Rain Games is a developer that understands the golden rule of spinning a good story: Show, Don’t Tell. Completely eschewing the written word and spoken dialogue, Teslagrad’s tale is told purely through its gorgeous visuals and delightful musical score.
It does a damn good job of it too, filling out the backstory with small details in the environment – a painting hanging in the background of a room, for instance, or mechanical puppet shows convey the history of the tower in which you’ll spend the vast majority of the game. The story itself is simple, but the manner in which it’s relayed to the player means it ends up being more than the sum of its parts, taking on a fairy tale-like quality while leaving just enough open to interpretation that you can fill in some of the blanks with your own imagination. The method of delivery also means that it never threatens to disrupt the flow of the game; there are no unskippable cutscenes and it’s up to you whether you choose to take a moment to learn a bit more about the world or simply continue on your journey. Many larger developers could learn a lot by studying the techniques adopted here.
The same could be said for how the game teaches you its basic mechanics: small chalk-drawings teach you new concepts as they’re introduced; it’s a relief to play a game that doesn’t batter the player over the head with endless pop-up messages, or patronizing voice over tutorials which assume the player is too stupid to be able to work out basic movement.
Taking place in a largely open, non-linear tower, some light Metroidvania elements combine with the sort of puzzles that bring to mind games like Portal. Using the force of magnetism you’ll manipulate switches, doors and platforms to make your way through each room. The two different magnetic poles are color-coded; like colors repel each other, while opposites attract. Early in your journey you’ll pick up a gauntlet which allows you to change the polarity of these magnets; doing so allows you to hurl blocks across gaps to activate a switch, or raise a gate that was blocking the way forward. Later you’ll gain a pair of boots that allow you to teleport forward a short distance, lengthening the reach of your jumps or enabling you to pass through grates. In addition, you’ll surround yourself with a magnetic field, allowing you to cling to a magnetic ceiling, or fling yourself across otherwise impassable gaps. These elements are introduced gradually and the game eases you into their various uses, taking to time to ensure you’re familiar with each before presenting you with tasks which require you to combine your various abilities.
The puzzling is gentle for the most part and it’s never difficult to work out what you need to do. Unfortunately, actually managing to do it can be another matter entirely. A number of sections require pinpoint timing and pixel-perfect accuracy which can cause frustration. If you ever die – and you frequently will, usually due to being vaporized in an electrical field – you re-spawn at the beginning of the room with the puzzle reset. This can get particularly annoying later on; some of the larger rooms contain a number of different hazards and tricky sections so a single mistake will see you having to repeat the gauntlet all over again.
Where frustration rears its head the most though is in the boss battles. Thankfully there’s only a few of these scattered throughout the game – I counted 5 – but again they all require pinpoint timing and accuracy. Your
character can’t take any damage, so a single hit will see you re-spawning back at the entrance to the room and having to start the fight from the beginning. As each fight consists of several phases – each more difficult than the last – what should have been brief changes of pace turn into wars of attrition; when you do overcome them it often feels like you did so through sheer luck rather than skill, providing a feeling of relief instead of satisfaction. Thankfully these fights are just about the only instances of combat in the game, but they hurt the overall feeling of enjoyment. You’ll sigh, grit your teeth and eventually just walk away for a break out of sheer annoyance at being sent back to the beginning of a battle for the umpteenth time. As a result, they feel at odds with the rest of the experience and the game wouldn’t have suffered in the slightest if they weren’t included or made significantly more forgiving.
The bosses are, however, a great showcase for the character and art design in the game. Hand-drawn, lovingly animated and layered thick with steampunk trappings, Teslagrad is utterly gorgeous to look at, with an aesthetic reminiscent of classic 1930’s cartoons. Despite taking place in one central location, the environments are varied and distinct – you’ll visit ornate throne rooms, explore the upper reaches of a giant tree and travel through a metal foundry. Each area of the tower has its own distinct visual style; by the time you reach the tower’s summit towards the end of the game you’ll have thought that you’ve seen pretty much all that the developers have to offer, but even in the very last moments Rain Games keep introducing new environments. The world of Teslagrad is rich in detail and beauty, the quality putting to shame many bigger-budget games of its ilk.
Marrying perfectly with the art is a great orchestral score tinged with an Eastern-European feel. You won’t be humming the tunes between play sessions – it’s not that kind of music – but it’s a pleasure to listen to. Credit should be given to the subtle SFX work as well, with everything sounding as it should with care and attention to detail that ensures little things like the rustling of a cape as you fall down a long shaft add to the physicality and believability of the gameworld.
Beyond the occasionally iffy platforming and the boss fights mentioned earlier, a couple of other annoyances rear their head which should be mentioned. In a rather baffling decision, the game doesn’t have a default control scheme for gamepads: if you want to play with a controller in hand you’ll need to map all of the buttons (including movement) yourself. It’s an odd oversight; the controls are fairly simple so there’s no reason for there not to be a default scheme. You’ll definitely want to use a gamepad too, as playing with a keyboard makes the frustrating elements of the game even more difficult.
Also, the map is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. You can’t scroll it, zoom in or out and it doesn’t do anything to help you navigate around the world as a result. Collectible capsules – of which there are 36, 15 compulsory (collecting all of them unlocks a secret ending) aren’t marked down on the map so it’s easy to forget where they are once you have the necessary abilities to obtain them. This can lead to a lot of confusing backtracking as you work back through the castle, room-by-room
Beyond their use in unlocking the entrance to the final area of the game these collectibles have no actual function beyond providing another way for Rain Games to tell their story: once picked up, each takes the form of a card with a single still image on it. Most of these are hidden in plain sight but some lurk off-screen, making finding them all a rather hit-and-miss affair that requires a lot of retreading of old ground once you have your full set of abilities. It hurts the pace of the game, as you simply end up wandering through puzzles that you’ve already solved trying to reach the farthest reaches of the tower. Some form of fast-travel system to allow you move through previously-visited areas would have been nice and could have alleviated a little of the tedium in this regard.
It’s difficult to pin down length when it comes to games like this; how long it takes you to complete is largely down to whether you get stuck on the puzzles or on particular boss fights. Steam tells me that I spent around 10 hours with the game, but if I’m honest then at least 3 of those were spent having to restart rooms or boss battles – particularly the final one, which took me easily at least 20 or so tries before I finally managed to get past it and finish the game. In addition, the start of my time with Teslagrad was spent struggling with the keyboard controls as the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to tell you that you can even use a gamepad.
This odd balance of the joyous with the frustrating makes Teslagrad a particularly tricky game to put a number next to for review purposes. When it works well, it’s a sheer pleasure to play and the stunning presentation puts many big-budget titles to shame. But when it falls down, it falls down hard – eliciting no small amount of frustration and suffering from a few basic design flaws. It’s perhaps slightly fitting that a game about polar opposites ends up flitting between two different extremes.
So the score you see here should be treated with a degree of caution. Teslagrad is a wonderful game, and comes highly recommended; just don’t expect it to be plain sailing all the time.
[This review was originally published on The Indie Game Magazine. It is reproduced here with permission.]
Version Tested: PC (Windows)