Teslagrad (PlayStation 4) review
"Don’t judge a game by its early hours of play’s cover"
One way to begin familiarizing oneself with a game -- a gamepad-featuring one, that is, -- is to connect the controller after launching it. Whether the controller will work without us having to quit and restart is a rather trustworthy line of division between games careful and not, or games where the prime concern is to sell or to be played.
GTA V doesn’t pass such a test. Teslagrad does.
Typology wise, we are in a vein midway between puzzle platformers (Braid, Limbo) and what should in fairness be called “MetroiMulana” or “LaMulanavania” but goes by the “Metroidvania” label, as there is backtracking -- although only a touch, -- and items -- though only a handful -- allowing further areas be reached. Touches that, well-designed as they are, steer the gameplay in a direction of its own in coordination with the bipolar electromagnetism-based mechanic serving as gameplay’s cornerstone, which has you interact with the environment by altering the magnetic polarity of elements of it (blocks, platforms) in order to make your way.
A difference with the Limbo-Braid pair is that while the nucleus of the challenge is still made of logical problems, this is not a platform-dressed -- or, for the sake of alliteration, platform-plated -- puzzle game: deaths occur due to failure to act what is correctly thought out, not only from misunderstanding or incomplete understanding.
The riddles, on the other hand, are simpler, and a good two runs of refinement and complexity below Braid’s. Also, there is jumping and beam firing, and they come with the feelings of effort and later satisfaction associated with real platforming.
As is de rigueur, the riddles divide into needed to reach the ending, and, optional, needed to complete the game... completely, and reach the... final final. How apart in toughness the latter group are from the first contributes to setting a game’s character, indicating a will on the part of the designers to disclose the extra content and grant the emotional reward tied with getting it more open-handedly or with thrift and sternness.
When a good deal of mind is poured into this area of the design, something as solid as a side game can come from it. (A better game, even. The games where hidden routes areas and puzzles are a repository for excellent ideas kept out of the main track of the game due to the advice of marketing wisdom are not few.) To achieve that, severity is not requisite; only ingenuity. The retrieval of collectibles can be made thrilling while not, or not much or not much too trying. Limbo accomplishes that by creativity matched with far-above-standard difficulty; Blow’s work relies on playful inspired invention escalating challenge but to no lofty heights.
This is a tile of gameplay whereon Teslagrad slips: the secret scrolls are placed trivially, located and picked up via a process linear and unexciting from end to end; and the one time collection would seem to promise a modicum of trickiness, “planned luck” is allowed on purpose, so that a trier is to succeed anyway not after long.
The sound is a point of weakness, consisting as it does of a bundle of indifferent effects and miniature melodic lines that it would take the most generous stretch of judgment to elevate to the range of an even mediocre score. In contrast with Limbo’s powerful combination of masterly effects and absence of music and Braid’s elegiac delectability, beautiful soundlessness and beautiful soundfulness are nowhere to be found. It is an I-am-doing-it-because-they-hired-me-to job whose only positive seems to be a kind of self-awareness, in the sense that as if knowing it is not much of music it much keeps in the background.
Coming to the graphics, they had struck me as featureless like the sound, inferior to the pastoral impressionism of Braid and Limbo’s classy, essential black-and-whiteness. I was misjudging, deceived by technical modesty and stylistic composure.
In fact, the game’s graphics are the vehicle chosen to convey its meaning, and, even though it took me many hours, when I woke to the implicit beauty of the hand-drawn scrolls and backdrops with their wealth of sculptures and paintings, not a few of which are hymns to visual artistry and feel as if they had two still eyes staring at you intently, I woke to the game’s message, which is a dilemma, To wear it, or to fling it away? (I am not giving spoilers on this), and an answer to it.
This beauty is the forgotten one of traditional, pre-commercial art: not that which loudly ingratiates and imposes itself with the observer and on his perception. Instead, unimposing, still, symbolic: that leaves it to the willing observer to investigate and disclose its truths, constructing a bridge between his mind and the non-habitual external object (the work of art), mentally stringing slices of meaning into a unitary understanding. It is a style of centuries ago, witnessed for instance by medieval sacred art. In it, one or few symbols express that which can be hoped, felt, dreamed, intuited, while it escapes the squared grids of rationality and the notice of consciousness.
It is not by accident that no single word of text (except for some arcane inscriptions that only reinforce the non-verbal aesthetic line) is seen. The narration aims at what is beyond rationality thus verbal language, or, as one of the developers wrote on the Steam forum (where developers have been answering -- regularly kindly and quickly -- players’ concerns for, well, three years and a half since the game launched): “We try to tell everything with visuals.”
He couldn’t have made a better choice of word than with that “everything.”
I admit that my first hours with the game were tinged with indifference, and I went close to never switching from surface-looking into surface-breaking mode, mistaking sobriety of dress for deficiency of body. Art has an ironical nature: it wears a basic dress when the body is luxuriant; a glittery attire when not all the skin below is rosy, in an eagerness to cover up creases and spots.
Ambition strives for attention; passion to be what it is, still hoping to be understood. Consistent with that, across the whole range of artistic character and critical reception, we find Braid, clumsily trying to leap skywards to the heights of literary art, reaching nowhere short of it and falling back onto the ground of ordinariness, all without losing confidence, its heart beating with naive ambition and the lack of awareness of one’s limits that typically fosters it. Acclaimed on the very strength of failing to be what it hoped, which keeps it from getting too long a way away from the bulk of critics.
At first, and second, sight and on first, and second, thought I believed Braid an artistically important work and Teslagrad a stock indie game with little to play and nothing to say. Lucky thing that sometimes we give things a third and fourth look and thought, undressing them. For three quarters of play time I did not realize Teslagrad’s story and its dimensions. When I did, it was a revelation. Thereon to the end, it was a crescendo (a sign of development relatively immune to the clutches of haste).
The gameplay, foreign to excellence as it is, doesn’t lack balance, as highlighted by details such as checkpoint management: in a sequence of 4 difficult actions, to perish after the third will at times mean restarting from the beginning, at other times from just before the failed action.
In place of using a fixed criterion restart points are set with case-by-case care, another hint of unrushed development.
Still, a solid idea like the bipolar magnetism mechanic could have been developed to some depth, and there is nothing going beyond a competent routine for the genre -- modest puzzles and a scattering of platform action -- with a chance of lodging in the memory. The game’s difficulty is, on a scale of 1 to 10, 7, with regards to the action and puzzle side alike.
Brilliance is, however, in the story and its narration.
You should interest yourself in this game if you want a reasonable-quality puzzle platformer and, more so, if you are attracted to art. The gameplay is the dress. The story is the body.
Congratulations, on creative talent and that other very rare one talent humbleness is, to Rain Games, a group of Norwegian artists and programmers “diverse in both talents and interests,” with a mention of honour for Ole Ivar Rudi (lead artist) Petter Almland (environment artist) and Peter Meldahl, who runs the company and “creates the overarching plots and game design.”
Community review by bwv_639 (June 04, 2017)
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