried Puzzle Agent this time around. If the quality levels were to continue their decline then it is doubtful whether screenplay alone will be seen as enough for number three.
It’s not uncommon for episodic gaming to take a dip in the second outing, as designers find their feet with what can and can’t be achieved, and feelers are sent out in order to find out just what the public wants from further iterations. The positive is that concerns can always be righted quickly, with the following episode already under construction and straining for a release date.
In Puzzle Agent’s case, the lessons are simple: carry on with narrative core, but next time pack in a far greater broader range of brainteasers.