Solving Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent – A Review

I love Steam. Have I mentioned that before? XBLA and PSN are great and all, but when it comes to taking risks on independent games, Steam is the king. One of the more recent indie gems is Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent, put out by Telltale Games. Personally, I’ve always loved Telltale’s story, but that’s another story. At any rate, Puzzle Agent features the illustrations of Graham Annable, creator of the Grickle series. What results is a game with a charmingly hand-drawn art style that plays like a cross between Professor Layton and Fargo.

Nelson Tethers is the only agent in the employ of the FBI’s oft-neglected Puzzle Research division. The game opens in Nelson’s closet-sized office filled with puzzle-y items like Rubik’s Cubes and jigsaw puzzles. After a brief tutorial to introduce you to the world of government puzzle solving, Nelson is assigned to Scoggins, Minnesota to investigate the closing of the eraser factory that supplies the White House. Nelson realizes once he arrives that perhaps not all is as it seems, as he finds a town full of puzzle-crazy villagefolk. What follows is a ridiculous trip around the mountain town. I really enjoyed the story, right up until the end where, unfortunately, the game ends fairly abruptly. My hope is that Telltale will continue in this series, but we’ll have to see.

The gameplay is a cross between typical Telltale adventure-gaming and Layton-esque puzzle solving. As Nelson travels around the town, he’ll meet the various townsfolk, from the quaint woman running the hotel that promises to serve up some “hot dish” to the old environmentalist that just wants the town to embrace its Nordic roots. The voice acting is top notch here, especially from the town’s sheriff. As Nelson travels from place to place, he’ll find clues as to what is happening in the town, along with pieces of chewed gum that serve as clues in the puzzles (gum helps Nelson think). Every character can often be asked several questions, often leading to a puzzle (indicated by a jigsaw piece next to the topic), though some of these are optional.

The actual puzzle-solving varies from puzzle to puzzle, of course, but the system is always the same. When you believe you’ve solved the puzzle, hit submit. This will cause the puzzle to be put in an envelope and shipped off to the FBI to be either accepted or rejected. As the puzzle is shipped off, a tally of how much taxpayer money has been used is kept, going up and up as you get the puzzles wrong. There’s no real relevance of it, but it’s a nice touch that makes you feel a little bad about not getting puzzles right the first time. Of course, to help you do that, there are clues. As I said, these come in the form of pieces of gum found in the game world. There are three clues for each puzzle, with the third clue typically just-about giving you the answer (in some cases, completely giving you the answer). Each puzzle is scored on how many wrong answers were submitted and how many clues you used, giving you ratings from Top Agent to Borderline and everything in-between.

The art style of the game is fantastically charming. Annable’s 2-D Grickle style is in full swing here, and it almost always looks great. My only issue is that the characters look their best when they are surprised or insane, so the expressions are somewhat blank and bland when two characters are just having a conversation. However, that’s where the voice actors really pull their weight and give those Minnesota accents we all love so much. The soundtrack is not incredibly prominent, but the stings are there in the shocking moments, and the soundtrack is appropriately eerie where it should be.

Personally, I loved Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. It is a fairly short game (4 hours or so, depending on how long you take to solve the puzzles), but what’s there is a lovable puzzle game waiting to be found. If you like puzzles, I fully recommend checking this out. If the price was any higher than $10, then that might be a different story, but for the price it’s a gem. At the very least, check out the trailer.

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Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is available for PC, Mac, and iPhone for $9.99.