App O’ The Mornin’: Puzzle Agent UPDATE

Update (10/11/10): This morning’s app is a revisit of Puzzle Agent, which I review favorably below. The game had problem with fuzzy textures and weird texture drawing. I’m not seeing any more of the texture pop in in the few scenes I spot-checked, so the update does appear to have fixed this. It also broke the game in the process.

The Puzzle Agent update does the unforgivable: it wipes your saved games. It doesn’t do this right away. It begins by making the game utterly unplayable. Attempting to load a game causes the app to hang. You have to delete the app from your device and then load a fresh copy back on. (By the way, the warning about these problems was not included in the original update. It was added later.)

If you’ve never tried Puzzle Agent, I do still recommend it, even though this is pretty damn irritating. If you have played it, don’t update it if you care about your saves.

Original Review

His name is Nelson Tethers, and he’s a Puzzle Agent for the FBI. He solves the tricky puzzles no one else can solve in order to keep America safe.

His latest case? Why has the Scoggins eraser factory in Minnesota stopped producing erasers … the very erasers used by the president? In order to solve the mystery and get eraser production back on line, he needs to explore the snow-bound town of Scoggins, which is filled with the usual roster of Midwestern comic relief.

Puzzle Agent is a typically quirky adventure game from Telltales Games, the people behind the Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, and Strongbad episode games. The visual style is based on the work of cartoonist Graham Annabale, best known for his Grickle books. Annabale has a style reminiscent of the cartoonists from the classic days of the New Yorker, particularly Peter Arno. He draws a simple but expressive line that derives its humor from deadpan stares and nervous expressions.

This look is the foundation for the entire game, which uses a simple comic mystery as the pretext for a series of logic puzzles. The adventure gameplay elements are less prominent here than in previous Telltale games, reduced to a minimal amount of scene searching and extensive dialog scenes.

Instead, Puzzle Agent focuses on single screen logic puzzles, placing it firmly in the casual camp. It’s being dismissed by people with short memories as little more than a Professor Layton clone, but in fact this kind of puzzle adventure goes back a couple of decades, to titles like Jewels of the Oracle, Dr. Brain, and 7th Guest.

Considered as a puzzle compilation with a narrative-adventure shell, it delivers the goods. A couple of puzzle formats repeat, but most of them are fresh, many of them are fairly challenging, and some are almost impenetrable. Unfortunately, some of that impenetrability comes from occasionally obscure descriptions, which make the objective of a puzzle hard to determine.

This isn’t a persistent problem, however, and a built in hint system (paid for using pre-chewed gum: don’t ask) means you’ll never be stuck too long. The puzzles range from simple verbal puzzles, such as figuring out a problem from a series of clues, to jigsaws, path-laying, sequencing, and more.

The original PC game was released earlier to this summer to tepid reviews, mostly from people complaining that it wasn’t Professor Layton. The price-point ($10) should have signaled that Telltale was positioning this as a casual game with a few hours of gameplay, a collection of puzzles, and a light, funny story and style.

The app conversion is generally effective, but it has a bug that appears to effect only smaller units (iPhones and Touches) and not iPads. On my Touch, there was a problem with textures and smoothing that caused some image pop-in and occasional fuzziness. Telltale is aware of the problem and is promising a fix. I revisit it when I get a chance to check it out.

As for the controls: they work pretty well on the Touch, but probably will fare better on an iPad. Some of the objects are simply too small to really “grab” with a finger. (They were clearly designed for use with a mouse.) It’s not a universal problem, but it crops up often enough to slow things down.Those reservations aside, I’d recommend this one for people who just like single-screen logic puzzles. For $5, you get an appealing visual style, clever puzzles, and a few laughs along the way.