A few hours in
Fucking magnets, how do they work? I’m still not entirely sure, but as far as I can tell, the answer at least involves metal gloves, conducive boots, a cool glowing hoodie, and some sort of orb on a stick that fires lightning in a straight line.
Combining my wits with my slowly-expanding kit of magnetism manipulation tools, I was able to continue ascending the castle, which I now understand to actually be the background tower from the introduction cinematic. I passed a garbage disposal, a large botanical garden, a set of lava caverns, and more assembly lines than you can shake a stick at, all on my continual way to the top. And then back down again. This tower is big, you guys. It looks and feels very much like a modern-day Tower of Babel, except that instead of being struck down with language confusion, this tower’s creators fell victim to an expansive selection of magnetism-related traps.
But with sheer, single-minded determination, I made it There, and then Back Again, and then Somewhere Else Entirely, ending up in the throne and treasure room of the recently-defeated Electric Vampire King. Recently-defeated by me, yes. I didn’t actually go for the ‘full’ ending, as that would’ve required a little more collectible-hunting than I’m strictly speaking comfortable with. But an ending I saw, regardless.
I finished One (1) Complete Playthrough of Teslagrad. And at the end of it, what did I think? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m mostly quite positive about the whole experience. Yeah, I enjoyed a game I managed to play through to the end, what a shocker. Teslagrad is overall pretty entertaining: it’s inventive, fairly clever, aesthetically cute, and mechanically quite well-put-together… with one major, glaring exception. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
There’s very little that I could say about the art of Teslagrad except that it looks good. The look of highly animated mobile characters on a more muted stylized background is a little goofy, but then again, Hanna-Barbera cartoons got away with that kind of stuff too. It works as far as immediate distinctions are required. And I’ve already made plenty jokes about the protagonist’s uninterested resting face, so re-treading that ground here would feel like being mean just for the sake of being mean.
The relative variety in environments is nice, at least. It’s not grand: I wouldn’t be able to tell you much more about a large section of the levels save that they have stone walls and a recurring gear-tooth theme. But many other areas, like the aforementioned botanical gardens and lava caves, provide some needed variety.
There is also sound. I mostly remembering it being of the zappy variety. Sorry, I’m really bad at actively hearing music. If you’re a long-term reader, you probably know this by now: if I don’t specifically mention the sound and the music, it’s probably alright enough to warrant neither praise nor anger. If, by chance, this is the first review of mine you read, then hello! My name is Jarenth, and I often need to be reminded sound exists.
Alright then. With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s talk about my favourite aspect of Teslagrad: its gameplay and mechanics.
If you’ve been paying attention throughout this review, the combination of aesthetically clearly different areas, an early-unlocked world map and an expanding set of goodies may have tipped you off about this game’s genre. Teslagrad is basically a Metroidvania game: you start in a large open world, many areas of which are sealed off either via locked doors or via you not having the capabilities to get there yet. You explore and adventure in the areas you can access, slowly gaining more equipment and unlocked the critical plot doors that once kept you from progressing. There’s a relatively-clear direction you are encouraged to go in — up, up, always up — but no strictly-defined ‘next objective’ to guide you. Progress means exploration, puzzle solving, and the occasional bit of fighting.
To me, the success of any Metroidvania-style game depends on a couple factors: the fun inherent in exploring the world, the ease by which new tools and unlocks translate to reaching new areas, the ease of backtracking through of skipping over puzzles and encounters already solved, the long-term draw of the story and your driving goal, and the combat. Teslagrad handles these five elements, respectively, well, well, medium, well, and awfully.
Starting with the first: Teslagrad’s platforming and puzzles are fun. The platforming works well, more or less always the way you’d expect it, and believe me when I say that ‘has consistent and clear platforming’ can be meant as high praise sometimes. And the puzzles, usually themed around movement and the red and blue magnetic poles, are always at least interesting enough to want to figure out.
Not to say that all puzzles involve magnetic blocks, mind.
Teslagrad’s world areas are either large and conducive to exploration, or essentially puzzle-filled hallways. Both setups work, in their own way, and there’s enough of either to keep some variation going: the open areas prevent the game from feeling like a linear walk from A to B, while the hallway-puzzles add a clarity of focus that running around the large open areas sometimes lacks. Exploring both kinds of areas can be fun it its own way, though, depending on the specific puzzles and the speed with which you pick up what you’re supposed to be doing.
While I obviously can’t speak for everyone, most of the time, I managed to either intuit or trial-and-error myself to a correct solution. And every time I can readily remember, me ‘honestly being stumped’ by a puzzle just meant I didn’t have the right toy to solve it yet. It speaks to Teslagrad’s level design that it’s hard to wander into an area where you are entirely powerless to do anything, but also that it isn’t impossible. Teslagrad is more than happy to let you sniff at the boundaries of an unsolvable puzzle, so that when you find the right answer, you’ll remember to return for it.
And speaking of new toys: Teslagrad handily avoids the information overload problem that I’ve seen some imitators in this genre have, by keeping your set of abilities small, intuitive, and multi-purpose. As its puzzles are often built up of the same building blocks arranged in new and interesting formations, the same tools that you use to manipulate and solve the earlier puzzles are effective on the latter. If I’d say that a sample of the items you unlock after the earlier-shown magnet glove includes teleportation boots, a magnetic cloak, and a ranged-energy-projection staff, that would technically not be a lie. A full set of something can be a sample of itself.
Because all the items play within the established magnetic systems so well, the interplay of building blocks and tools allows for many surprising puzzle permutations. Simple mechanics, simple items, simple controls, complex solutions. To give you an example: the magnetic cape allows you to project a magnetic field of your chosen colour. Useful if you want to stick to magnets of the opposing colour, right? And sure enough, at first, that’s what the coat does… but it doesn’t take long for it to branch into low-orbit launch assist vehicle and handy coloured block repellent, too. One puzzle saw me remote-control a ball through dangerous fields, toggling my cloak from red to blue and back to guide it over obstacles. And that’s not even the most involved example.
Teslagrad is very much content to let you figure all this stuff out for yourself. There are a few clear signal posts for when to use certain items, particularly right after you’ve found one of them. And can I briefly say that I like how these ‘tutorial’ messages are built into the world itself? Like so, for example:
Teslagrad’s overarching backstory is similarly built into the world in a fairly organic manner. Well, most of it. Through graffiti, stained glass, posters, and honest-to-goodness puppet shows, the game paints a picture of a kingdom run by a benevolent lightning king and his Order of Teslamancers that fell to strife, ambition, and propaganda. The collectible scrolls, often either hidden on side paths or given out as rewards for exemplary puzzle performance, add two-word vignettes to your unfolding understanding of the world.
It’s not always done equally subtly, but hey.
So Teslagrad has good storytelling, good puzzles, good platforming, and good aesthetics. I’m not a big fan of the backtracking, which could honestly do with fast-travel points of some kind or another, because right now you basically have to do each puzzle set all the way over to reach areas you missed before. But all in all, I’m more or less entirely positive…
…except for one thing. Do you remember the list I posited a few paragraphs back? World exploring, tools and unlocks, backtracking, story and world-building, and…
Teslagrad has boss fights. Teslagrad has bad boss fights. Teslagrad has bad boss fights because Teslagrad is not a game that is built around combat, in any way, shape or form, and then you get to any of the five boss fights and it’s nothing but combat. Whether giant trash eating robot, skeletal delivery bird gone bad, or angry bald man from the intro, the boss fights are poorly paced, drawn out, and frustrating to a fault.
Each boss fight follows the same basic escalating wave pattern. The boss does a thing, which you either avoid or turn against them. Then they do another thing, which you either avoid or turn against them. Then they do another thing… Of all the things each boss does, one of them will allow you to inflict ‘damage’ on it. The trash robot eats magnetized boxes, zipping into the bird robot’s chest cage lets you magnetize its heart and strike it with lightning. Every time you get to do damage, you get to do one unit of damage. Each boss takes a set amount of damage to be defeated. It’s usually three. Is it always three? I feel as though it’s always three. You wouldn’t know this when doing the fight for the first time, of course, because this damage is never overtly tracked and very rarely subtly displayed. Your only indicator of success against most bosses is that they resume doing what they were already doing, except faster or more intense.
And when you fail at dodging any of the boss’ attacks, or if you misstep, stumble, or fall…
…you die. And when you die, you get to start over. All over. At the very beginning of the fight, with absolutely nothing to show for your prior efforts. Less than nothing, even, because you spent a whole lot of time achieving absolutely nothing.
See, Teslagrad is a skill-based platformer. And most skill-based platformers don’t really do the idea of health. You fail a puzzle, you ‘die’, you get to start over. ‘Health’ as a unit wouldn’t make sense if you need to restart the puzzle from the bottom of your inescapable pit anyway. And like most skill-based platformers, during the puzzle sections, this approach more or less works: Teslagrad is fairly forgiving with both its load times and its start-of-the-screen-you-were-on spawn locations, and most puzzles aren’t so long that having to restart them often wears on you. One or two, maybe.
But for hopefully obvious reasons, this design pattern does not translate to long, multi-stage boss fights. Lack of a health system means you have to complete the fight flawlessly. Lack of learning opportunities and clear tells means doing so is practically impossible. It’s the worst kind of Do-It-Again-Stupid gameplay design, where every new boss attack starts to feel like the lead designer telling you to spend another three minutes learning the pattern. And the lack of mid-battle checkpoints is especially unforgiving: it’s one thing to make me complete your dumb pattern flawlessly once, but I gain absolutely nothing from having to run the same maze three or four times in a row. I’ve already shown I can do this, game. Stop wasting my goddamn time.
One particularly egregious example of this bad design is in a boss fight with a giant eye robot of some kind: upon dealing damage to it three times, the eye falls through the floor, taking you with it in free-fall… but not actually being defeated yet. And if you don’t figure out you have to keep dodging its attacks before it fires its next attack, say hello to doing the whole fight over again. From the start, not from the floor-breaking.
But the whole thing comes to a head in the final fight, against Evil King Lighting Vampire. It’s a clusterfuck of unpredictable attacks, strange attack patterns, unconventional ways of damage dealing, and obstacles requiring split-second timing appearing with nary a warning. It’s a mess, frustrating and unfun, and the number of possible universes I simply gave up is so great that if all the Jarenths from those universes were to fight all the Jarenths from the universes where I did beat Teslagrad, the quitter-Jarenths would win by sheer numbers despite being a bunch of quitters.
Teslagrad is, in summary, a beautiful, fun, inventive platforming game with one giant boss-shaped blemish. I had oodles of fun doing the exploration and the puzzles, even the really frustrating ones where the screen-based checkpointing system starts hurting my drive to continue. And while I consider every last one of the five boss fights frustrating, poorly designed, and unfun… I still powered my way through each of them just to see what was next. Another pretty vista, perhaps? Another careful revelation about the history of the Teslamancers? New toys? Only one way to find out, robot bird, and unfortunately for you that way involves turning your electro-heart into charcoal.
Teslagrad is an altogether-too-rare example of a game I waited a long time for, that I now consider worth the wait. At ten bucks for both DRM-free and Steam versions — or PS3, PS4 or WiiU versions, if that’s what floats your boat — I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys clever platforming, pretty art, and reserved digital storytelling. Just keep a squeeze toy or something handy for the boss fights and you should be good.
Jarenth’s preferred method of venting frustrating game annoyances is by yelling, somewhat loudly, which has upset his housemates *more than once*. Poor them. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam, two places that luckily remain *largely* devoid of him yelling. No promises, though.