Ambitious, unique and decidedly challenging, Teslagrad might be the perfect game for PlayStation Vita. After releasing for other platforms over the past few years, the artistic endeavor from developer Rain Games has earned some high praise. Now, after finally coming to Sony’s portable, we find a game that thrives on a player’s diligence and ingenuity, and one that is bound to keep you occupied for quite some time. There are some annoying flaws that get in the way, though, and if you’ve already played it on PS3 or PS4, there’s not much reason to have it on Vita. However, if you’ve missed out thus far and you have a craving for an action/platformer with a significant puzzle bent, it’s worth your attention.
First up, Teslagrad remains an impressive-looking game. Boasting a singular 2D art style that is unlike most any game on the market, the presentation retains its sheen even after two years. Sure, we’ve seen better visuals since and the indie scene has heated up, to the point where competition among smaller developers is stiffer than ever. As such, you might consider these graphics either mildly outdated or perhaps even uninspired. The old-school sprite style with a twist wasn’t common in 2013 but these days, we’ve seen many examples of “retro meets modern” and frankly, there have been better examples since Teslagrad arrived. Even so, I can still appreciate and respect the original effort. And it looks just fine on Vita.
The audio falls into much the same category. The soundtrack is still a pretty big highlight in my estimation and the effects are decent without being stellar, and the entire production is minimalist in regards to sound. The story is told without a single spoken or written word, which, while very creative, also means the game’s audio feels a tad empty. We’ve seen this before, especially in the indie scene, where the focus is firmly on gameplay and some retro-inspired graphics. It’s not that it doesn’t work; in fact, in some situations, it works quite well because of the laser-focus on interactivity. It also allows the score and effects to really shine. But these days, the lack of any voice performances seems strange.
Teslagrad is best described as either an action/platformer or perhaps an action/puzzler, depending on your viewpoint. The project began its life by wowing crowds at various industry events, such as PAX, and Rain Games ultimately delivered a compelling title. It may not win any awards in 2015 but it made quite the splash when it first released a couple years back, and the game has aged relatively well. The core concept remains as original and intriguing as ever, which is really what matters. When you’re playing, your attention remains fixed and steady, which is the sign of a well-paced and endlessly interesting game. Now, there are times when that attention wavers due to some tedious drawbacks but let’s start with the narrative.
At the start, a faceless army dude busts into your house, and you and your mother must escape to safety. It’s an oppressive, dystopian city through which you flee and eventually, you find yourself trapped in a strange tower. Considering the circumstances, you might think you’d be safer inside, but no such luck. Unfortunately, the evil origin of the structure, combined with its deadly inhabitants, forces you to struggle for survival. Elaborate and oddly designed, this tower features dank caves and even massive cathedrals that remind you of the dark, very Gothic buildings in Devil May Cry. Obviously, though, you won’t be dealing with bad guys in the same way. Here, your brain is your best weapon.
You will stumble across small clues that allow you learn more about your dangerous environment. As I said above, the story isn’t told in a normal fashion; you have to uncover hints and clues, and pay attention to your surroundings if you wish to learn more. If you like, you can simply bypass most of these clues and focus entirely on the gameplay but personally, I think you’d be missing out. The narrative is far from excellent but if you’re attentive, you will discover things about this fictional world that enhance the experience. That being said, there were times when I wished for at least a little elaboration or explanation, just so we could enjoy a more fleshed-out virtual landscape. You know, something that keeps us rooted in the fiction.
Anyway, the gameplay unsurprisingly earns the spotlight: It all revolves around the rules of magnetism, and you get a special glove that lets you alter the charge of particular objects. As a for instance, this means you can change blocks that repel into blocks that attract. You will also locate new equipment as you progress, which in turn will let you tackle more complex situations. The new equipment also opens up more of the gameplay, which goes beyond magnetism and tackles other – perhaps more traditional – puzzle-based elements. The Blink Boots let you pass through solid objects and the handy-dandy Magnetic Cloak lets you charge yourself at will. You’re also free to return to previously visited areas to collect missed items, like special Scrolls.
The game’s design will probably remind older gamers of a Castlevania or Metroid; hence the term “Metroidvania.” We’ve seen more than a few such games in recent years but again, while it certainly felt fresher in 2013, it still works here. Hell, that style will always work because it’s borderline perfect and as such, timeless. The best part is that the cool equipment, unique concepts, and mechanics remain interesting throughout the game. Granted, it isn’t a very long adventure but even so, I’ve played a lot of indie games where the novelty wears off well before the quest’s end. I can honestly say that’s not the case with Teslagrad, despite the shortcomings, which I will address now. Just bear in mind that the following flaws are mostly minor.
Firstly, the amount of backtracking and lack of accessible checkpoints is a little on the frustrating side. I hated having to go back through areas that were difficult the first time, and just plain tedious the second time through. If you screw it up, the checkpoint is often a ways back, which only dissuades you from trying again. Secondly, the platforming isn’t perfect. The control is finicky and unfortunately unreliable, which leads to wildly irritating moments, especially when facing down certain bosses. This leads me to the third problem, which centers on the spiking difficulty when facing those bosses. Not only are some of these boss fights poorly constructed, they often require absolute platforming precision, which is unfortunately difficult due to the aforementioned control issue.
In the end, though, Teslagrad is a solid platformer with great puzzle ideas and some really cool equipment that never gets tired. The adventure feels about the right length to me, and the pacing is another highlight. As a 2D puzzle-oriented title, it gives the player a unique presentation style and a difficult yet satisfying set of challenges, which older gamers might really appreciate. The checkpoints aren’t very well done, the bosses can be insane, and the control isn’t quite up to snuff, thereby causing this production to occasionally trip and stumble. But like most indie games, there are some rough edges and if you’re willing to tolerate them, you’re in for a captivating and even beguiling experience. A definite must-try for those who like the idea(s) behind it.
The Good: “Metroidvania” design is always good. Interesting, appealing puzzle focus on magnetism. Decent pacing throughout. Challenging but fulfilling. Feels mostly fresh and fun throughout the quest. Fits nicely into the handheld universe.
The Bad: Technicals might seem a little dated. Control is finicky and imprecise. Checkpoints aren’t all that great. Bosses can be immensely frustrating.
The Ugly: “When gameplay is the focus, control is just so critical…”
11/30/2015 Ben Dutka