I think Fargo is a really great movie; I remember the first time I saw it, some ironically cold, wintery night in my freshman year of college, on one of those many weekends my roommate went home to see his parents and friends and left me to my lonesome–which, in the grand scheme of things, was perfectly fine by me. We were not meant to be. I had the lights off, the volume up, and my eyes glued to the screen. It’s a humble movie about small people committing big crimes, all for, to quote Marge Gunderson, “a little bit of money.” So far, I’ve seen the first episode of the Fargo TV show and really liked it, so here’s hoping it comes to Netflix down the line.
Anyways, that intro paragraph exists because I played a bit of Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent last night, which clearly takes inspiration from Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 cult American crime flick. Both are set in Minnesota, and both rely heavily on accents and smallfolk quirks to sell the setting’s personality. Granted, one deals with murder and kidnapping, and the other an accident at an erasers factory, so there are some slight differences in tone, but a mystery must be investigated nonetheless. Which brings us to the titular Nelson Tethers, who works for the Puzzle Research Division of the FBI; this is his first field assignment, and he’s humble enough to really want to do a good, thorough job, impress the higher-ups. As soon as he arrives, Tethers begins to see that this quiet, snowy town has a few extra secrets slinking in the shadows.
Puzzle Agent is a puzzle-driven adventure game in the same vein as the Professor Layton series. There’s a story at play, but to see it unfold, you’ll have to solve seemingly random puzzles–though some are definitely more themed for the plot than others–and these range from jigsaws to answering a question based on a specific set of rules. I think I even ran across a “bug grouping” puzzle that I also recently found in Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy, which I need to get back to sooner than later. You can collect pieces of chewed-up gum (gross), which act as hints for puzzles, and naturally, you get rated for how many hints you used and how many wrong answers you submitted. Other than that, you’ll question people via your trusty notepad of topics á la L.A. Noire and examine scenes, though there is no inventory to manage.
Visually, Puzzle Agent is a delight. It has this wonderful art style from the creator of Grickle Graham Annable, which is a really cartoony look, and you can see it so when the cutscenes zoom in on characters and you can make out the pencil lead in their outlines. As an artist, I dig this, though I get why some might not. Environments are detailed where it matters so far, and the illustrations for the puzzles get the job done. Speaking of that, when you submit an answer, you get this fantastic animation of your solution being zipped off to HQ for review, as well as a ticking number tallying up how much taxpayer dollars you are spending on this. It’s probably the slickest element of the entire game’s presentation, and yes, the character animation is meant to be so rudimentary. It’s for effect.
Not to keep comparing it to Professor Layton, but that series is really the pinnacle of puzzle-based adventures, and so there are a few things I wish Puzzle Agent did more like them. For starters, often, the text for the rules or question you are trying to solve is found in a sub-menu, meaning you have to constantly keep clicking back over to remember what your goal is, whereas the Professor Layton games, mind you, they are on a system designed with dual screens, keeps the information right in front of you at all times so you can read and solve in unison. Secondly, the game will not auto-complete a puzzle if you find the right solution; you have to hit submit to see it through, which has already lead to me second-guessing a few choices here and there.
Alas, I kind of spoiled a little bit of the game as I went searching for a good image to use on this blog post, but regardless, I’m still excited to see how everything plays out in Scoggins, Minnesota. I don’t think it’s a very long game, so maybe I’ll finish it over another sitting or two. What’s even better is that I apparently also have a copy of Puzzle Agent 2 on Steam, waiting for me immediately after. I guess I got both of these through a bundle at some point, but have no memory of such a purchase. Or maybe I bought them in a fever-driven state of consciousness. Hmm. Let’s just end on another Marge quote: “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.”