A pinch of Twin Peaks, a dash of Fargo, and a heaping handful of Professor Layton are the main ingredients in Puzzle Agent. Telltale Games has thrown a curveball with its latest game, ditching its usual point-and-click adventure style for pure puzzle-solving spiced up with a storyline about snowy weirdness in Minnesota. The overall game is less than the sum of its parts, though, firing on all cylinders with its quirky setting, characters, and distinctive cartoon artwork but chugging when it comes to the puzzles that you're called upon to crack.
But when it comes to setting a stage and telling a tale, Puzzle Agent succeeds brilliantly. You play as Nelson Tethers, a mousy agent in the puzzle division of the FBI who has been sent to the tiny town of Scoggins, Minnesota, to discover why the eraser factory has been shut down. To unravel the mystery, you explore the snowy hamlet and the surrounding wilderness of ice-fishing shacks, as well as spooky forests, as in a point-and-click adventure. Most of the time, you're interacting with the kooky locals, most of whom affect accents straight out of Fargo and all of whom seem to be hiding something. Garden gnomes run around the woods, a sinister cult chants in a lodge, and a grumpy guy hangs out in front of the hotel…you're dealing with a lot of first-rate weirdos who might have had something to do with the strange explosion at the eraser plant.
You really get drawn in by the story and setting. Eccentric artwork by alt-cartoonist Graham Annable (best known for his Grickle series and now working as a creative director for Telltale), gives the game a charming, offbeat personality. Characters and backgrounds resemble '60s-era animated TV shows, but with extra artistic flair like fuzzy outlines that look like those found in charcoal drawings. The game looks a lot like somebody's sketch pad just came to life. Audio is equally memorable. Every character in the game is voiced by superb actors who somehow manage not to oversell the cheesy Minnesota accents. Dialogue is a match for the talent, too. The script conveys a lot of laughs but also some dark moments that keep you on edge. One moment you're chuckling at the Marge Gunderson-sounding innkeeper; the next you're running into a guy frozen to death in the woods. And the music is understated and more than a little bit spooky, reminiscent of the tunes that scored the Twin Peaks TV show.
From there, however, the game takes a turn for the worse. Instead of picking up objects as in the usual Telltale Games effort, such as its Sam & Max games, Nelson trudges through the snowdrifts by solving set-piece logic puzzles. All are pretty standard. You figure out your room number at the Scoggins Hotel by breaking a code. Factory explosion suspects are sorted by putting surveillance photos into order. A woodstove is fired up by twisting and turning a maze of pipes. The winner of an arm-wrestling competition is figured out through clues given by the contestants. What owls and bluebirds can carry is used to decipher how many garden gnomes they're carrying. That sort of thing.
Unfortunately, weirdness is the most distinctive part of the puzzles. Many can be quite challenging, although that is mostly because they aren't explained well. You frequently have to experiment to determine what you're supposed to be doing, which hurts your final score as you're rated according to how many attempts you need to come up with the right solution. Even the hints accessed by having Nelson boost his concentration by chewing on pieces of used bubble gum found splattered around the scenery (um, eww?) often do little but muddy the waters. The early hotel room key problem, for instance, comes with a trio of hints that confuse you even more by indicating that you should be examining spaces between dashes to decipher a code when you're actually just looking to connect the dots and complete a written-out number.
While there are some high points here, Puzzle Agent isn't a fully realized game. It doesn't feel like it's all there, as if the mediocre puzzles were wedged into a sharp-looking adventure that was already finished and sitting on the shelf. A lot could have been done to liven up the mostly generic puzzles, and simply adding thorough instructions and sensible hints would have gone a long way toward making the game more playable. With that said, the price is just $10 and there is a lot of room for the game to grow, as it is just the first in a planned series of episodes.