The most striking aspect of Teslagrad’s presentation is the non-verbal manner in which it communicates with you. Not a single word is uttered, not a single phase written, and yet it gracefully unfolds a story for you as you play.
It’s not the most complex of stories, as a baby is delivered home one stormy night by his father on the run, before leaving the house years later with a militaristic purge underway, hunted and chased all the way to a mysterious tower. It’s here that you see the history of the tower, the city and its inhabitants gradually revealed through pictograms, graffiti, and even small puppet theatre productions.
It’s a tale of power, greed and corruption, and it’s one which does not end happily. The Teslamancers have clearly come off worse in the conflict, but their command of the electric elements have had a long and lasting impact on their world.
As the boy enters the tower, you get the first taste of the Teslamancy powers which form the integral parts of the gameplay. Initially, you’re surviving in a world outside of your control, with little robots clacking about and giving you a fleeting magnetic charge when they bump into you, or triggering mechanisms in the world that can kill you in an instant.
Then you gain these powers for yourself, to give a charge to metal blocks, changing their polarity to solve puzzles and progress. Short teleport blinks let you flash through certain objects, giving you more mobility, and further items give you more powers that help you to journey up the ever more treacherous tower.
Within the limiting confines, it’s quite surprising the kind of variety that they’ve managed to find visually, and the art style is another major strength to the game. There’s the bold contrasts between the magnetic poles throughout, with red vs. blue at all times, but it will also take you from deep dungeons to vast and palatial halls. The occasional use of 3D elements in addition to a really heavy parallax is also well used, to emphasise the size and scale of what’s being depicted.
It’s further bolstered by a soundtrack that really adds to the mood of the setting. It can be light and etherial one moment, before switching to the clank of metal and shocking strings for a boss fight, ratcheting up the tension at the right moments, while the main theme is one which I find to be particularly catchy and playful. I woke up the morning after finishing the game and was humming that theme to myself as I wrote!
Combat is practically non-existent, as you play a small boy with no real means to attack, so instead the focus in the game is on solving puzzles, traversing the world and avoiding the few enemies that you do come across. If you get caught by a soldier, charged down by a strange gloopy monster or land in a stream of electricity, you die instantly, and respawn back at the start of the area.
Given your fragility, the game is more more of a puzzle-platformer than a Metroidvania styled game. Heading higher up the tower, the challenges and puzzles that you face become more difficult to figure out, and start to require much more finesse in order to pass.
Unfortunately, certain areas are simply too difficult for their own good, relying on trial and error to figure out and then being particularly difficult to execute successfully. If you die, the checkpoint system will set you right back to the start of an area or room, and so repeated deaths start to becomes more and more annoying.
Boss battles too, of which there are just a handful, rely on trial and error and will send you right back to the start of the fight, should you die. I died a lot during these, as each move had to be learnt, and the order or the telltale signs of incoming attacks spotted, so that you could react in time.
However, partly because of those difficulty spikes, there was that sense of satisfaction when I finally managed to best a particularly tricky section or beat that boss. It’s just a shame that I stopped and walk away, having died a few times too many and become annoyed at the precision required for success.
Teslagrad is a game with flaws, with the difficulty level and a fairly short length the two main offenders, but it’s also a charming title, and one which I enjoyed playing.
Hopefully, by the time the PS3 release rolls around (it’s currently on PC), some of the kinks can be worked out, because the art style, music and non-verbal storytelling help it to stand out from the crowd. There’s a lot of variety and plenty of clever ideas in the gameplay which combine to make some great moments and puzzles within the game.