Teslagrad (Xbox One)

Here’s a puzzle platformer charged with invention.

Another young hero liberates his town from an evil patriarch. It’s not the most invigorating of storylines, deeply trodden as it is in platform gaming’s most worn traditions. But the means by which he does it…there’s the trick. A suite of abilities focused on polarity and magnetic manipulation provide the hook, complemented by an environment built to test them in continually interesting ways.

I could lazily compare it to Braid, which similarly exploited a singular idea (time, in that case). I suppose then it might appear that I’ve been stroking my indie beard to Jonathan Blow interviews since 2008. Well, perhaps the Norwegian developers at Rain Games have been stroking their own impressive beards in honour of Blow, the resulting friction generating enough of an electrical charge to inspire Teslagrad’s unique magnetic gameplay device.

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In trying to do for polarity what Braid did for time, Teslagrad maintains a singular emphasis on building up its mechanics intelligently and sparingly. It exploits its ideas with comprehensive variety, yet never overstretches on the concept. That being said it suffers a slow start, reliant on the core platforming tenets of running and – in particular – jumping, which doesn’t achieve the nuance of control required of a demanding platformer.

As new moves are introduced, inaccurate leaps become less of a concern. Dash moves and the magnetic manipulation of local gravity prove a superior substitute to traditional movement, while the challenges presented are geared specifically towards these specialisms. Red and blue markers charge our hero with their according polarity for a limited time, repelling or attracting him in contact with the respectively coloured platforms and blocks.

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Later, he is able to charge his own body at will and even magnetise the environments themselves. Combining these abilities allows some rich physics-based puzzles to emerge, demanding of (and able to support) pixel perfect feats that evoke the best moments of Super Meat Boy. The ultimate acquisition of a rail gun (think Ghostbuster proton pack) enables charging of objects from afar, providing even greater flexibility to bend the environment in your favour.

It’s still a gun though, and a gun isn’t being fully utilised until there are a few bad guys knocking about to shoot at. I do say a few, since the only enemies – with rare exceptions – are boss encounters at the end of distinct areas within the Metroid-style compartmentalised map. Each boss is a puzzle in itself; an exercise in pattern recognition before weaknesses can be exposed. What at first feels impossible with patience and nerve falls within reach.

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That these encounters are more about planning and co-ordination than twitch combat speaks to the game’s general emphasis on puzzles and skilled navigation. The source of defeat is typically not an enemy, but your own failure to meet exacting platforming standards, especially with regard to the many collectibles hidden away in difficult to reach places. These additional challenges and the secret areas in which they reside add compelling substance to the game world.

It’s a world that’s already interesting on a superficial level, boasting hand drawn artwork that’s rough-edged and of a subdued pallet that evokes esoteric European animation. Describing itself as a “steampunk-inspired vision of old Europe”, Teslagrad’s setting in the abandoned Tesla Tower allows the red and blue of its polarity signifiers to positivity glow through the rust and dirt of the dilapidated scenery.

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Through the wear and tear, Tesla Tower remains an eminently functional design, intelligently constructed around a central chamber that can be ascended with the assistance of its vast magnetic core. Its length is segmented with retractable ceilings, unlocked only through completion of the ancillary chambers branching from either side. Every deviation eventually leads back to the core chamber, making navigation efficient and progress directly perceptible.

It’s an impressively well-organised design, contrary to initial impressions of the game’s core platforming missteps. With those underlying issues around the fundamental controls, Teslagrad at first feels like it will be polarising in a critical sense as well as a thematic one. Overcoming those hobbles as it grows into its theme is well worth waiting for; Rain Games has delivered a rewarding test for players willing to let Teslagrad find its spark.

8/10

Teslagrad was reviewed with a download code of the Xbox One edition, provided by Microsoft Xbox