Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent
Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent Cover
Platforms Windows, OSX
Genre Point and Click and Solve
Score 7  Clock score of 7

Nintendo has made a killing packaging classic pen-and-paper activities into DS games. PicrossSudoku, Crosswords...but one of the major successes is the Professor Layton series. Developed by Level 5 and published by Nintendo outside of Japan, the franchise tasks players with solving puzzles and riddles in order to explore a storyline brimming with mystery. The puzzling travels of Professor Layton and his apprentice Luke are a hit with casuals and hardcore alike, selling over ten million units worldwide between the series' five titles.

Of the three titles available outside Japan, I've only played the first, Curious Village. It's certainly full of cranium-crunching riddles, but I wasn't as taken by the rest of the package as many were. Decent production values aside, there wasn't much that impressed me from the strange story of Layton, Luke, and the peculiar villagers. I'd almost wished the game was a more sterile package, like so many other brainy DS productions. Most would probably disagree, seeing the worth in framing these teasers within a narrative.

Enter Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. I bought this budget PC title in -- what else? -- a Steam bundle during the holiday season. Nelson clearly took notes from one of the Professor's lectures, because Puzzle Agent's premise is very similar to Curious Village, having the player explore a mysterious little town by solving riddles for its puzzle-obsessed populace. But unlike Curious Village, I actually enjoyed the overall experience even more than the puzzles that pervade it.

Nelson's adventure begins at his desk in the Puzzle Research division of the FBI. After dozing off and experiencing a prophetic nightmare, Nelson is dispatched to Scoggins, Minnesota in order to investigate an incident at a factory that supplies the White House with its erasers, which of course are "the cornerstones of democracy." He finds the humble, Midwestern community ensnared by the supernatural and soon falls victim to the madness himself as he attempts to unravel just what the hell is going on in this unseemly factory town.

Nelson Tethers Puzzle Agent Erasers

Parallel to the snowy suburb setting, every piece of the game's presentation emanates a cozy vibe, from the sketchy art style with pencil character outlines to the fully spoken dialog with colorful Midwestern and Nordic accents. This podunk atmosphere provides the perfect backdrop for Puzzle Agent's strange blend of humor and dread, alternating between hints of small-budget horror films and regional indie comedies. The pacing in every cutscene provides excellent tension and comedic timing where appropriate, and I actually really enjoyed the downtime spent talking to the townspeople. There are even a couple of cheap scares that almost made me drop my laptop. The ending is intentionally unsatisfying, leaving a plethora of lingering questions, but the ride until then is one of the more enjoyable gaming narratives I've experienced in a while.

As an accomplished Puzzle Agent working for the government, you'll be tasked with solving the variety of riddles and puzzles that plague Scoggins. Hints can be earned by finding ABC gum scattered around the environments, and players are rated upon completion of each puzzle by their hint dependence and number of failed attempts. A feeling of familiarity will overcome those who have played Professor Layton (or have any substantial experience with brain teasers, really).

"If X is two years older than Y, and Y is twice the age of Z..."

"Draw a single line that would cut every knot and chain in this tangled mess."

"Place barriers on this grid that will bounce Nelson's snowmobile to the destination while also covering all these tracks."

Nelson Tethers Puzzle Agent Snowmobile

With only 37 puzzles in all to discover from character dialogue and clicking knickknacks in the environment, the obstacles that Nelson faces don't quite have the longevity, variety, or challenge of Professor Layton's work. I was also displeased with the explanation for some of the puzzles, where the rules or objective were somewhat vague at times. Still, the collection is satisfying overall and at least lives up to its budget price (a glance at the game's Steam page lists it at $5 at the moment).

Final Thoughts

There really isn't much more to say. Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is a great little game if you like brain teasers and want to kill three or four hours. If you've played and enjoyed the Professor Layton games, you'll probably take to Puzzle Agent as well. Or, if you are thinking about getting into the Layton series but are hesitant to pay full price, Puzzle Agent may be a good budget alternative for you to test the waters. I can't imagine anybody being unsatisfied with this package unless they simply don't enjoy brain teasers. Or if they're such puzzle aces that this particular collection poses no challenge. Either way, it can't really hurt to find out for about five bucks, can it?

Nelson Tethers Puzzle Agent Scoggins