US: 13 Dec 2013
Teslagrad is a little game that oozes brilliance from its every virtual corner. It’s a 2D “Metroidvania” game, meaning the core gameplay involves you exploring an environment looking for items that open paths to larger environments.
The animation and characters are immediately impressive—hand-drawn 2D sprites reminiscent of a classic Disney movie, able to express a range of emotion with their big black eyes and fluid movements. There’s a lot left unsaid in Teslagrad. The little boy you control doesn’t even have a name as far as I can tell, but the game still hits every emotional note that it goes for thanks to its deceptively simple art. Every time that the boy climbs a wall or pushes a crate, his wince evokes just the right amount of pain and struggle to remind you of his sad situation.
And it is a sad situation indeed. In contrast to its beautiful art, Teslagrad is a dark game that doesn’t shy away from some ugly themes. It begins with your city being sacked by an invading force. You run out the back door of your house while your mother yells at you to run from the second floor. Before she can escape, you’re chased away by a burly and tenacious soldier who follows you through the city, across the rooftops, and across a bridge into some sort of castle.
Here the game opens up but refuses to provide any direction, allowing you to wander from room to room searching for a purpose. In lesser hands this could be annoying, but Teslagrad knows exactly what it’s doing: It’s actually funneling you along a predictable path with subtle cues and obstacles. You may feel lost, but the game never lets go of your hand. It slyly guides you down a path that leads to a pair of magnetic gloves, and the game’s core puzzle mechanic.
With these special gloves, the boy can punch certain blocks to turn them red or blue, colors that represent the block’s magnetic polarity. As such, red is repelled by red and attracted to blue and vice versa. You use this ability to shift platforms around, opening up new paths through the castle. Eventually you’ll find another piece of equipment that gives the boy himself a magnetic quality, allowing you to shoot him into the air and stick him to the ceiling.
The puzzles achieve that perfect balance of creativity and confusion. The game never explicitly explains any of its mechanics, so each new room feels intimidating and challenging. You’re forced to experiment on the world around you in order to understand it. Again, in lesser hands, this could be a recipe for frustration, but Teslagrad ramps up its difficulty at a steady rate. Each puzzle room is smartly designed to teach you the basic concepts of a new ability, then it twists those basic concepts in unexpected ways. By the end, you’ll be combining abilities and environmental obstacles in creative ways that make you feel clever. Teslagrad is the kind of game that always seems to have some new trick up its sleeve.
And it does all this without a single spoken or written word. Everything, from the mechanics to the story, is expressed through the visual environment. Murals and paintings show you how to use the gloves, and automated puppet shows communicate the history of this towering castle—the sad fate of its previous occupants, the origins of your magnetic equipment, and even a larger history of the world around you.
It’s the attention to visual detail and consistency that elevates Teslagrad into something special. For example, the automated puppet shows start up whenever you get near, but then they’ll continue to play on an infinite loop as long as you’re in the vicinity. It’s a subtle touch that reminds you that there’s nobody controlling the show behind the scenes. Ironically, the lively show reminds you just how dead the rest of the castle is. Also, little polarity robots roam the castle halls, changing blocks from red to blue, causing platforms to move back and forth, and the magnetic systems are an integral part of this world. They’re not just meaningless puzzle mechanics.
The only place where the game stumbles is with its boss fights. On the one hand, they’re well-designed to make creative use out of all the abilities that you’ve acquired thus far. On the other hand, figuring out those “creative uses” is a matter of monotonous trial and error. You’ll spend several deaths figuring out an attack pattern and how to hurt the boss, but once you do hurt it, the pattern changes and your experiments must begin anew. The kicker is that there are no mid-boss checkpoints, so every death sends you back to the start. You’ll play the first 30 seconds of every boss fight over and over again ad nauseam. This is bearable for most of the game as the boss fights are fairly short, but one giant laser-shooting eye in particular single-handedly tarnishes all of Teslagrad.
It’s a long fight, and as you progress, the ground itself changes to become more dangerous. You’ll have a split-second to take in these changes before you die and start the battle again. Sure, you’ll get better with repetition, but it’s a mind-numbing process playing the same 60 seconds of game over and over again just for the opportunity to see a half-second of something new. You’d be forgiven for quitting and never looking back.
Other than the boss fights, Teslagrad is a game with a simple concept and a masterful execution. It has a beautiful art style, great controls, brilliant puzzles, excellent level design, and a story that dares to hint rather than explain. It’s a damn shame that this otherwise great game seems determined to drive you away.