Teslagrad, by developer Rain Games, is one of those rare games that has been on my ‘to-play-soon’ list for a really long time. No, like, for a really long time. A cursory dig through the accumulated strata of my Google Chrome Favourites — guys, I have so many Favourites, you honestly don’t even know — reveals that I first saved a link to the official website back in… February 2013? Is that about right? It was a still a humble in-development website, then, offering a demo and promising a completed game for purchase ‘soon’. ‘Who knows, we might even get on Steam!’ Was this before Steam Greenlight was a thing? It feels about that long ago.
Teslagrad drew my attention because it looked to be developing into a rad 2D platformer themed around electricity and magnetism, so I decided to forego spoiling my experience with a demo, and instead, to keep an eye out for its release. And I have… more or less. Teslagrad went gold a good long while ago, but I missed that happening. Then I saw it was actually coming to Steam, so I decided to wait for that… and I missed that too, when it happened. Then I saw that it would be in a Steam sale soon, so I decided to wait for that to pick it up…
…and wouldn’t you know it, third time’s the charm. Time to see if Teslagrad was worth the wait.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, light. Mechanical, heavy-ish.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Teslagrad’s surprisingly animated menu opens on a man carrying a swaddled baby through a dark, desolate, burning city. As houses pass in the middle distance, the imposing sight of a massive half-finished lit from below by fire and smoke remains a constant central point. The man’s pace remains resolute in this desolate wasteland, carrying both baby and some sort of broken staff through this burning land of nightmares, offering stark commentary on both the strength and willpower endowed by parenthood and man’s endless capacity for inhumanity to man.
Let’s see what the options are!
‘Lights: Awesome’. I’ll be the judge of that, Teslagrad, thank you very much. The options palette is decent, all in all: nothing grand, nothing (sigh) shocking, but a reasonable sampler of resolutions, audio numbers, and controls. I do very much appreciate the wide variety of language options, though, spotting (among many others) my own native Dutch, properly accented Polish, and what I assume to be Arabic. I’m a sucker for the extra mile where languages are concerned.
Options aside, there isn’t really anything to do in the main menu. So I might as well head in, no? I select one save file from an identical selection of six, and…
The menu fades. The man, who has been stoically walking up until this point, finally reaches his destination: an idyllic white house, an open door, and a shocked woman. The man hands off the baby to the woman, walks past the house, glances backwards one final time, and disappears from view. My camera, it seems, was locked with the child all along.
Time moves fast for a while, and then, normally again. The house has taken the brunt of the passage of time, poorly: the walls are flaked, the roof has crumbled, the clock is cracked. The neighbourhood has seen better days as well, what with the graffiti and the propaganda posters.
Suddenly, pseudo-Russian soldiers storm in from the left side of the screen. I say ‘pseudo-Russian’ because they’re wearing red coats and bear skin hats, and because in a game called ‘Teslagrad’, what ethnicity would I assume them to be? One in particular, a stooped-over bald man with a grey beard, seems to be in charge. He stops in front of the house, gathering soldiers around him in what looks to be a home invasion about to happen.
Camera snaps to the back of the house. The back door open, and a young boy — the baby, all grown up? — steps outside. As the door closes, the woman from before steps up to an open window, looks at the boy briefly, then leaves again.
And so seamless is the transition that it takes me a few seconds of inactivity to realize control has just snapped to me.
Let’s see. How does one control a young boy? It’s been a while since I was one myself…
WASD moves, unsurprisingly. Spacebar jumps. Arrow keys? No, nothing. Which is weird, because I think I remember seeing those in the controls screen? Beyond that, the only button that does much of anything is Escape, and I’ll leave it up to your imagination just how that opens the menu.
All I can do is walk. So, I walk. And all I can do is walk right, since walking left results in me futilely pushing against the now-locked door. So, I walk right.
I walk right through the ever-present rain. Blank-Faced Kid doesn’t seem too perturbed by the deluge he’s walking into… but then again, Blank-Faced Kid doesn’t seem too perturbed by anything, courtesy of the aforementioned face. Stack of boxes in the way, forcing him to climb onto a roof to proceed? :|. Running across slippery roofs in the worst rainstorm in three decades? :| Fire and smokestacks and weird thorny plants to climb onto? :|. There’s the occasional >:|, but it’s rare.
Hey, look, there’s soldier down there! Hiding from the rain, no doubt. Hey soldier, what’s up?
Aww, look at that. The soldier spotted me and now he’s running towards me, arms outstretched! Don’t you worry, buddy: if I’d know you wanted a hug that badly, I wouldn’t even have climbed the roof to begin with.
Rather than give me a friendly hug, though, the soldier moves his arms in a way that I think is supposed to visualize him grabbing me. Because he’s not actually grabbing me, though, the result comes across much more like a grown man elbow-checking a little kid in the face.
Regardless of intent, the outcome is clear: the screen fades to black, then fades back into existence at the back door of the white house, the start of my run. Time to try again. Honestly, I don’t even know what I was thinking there.
I make it through most of the city relatively easy, this time. I jump on roofs, climb vine plans, jog past balconies and open curtains spilling out bright yellow light, and kick some flower pots down onto the street below. Sorry! I make my way past wrought-iron fences, propaganda posters, and this weird giant set of scales weighing two enormous golden statues. I… don’t really understand what the deal is with that thing?
Later roofs get more complicated, what with the fire and the poorly-insulated AC units and the soldiers constantly chasing me down for bear hug tackles. Those guys are persistent, let me tell you: they don’t even let little things like the bridge they’re crossing existing in some weird half-floating see-through state stop them from following me. They jump and climb about as well as I do, and since when has that ever been fair?
Obstacles and chases aside, though, this run isn’t a particularly challenging experience. Is there more to Teslagrad than this? Or is it just…
Ah, no, I see. After one particularly narrow escape from the bald, bearded man — requiring a handful of retries, because that guy is not forgiving of silly mistakes on my end — I find myself in a strange castle of sorts. The walkway leading up here was lined with odd statues, holding blue orbs, illuminated electrically, and a clear ‘gear’ motif is omnipresent. Both themes are repeated in the several rooms I hastily run through, bald man still on my tail in the distance.
Suddenly and without warning, the next screen transition takes me inside. Ah, finally, no more rain! I trade cold discomfort falling from the sky for the warmth and knowledge of a long-abandoned classroom. The hand-drawn diagrams detailing relations I don’t understand and the half-erased blackboard on the wall are almost interesting enough to cause me to overlook the dead person lying on the floor in front of me.
These diagrams are honestly pretty interesting. I wonder what it is they’re describing? I can recognize the cartoony human figure, clearly designed as a reference to the dead guy’s attire, but what’s the deal with the other elements? The half-circle with legs and that weird blue air vent or whatever? I wonder… but given that the closest person right now who could have explained this is stone dead, and given that their corpse has been here for a while without getting cleaned up — notice the spider web on it? — I doubt I’ll be getting clear answers any time soon.
Oh no, wait. There those things are, both of them. Just five meters to the right. False alarm, guys: I’m about to get my answers anyway.
Touching the crawling blue orb, which is slowly walking up and down its small section of floor, causes me to glow blue for a few seconds. That glow in and by itself seems to do nothing… except when I walk into the blue field, in which case the interaction between the two propels me upward into the air. While making appropriately woosh-ing sound effects, yes.
Ah, I see. This is a magnetism thing, then, isn’t it? Blue pole to blue pole means magnetic rejection. So when I’m charged with blue energy from the orb thing, the blue field slowly propels me upward. Or rapidly propels me upward, if I jump my way into it.
The creepy caterpillar on the other side has the more straightforward effect of boosting my height if I jump on it, so I elect to move forward. Rightward, whatever. Through crumbling halls of faded glory and tattered banners, yet also somehow full of fully functional magnetic field generators and… electrical barrier guns? Eesh, I should probably try not touching those.
More blue magnetic energy lines the halls. I wonder if there’ll be a second colour? If this energy really is magnetic, I’d expect there to be an opposite pole to the blue one. Which would be… yellow, if we’re keeping with the opposites theme?
One puzzle later, I find myself in a giant, cathedral-like room. Stained-glass windows tell a hard-to-parse story of sword and spiked helmets, electricity, and dead people. Interesting stuff, all, but right now I’m more concerned with the screen’s right exit, which is sealed off by some block I can’t seem to move. What the…
Ah, wait, I see. Vines! I climb up a vine on the left side of the screen, into a dilapidated attic of sorts. More spider webs, beautiful windows, wall graffiti, the works. But one element in the attic particularly draws my attention: a small metallic glove, sitting on a raised dais such that I have to walk past it to proceed. I walk into it, :|-kid picks up the glove and puts it on his left hand, and a small controller image appears on the top right of the screen.
Okay… I’ve played enough video games in my life to understand that that means I just unlocked a new cool thing. So let’s see… I start pressing buttons at random, and soon enough:
Dude, sweet! Now I understand why the arrow keys weren’t for movement, too: rather, the right and left arrow keys trigger a charged punch from my new power glove. Left arrow for blue punch, right arrow for red punch. And yes, I do spend several seconds punching the air in delight.
The charged punches aren’t just for visual show, however. Obviously. With a little instruction from the wall graffiti, I figure out that a glove punch to one of the yellow geared boxes can charge that box with the corresponding magnetic charge. Blue punch for blue box, red punch for red box, you get the idea. Which means that… ah, yes! Formerly locked exit, you no longer hold mysteries for me.
Getting from the glove attic to the formerly locked exit also takes me past a little floating scroll, perched high above the exit door. Grabbing the scroll gets me a cool little card of a… giant buried eyeball? As well as access to my map.
And at that, with me standing in an enormous vertical hallway suffused with magnetic energy and decorated by statues and a strange blue flower, I’ll leave it for now. I have plenty of castle to explore, left and right and up and down, and I’m curious to see to what clever ends Teslagrad puts its magnetism mechanic. Be back on the other page once I figure out how those things work!