A few hours in
So hey, my second run went much better than my first! With my new-found knowledge vis-à-vis the importance of grue avoidance, I managed to stay alive on Level 1 much easier, and for much longer. There were monsters, of course, mutants and zombies and more mutants, but I daresay they were nothing that my knife, my pistol, and the sticky-grenade launcher I picked up almost immediately couldn’t handle.
I wandered the halls of the research facility, fighting monsters and grabbing loot. I found more of those weird pink boxes, which I now assume are supposed to be computer terminals: using them provides me with neat little snippets of world-building lore.
The first level was large, quite large, much larger than the tutorial level had led me to believe Teleglitch levels would be. And filled with monsters, and darkness traps, and just straight-up dead ends…
Eventually, though, I found the room I was apparently looking for: the teleporter room. See, my mission is to find some way through and out of this research station… but because of reasons largely unknown, long-range teleportation is not an option. Only short-range teleporters, from sector to sector, still work, and me having to move through each sector in sequence is as good a narrative explanation for the ludic conceit of ‘levels’ as you’re ever likely going to get.
Level 1 actually ends with two teleporters: one leads to the ‘military biology sector’, while the other one ends at an abandoned plankton farm. Which… isn’t really much of a choice, is it? Military biology, or abandoned farm? Which is why I hurled myself into the teleporter on the left, saw the screen violently colour-flash, and found myself quite surprised and confused when I got out in the military biology sector.
The military biology sector wasn’t really that scary, though. It wasn’t until the sector afterwards, some abandoned robot lab or something, that I met my end, shot to death by the first enemy I encountered that had ranged combat capabilities.
Since that first two runs — one ending stupidly, one ending abruptly — I’ve played a few dozen more Teleglitch runs. Sometimes I’d be king of the world, sometimes I’d die within ten minutes. Sometimes I’d find bombs and ammo galore, sometimes I’d be counting the bullets until my next encounter. Sometimes I’d combine dozens of resources into super weapons, sometimes I’d have only a pistol for the better part of an hour. They were all, in essence, quite different.
But do you want to know one aspect in which almost all runs were identical? I only got to level 5 once.
Level 5, you may remember, is the cutoff point for unlocking level 3 as a starting area. And… initially, I figured I had Teleglitch’s experience down: it was going to be a gradual unlocking of more and more advanced starting areas, 1 to 3 to 5 to 7 and so on, up until the point where I could basically start out knocking on the final boss’ door whenever I chose to.
The reality of it turned out quite differently: I only got to level 5 once. And level 6, too, in one swoop. I’ve seen the inside of the Damage Statistics Department once. But ever since that one fateful run…
“But wait, doesn’t reaching level 5 unlock level 3 to start in? Shouldn’t that make it easier to reach those heights again?” Yes, convenient sock puppet audience, it should. It should.
Teleglitch is a difficult game, is the message I think I’m trying to convey here. Really difficult, proper difficult. Multi-level difficult. This is an important distinction: Teleglitch isn’t ‘hard’ in the sense that it’s unfair, or in that you’re not allowed to make any mistakes, or in that it jumps random surprises on you that you can’t possibly prepare for. I mean, it does do all these things, in varying levels of intensity, but those aren’t what make Teleglitch as difficult as it is.
Teleglitch is ‘hard’ because it hates you.
Teleglitch is ‘hard’ because it presents a pervasive, constant, oppressive setting and atmosphere. Every giant, open Teleglitch level is filled with many, many enemies, hazards, and dead ends, and only very little weapons, ammo and supplies for you. And that’s just the way of the world! It’s almost a mistake to think about Teleglitch in terms of ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’, because so much of it depends on so much that can happen. Think of it more as Teleglitch setting a stage for you, a new stage every time, built along the same specifications and guidelines, but very much different every time nonetheless. Can you really call it ‘unfair’ if it just so happens that the play shown on that stage is, nine out of ten times, your own violent demise?
Teleglitch is ‘hard’ because it grinds you down. Teleglitch is a game about exploring a large map to find supplies and the exit, while fighting off monsters and assorted threats. But there is almost no benefit to combat in Teleglitch: there are no levels, no skills, no persistent upgrading, and very little monsters leave behind anything of value. Stale canned meat, if you’re lucky. Bullets, if you’re really blessed. But that usually means the corpse you get them from was armed in the first place…
Combat in Teleglitch is a high-risk, low-reward affair, and as such, it grinds you down. Every combat encounter represents a trade-off in resources for you. How do I take down this big hulking robot? Use my precious Heavy Rifle ammo, or this Panzerfaust I made out of tin cans and bombs? Spray it with machine gun fire, knowing very well every two out of three bullets will be wasted? Carefully, inefficiently, ping it with pistol bullets, giving it time to close in and take aim with its miniguns? Or even… *shudder* engage it in close-range knife combat, providing it with ample opportunity to bite chunks out of my health?
Every fight in Teleglitch is a trade-off of resources, and there are — as a rule — more fights in Teleglitch than there are resource collection points. And because of that discrepancy, it grinds you down. In every Teleglitch run, no matter how well you were doing at any earlier point, you’ll find yourself in a situation where your bullets are low, your health items are gone, and you find yourself wondering whether it would be best to make a beeline for the teleporter, knowing full well the next level will be worse… or to explore the remaining red doors on the map for supplies, braving every inevitable zombie rush along the way.
Finally, Teleglitch is ‘hard’ because it is multi-faceted. Initial levels paint Teleglitch as a ‘simple’ corridor-explorer, but there are aspects to the experience you only tend to discover by wandering face-first into them. The pipes on the wall, for instance, can hold zombie swarms, that trigger when you get too close. Do you know how you discover that pipes can hold zombie swarms? By getting too close. I mean, sure, if you read the lore, it’s very clearly hinted at, granted. But it’s one thing to read Engineer McNoFace’s report on ‘noises in the pipes’, and another thing altogether to suddenly go from one person in the room to twenty.
Teleglitch trips you up occasionally, with new items, new monsters, new gameplay rules. Suddenly, there’s a bossfight with giant robots! Suddenly, monsters now carry guns, and they can and will shoot you dead from a great distance. Suddenly, this bomb you crafted has a much larger range than previous bombs. Hope you thought to take cover!
Crucially, Teleglitch is hard not just because it is complex and multi-faceted, but because it almost never outright tells you these things. You’re to discover everything yourself: monster behavioural patterns, crafting rules, the way to open blast doors. Even something as crucial as ‘the darkness kills you’ is something you only learn for yourself after the darkness kills you.
So yeah, Teleglitch is hard.
In theory, the only way to get ‘better’ at Teleglitch is by playing it over and over again, learning all these rules and intricacies and tricks for yourself and sharpening your combat strategies and heuristics. And I won’t lie: I’m better at Teleglitch now than I was at the start. Partially because my aim and my knife game have gotten better, and partially because I’ve gotten a better idea of how to craft what items, and when it might be better to not to.
But in practice, a large part of the Teleglitch experience is dying, over and over again, in situations where you don’t feel you could have done anything differently. That’s the fate of the procedurally generated high-risk roguelike, I suppose. Not all runs are going to be game enders, and some runs need to fall on the shittier end of the bell curve.
True story: I only made it to level 5 two days ago when this review goes up. For the largest part of the week, I didn’t think I was gonna be able to do it! In my experience, I was doing everything right: careful exploration, careful aiming, knowing what to craft and what not to craft, using bombs offensively, healing in time… but the level 4 armed guards, the first monsters that carry regular ranged weapons, would just trip me up and kill me every time. Oh hey, a guard, BLAM BLAM BLAM I’m dead. It wasn’t until I’d developed a genuine blind panic response to them showing up that I was able to stay alive for long enough to proceed.
I still don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make it to level 7. Let alone the ‘end’. There’s a lot driving me on: the lore terminals and the casual world-building and storytelling therein are interesting, and the gradual increase in items and recipes is neat too. Had I not made it to level 6 when I did, I would never have known this game has lasers!
But if I’ll make it to the end?…
The Teleglitch gameplay experience is helped immensely by its aesthetic qualities. Teleglitch’s whole graphical style is pretty interesting: The minimalistic top-down pixel art does a decent job of portraying the bare bones of the facility you’re in and the set pieces and enemies you encounter, while still leaving all the room in the world for your imagination to fill things in. And the active graphical effects, visible in shooting, teleportation, and on the edges of the death blob, really help sell the idea of an AI-based teleportation experiment gone awfully, dreadfully wrong. Which, incidentally, is a beautiful in-universe explanation for the constantly changing procedural level layout if I’ve ever seen one.
And the sound design, man… Teleglitch’s sound design is a beautiful example-in-action of ‘less is more’. There’s no background music, you see, nothing of the sort. Just silence. Or rather, the silence that is needed to let the ambient sound effects filter through. The beeping of giant computer data banks… the dull thuds of your own footfalls… the alien whirring of nearby black death blobs… and the pitter-patter of enemy movement, in the fog, unseen, running towards you from any angle. From every angle! Oh god, where are they coming from! Should you be advancing? Should you be falling back? Wait, what if that’s the direction they’re coming from?
It is — and understand I’m not quick to oversell stuff like this — an audiovisual experience the likes of which I can’t recall ever having seen. It sells the intended narrative to amazing effect, it’s in great harmony with the ludic experience, and it makes it all the more frustrating that I can’t seem to get any better at it. Goddamnit, again with the giant robots in level 3?
If the preceding section make me sound primarily positive about Teleglitch, well, that’s probably because I am. Teleglitch represents a particular kind of game I really like: a game where all the elements, ludic and narrative and aesthetic, all neatly come together in the common goal of providing the best video gameplay experience they can provide.
Which is not to say I have no complaints about Teleglitch, obviously. Certain gameplay gotchas, like the pipe zombies and the robot boss arenas, can be incredibly difficult to deal with even if you do see them coming. The nature of the exploratory gameplay makes it that you’ll be checking your progress by way of your map for something like 40% of the total played time: walk around, TAB, ‘Oh, there’s a door I haven’t done yet’, TAB, walk to it… dead end, TAB, ‘Oh, there’s a door I haven’t done yet’… And I might be emotionally biased here, but I can’t help but feel that the odds in the ‘Start in Level 3’ layouts are incredibly against me. Am I just intended start over from the beginning, every time? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?
And it should hopefully be very clear that Teleglitch is by no means a game for everyone. Teleglitch is a game that hates you, that tries to break you down over and over, that will pay only the most perfunctory lip service to the notion of ‘helping you get ahead’ before brutally crushing what little progress you’ve made under a giant robot heel. Some people like that kind of experience, guys! And some people don’t. Use your own gut reactions to reading this review as your primary buyer’s guide.
If your principal reaction to a game that hates you, about an AI that hates you, in an environment that hates you, is something along the lines of ‘dude, sweet’, Teleglitch can be purchased at about a million different storefronts for about thirteen euro or crazy-money-equivalent each.
If you do, though, don’t ever craft the auto-pistol. Trust me on this. That thing is garbage and then some. And nobody needs a nailgun version higher than 2, or I’m seeking the Name.