Review: Teslagrad – Polished Old School Gameplay in a Gorgeous & Mysterious World
A little while back I had the pleasure of getting my hands on a little action puzzler by indie studio Rain Games called Teslagrad. And I loved it. This little known gem-in-the-making seemed to have several qualities which kept drawing my attention to it: beautiful hand-drawn art, old school platformer gameplay, an engaging boss battle and an interesting narrative direction that made Teslagrad stand out amongst it peers. Now half a year later I’ve finally gotten my hands on the full game, one of 2013’s last releases: but can it be added to the list of stellar titles that came out last year?
Yes, oh definitely yes.
Even if you’ve never heard of Teslagrad before, its premise is simple. You play as an unnamed young boy, one I’ll called the Young Lad, who–through the danger encroaching on his hometown from an unnamed faction–flees to what seems to be an abandoned tower. But this tower is actually Tesla Tower, a fortress full of mystery, danger and wonder.
The beauty of Teslagrad is in its design. Everything is so confidently structured that Rain Games’ less-is-more philosophy adds layers of depth in simple ways. The most important is the narrative, or rather, lack thereof. One of Teslagrad‘s key selling points is that the story is told entirely through the player’s own actions, through art found in the background of scenes, or through short cinematic-like sequences told via paperdoll puppet shows.
But keep in mind that this doesn’t involve cutscenes that remove players from control or lengthy dialogue boxes to read: even the cinematics happen in the background through little movie theaters, with players able to move away at any time they like. While this may seem like a major drawback in storytelling, the game doesn’t lose any of its strength through these methods.
Take the opening sequence for example: with the Young Lad trying to desperately outrace brutish thugs in the decrepit village he lives in, the scene is no less harrowing than one told through voiceovers and motion capture. Even more, the game introduces the basics to players within the first few minutes of play, while also setting the mood and tone of the game.
All of this is beautifully enhanced by the game’s sound design. The music is often an ambient blend of foreboding and suspenseful; and when absent, the player’s own actions measure the feeling of solitude and isolation in such a grand but abandoned ruin. Yet the world is still alive in its own way, with machines or magnetic waves humming, the occasional crow cawing, your clothes ruffling during long falls and fires crackling in far-off furnaces.
Then there’s the gameplay, which successfully evokes the spirit of classic platforming titles like Metroid, Castlevania and Mega Man. And that means expect to die, and die a lot.
Teslagrad is based on the old school idea of learning through trial and error. This means you will encounter danger or a trap, fail to react properly, die and try again. Checkpoints are generous enough to promote this method, but not easy enough to make every single mistake forgivable. Making your way past several traps and the occasional enemy but then dying from a careless move could set you back at least a minute or two in some rooms, encouraging players to think quick and learn fast.
Exploration is the number one aspect of the game, most of which isn’t possible without the items the Young Lad encounters on his journey. Along the way he will receive four key items. The Magnet Glove allows players to charge platforms with either a red or blue polarity; similar colors repel, opposites attract. Holding the button for a particular charge will allow the Young Lad to cling to oppositely-charged surfaces.
Then there’s the immensely important Blink Boots, which allow the player to teleport short distances, and can be used to get past thin walls, in and out of cages, past electric fences but not past anything too thick.
Later the Polarity Cloak will allow players to ride magnetic waves or float up to or over charged platforms, functions provided throughout the game through items or machine fauna that charge the player through physical contact.
Finally, the Teslastaff will allow players to charge the polarities of objects from a distance and destroy barriers.
Often getting through rooms requires a bit of logical thinking and a lot of experimentation, with solutions that may seem elusive at first but later very clear. I had several moments during the game where I was struggling to figure out how to progress, only to stumble upon the answer and then facepalm after realizing how simple it was. Other times it was more than just trial and error but a question of skill, using timing and split-second actions to get past obstacles and using the items in concert. Then, after getting well acquainted with the use of the items available, there’s the bosses.
One of Teslagrad‘s other key selling points was trying to bring back old school boss fights that really kept players on their toes. Teslagrad does this and more, with five battles that all range in diversity and length. The first fight, for example (without spoiling much), is a simple matter of pattern recognition: attack, avoid danger, dodge retaliation, rinse, repeat. The second takes that concept and then adds random twists to each “round” of damaging the foe that will catch overconfident players off guard.
The following three fights are a mix of catching weaknesses, quick wits and a good memory. Each gets more and more challenging and requires more and more skill; thankfully you can get through it eventually if you’re patient and driven.
Also fortunate for the player–and unlike the classic games Teslagrad is modeled after–you have unlimited lives to get you through the game. But keep in mind that if you die during a boss battle, you will be repeating the entire encounter over from the beginning. The very beginning. Frustrating, but worth the challenge if you enjoy overcoming monstrous hurdles.
What’s great about the entire experience is that there are no loading screens at all during the entire game. No intrusive pauses or framerate drops due to saving. The entire game can be played smoothly going through each of the 100+ hand-drawn rooms without a single hiccup. This made everything feel seamless and smooth, especially when trying to figure out where to go next or when trying to hunt down the game’s sole collectibles, scrolls hidden all over the tower. The only complaint players may have, though, is the game’s length, which is only a few hours long at most, and can be done in some speedruns in less than an hour.
But one thing that should be equated with Teslagrad is quality. Like one of the real Nikola Tesla’s fantastic ideas, it shines bright and strong, bringing its own unique spirit into an overly crowded industry. And making it through to the game’s conclusion is well worth the wait.
I can only hope that the upcoming PS3 and Wii U versions will come with even more content to enjoy, but for now, the PC, Mac and Linux versions are a fine showcase of what Rain Games is capable of, and I’m looking forward to what comes next.
For more on the game, check out all of our Teslagrad news.