I love finding a new gameplay mechanic that makes me think "Yes! Why aren't more games trying this?", and this week I was lucky enough to find one of those.
I received an e-mail on Monday from Eduardo of Rain Games, an indie group from Norway that makes games that are "small, smart, simple and elegantly designed." Eduardo's message entreated me to take a look at their first offering, Teslagrad, currently up for voting on Steam Greenlight. After checking it out and finding the video enticing, I asked him whether a demo was available, and he was kind enough to provide me with an extended one. Before I talk about it, though, take a look at what got me excited in the first place.
For starters, the game is aesthetically sumptuous. The visuals are superb, evoking memories of the first time I saw Braid while easily establishing their own strong identity. The animation is clean and crisp, with lots of impressive background details, layers of parallax scrolling, etc. The trailer is a pleasure to look at, and the demo lived up to that promise nicely. Sadly the demo did not include any of the music present in the trailer, but the sound effects were well done and I expect the music will come together nicely in time for release.
As I'm sure you gathered from the video, the gameplay hook here is magentism. As described by Rain, Teslagrad is "a 2D puzzle platformer with action elements, where magnetism and other electromagnetic powers are the key to go throughout the game, and thereby discover the secrets kept in the long abandoned Tesla Tower." You can read the feature set on their Greenlight page, but it's clear that their goal is to create a seamless, challenging action-puzzle experience that engrosses the player through great looks and solid gameplay.
Does it work? ...yes and no. A few rough spots do stand out. First off, for me, I'm not sure that their "visual storytelling" is going to be sufficient to pull me through their entire game. They somewhat cheekily tout this as a feature, saying they know we're all "tired of all those words in your video games," but what's here kind of comes across as their being uninterested in telling a compelling story (or not having the resources to, which I would understand), rather than just wanting to keep it in the background. Atmospheric flavor text like "ancient Teslamancer technology" is cool and all, but aside from the game's initial motivation of "run from the people trying to kill you", I never got a sense for why I was supposed to care about this character, or how the world he inhabits works. Lots of stuff wants him dead, I'm clear on that, but that's really all they give you. Maybe that's all some folks will need, but I had lots of questions and got very few answers.
The controls, pretty critical for a platform game, could be tighter. They aren't badly designed, but proper gamepad support would go a long way towards making this a really enjoyable experience. After fiddling with the keyboard controls for awhile I ended up using Pinnacle to make a 360 controller profile, and that made things better, but still not as precise as I would have liked. Some of the puzzles, even the early ones, require tight enough timing that repeatedly failing due to what feels like imprecise input is extremely frustrating. Several sections had me re-doing even relatively simple feats of platforming 4 or 5 times because my character just wouldn't do what I wanted, when I wanted him to.
Finally, the physics engine doesn't seem like it can always keep up with the puzzle design. There was one room where magnetizing a block was supposed to push it through a short tunnel into a platform that it would raise off the ground so I could progress, and the first few times I went in there, it just didn't work. The block went down the tunnel, but maybe it didn't get close enough to the platform. Regardless, eventually I re-entered the room (each room resets when you leave), did the same steps, and that time it worked. Random reactions from games can be great, but not when they dictate your success or failure in a puzzle situation.
I'm just gonna emphasize again that this game is really gorgeous.
Despite that list of concerns, though, I want to make it clear that I come away from my time with Teslagrad really intrigued by what Rain Games has built, and hopeful that they can tighten it up and release a product that plays as nicely as it looks. I think there's reason for optimism. The gameplay premise of physics-driven magnetism as a puzzle mechanic is very clever, and even early in the game it's clear that there's a lot of promise in it. It's extremely satisfying to watch objects in the game world react to your magnetizing them, and I found myself playing with things just to see how they'd behave, which is a good sign. I'm not sure it applies terribly well to combat - like with Portal, the vast majority of gameplay is about avoiding enemies, not confronting them, and the first boss is fun while you learn his pattern, but then a bit frustrating to actually fight. But I'm willing to give the game more time to see what else it has for me, and I applaud Rain for bringing something that feels different and interesting to the somewhat crowded "2D puzzle platformer" space.
It's also clear, early on in the game, that the map is going to open itself up to the player in "Metroidvania" fashion, teasing you with areas you can't access until you have the right items or abilities. That's not uncommon for a 2D side scrolling platformer, obviously, but it is somewhat uncommon for a game with such a focus on puzzle rooms, and I find the blend refreshing.
The bottom line for me is this: Teslagrad left me wanting more, and that's the most important thing that a taste of a game can do. Again, the game is currently on Steam Greenlight, so if this all sounds interesting to you, head on over there and give them a vote so that hopefully they can end up on the service. It's also being tracked on Desura, so once they hit release I assume you'll be able to pick it up there as well.
I'm definitely going to keep an eye on this one. There's a lot of potential here, and I'd love to see it realized.