Bemoaning a game simply for the genre that we so readily slot it into is something that I find akin to hurtling vomit through my nose. There is a point to it, though, one with better considerations, hopefully. That is regarding the game’s selling point – why would people want to play, pay for, even, what appears to be another puzzle platformer? Unfortunately, saying that you’re working on indie puzzle platformer is like saying you’re a human and have at least half a brain. Though I do doubt that about some people at times. Anyway, the point is, Teslagrad is a sidescrolling puzzle platformer and, though I’ve only played the alpha version, I’m lost in the intrigue of its world and magnetic mechanics.
Rain AS, the developer of Teslagrad, is a curious enigma itself. Like the very best of those talented creators of fictional realms and worlds, they’ve not formed their steampunk setting just for us to explore in Teslagrad; they actually have a much more fleshed out history and background to it all that they hope to divulge across a series of games. In fact, Teslagrad wasn’t even intended to be the first of these games. Up until a few months ago, the team were working on a top-down arena brawler called Minute Mayhem, but due to reasons unknown, that project has been put on hold in favor of developing Teslagrad for now.
That couldn’t have been an easy decision to make considering the months of work that went into Minute Mayhem, but I’m not complaining – as saturated as the genre might be, I still love a solid puzzle platformer! But it wasn’t that which initially drew me into a dizzying lust for wont to play the game for myself. You can blame the art department for that. Smooth, comic style hand-drawn animations with moody backdrops and flashes of bright color to mix up the darker tones of the dreary setting? Count me in.
Shadow Of The Tower
As mentioned, Teslagrad takes place in a steampunk setting, so it’s an alternate reality or, to be more precise, an alternate version of the world we sit in. The inspirational real world location for the game is Russia, and pretty much any Soviet state when they were feeling the weight of the Hammer and Sickle. But presumably the city of Stalingrad (when it was called that) is the most obvious point of reference, especially as a most despotic king rules over the nation. At the very center of Teslagrad is a rather large and unmissable tower, the Tesla Tower, and it is here that the majority of the game will take place. As you rise through the levels of this seemingly abandoned tower, it will emerge through the use of voiceless storytelling that the king is on the way out and a new order will rise in his place.
“Teslagrad features not a single snippet of text or squeak of dialogue. Everything is purely visual, and its entire story is told through what you see (and sometimes what you don’t see).”
At the start of the demo you’re thrown right into the mix without much of a clue as to what the situation you’re in is. If you know anything about the game (as you do now), then you’ll recognize that you’re outside among the wet streets of Teslagrad. Straight away it’s a striking image as the houses stretch out behind the young boy, the rain drizzles across the screen and you set off to be chased by the royal guards. They’re pretty clumsy, which is fortunate as the first time you play through, you’ll probably end up in a bit of rut, literally, and will end up getting captured. This just resets you back to somewhere previous on the level, so is not too punishing. As such, the impression I got was that the developers don’t want this to be a frustrating experience. The platforming is very basic and never really went beyond that in the length of the demo, which indicates that the focus of the game is to allow players to enjoy the more kinetic motions of the game, with the lighting, incredible backdrops and tangible animations. The focus here is unquestionably on the makeup of the puzzles.
This part of the game doesn’t emerge until you just about make it onto the rising drawbridge and into the tower itself. From here, you begin to see more sinister imagery among the regal attire of the rooms. A corpse lays in the courtyard underneath a prominent statue of what I can only imagine to be the king of this place. It’s an image that immediately sets the tone of where you’ve just arrived, much like the one of a perched crow watching over one of the more church-like interiors, decorated with stain glass windows. Above this location is where you come across the game’s first unique mechanic, as you discover a glove that you then wield, allowing you to give certain materials a magnetic charge. It’s ancient Teslamancer technology, though you presumably don’t find this out until the plot thickens later on in the game.
So magnetism. In this alpha demo that’s the tool that I had to play with. It works fairly simply: there are two colors – red and blue – and opposites attract while the objects of the same color will have no effect or repel. The glove is controlled with the left and right arrow keys, with each corresponding to one of the colors. You learn pretty quickly that the hatched materials can be charged with a punch from the glove, but what the game fails to make clear is that you can also punch downwards. As such, this caused me to get stuck for a few minutes during which the flow that had been gained was lost. Mind you, there is a virtue in this because one of the earliest puzzles in the game requires you to punch downwards, and by eventually learning (hopefully) that you can do that through experimentation, it sticks in your head. But it would be more ideal to make sure that the player knows about this move rather than players becoming stuck for a while.
Beyond that irk, this introduction to the game’s puzzles certainly proved to be entertaining in their use of the mechanic, showcasing diversity from the very start. The main form of play was in hitting certain blocks different colors to cause them to rise up to platforms, or to drop out of the way to allow you to pass. Sometimes a creature (some worm…thing) or a robot would mean that you’d have to punch that so it became charged and would move through a tight spot that you couldn’t. The more lethal sections past this would up the ante by adding the risk of the young boy becoming magnetized inside a certain area that would push or pull him towards death. Nothing too hard, but enough to keep you on your toes.
“The game revolves around the use of electricity and magnetism, and your ingenuity will be put to the test as you employ the amazing technology of the Teslamancers to traverse the abandoned Tesla Tower.”
My favorite use of the magnetism was a section in which it was required you stand on a platform that, when punched the right color, would be flung from floor to wall and back again as a means of travel. Compared to the fairly steady pace up until that point, it came as quite a shock and kickstarted my heart once again, which was a good job as the next couple of room transitions led to the boss and the final part of the demo. This giant steely bugger struck me down a few times, but the problem didn’t lie in working out what to do (which generally annoys me), but in just surviving long enough to do it. Basically, the huge robot in the background (see above) uses magnetism to suck up blocks travelling along the moving walkway you’re stuck on them with. You have to hit the right color so that it accidentally swallows them, messing up its insides and destroying it. The difficulty is increased every time you manage this by the walkway moving faster towards the lethal furnace to the far right, and the robot also breathes fire at you in between just for extra burn.
And that was that. But I was disappointed that the demo ended there as I was just starting to get really into the game – which is always a good sign. So I ended up playing it a couple more times for good measure. The rest of the game involves travelling up the tower incrementally with new mechanics being introduced along the way to keep things fresh and, apparently, very challenging by the game’s latter parts. Recently announced was that at one point you’ll find a suit you can wear, but not revealed was the purpose of it or rather the ability it gave you. We also know that you get a staff a little later so you can fire your magnetism, which is going to be handy because in the demo there is one section with an enemy that insta-kills you, indicating that all enemies probably will. As you can see, there’s also flowers introduced on one of the levels that remain as yet another mystery. Intrigued? You should be – Teslagrad is not just another mediocre puzzle platformer as is easy to surmise from just a glance at its artwork and ideas.