To properly grasp the experience of Teslagrad I need you to understand that there is separation between being angry at how a thing makes you feel, and being angry at that thing; that you can be happy because of an experience without liking that experience. This is Teslagrad.
Teslagrad is a side-scrolling, smoothly animated platform puzzle game made by Norwegian developers Rain Games. The advertising copy is a little boilerplate, so let me offer a better replacement: You’re a lone boy on the run from strange, oppressive forces, trying to unpack the mystery of an enormous tower full of science.
Now come with me, as I talk to you about the bright, shining jewel that is Teslagrad, before I tell you of its dark, wicked half, the awful game Teslagrad.
The Elegant High
This game is beautiful and charming! Oh my gosh!
I love traditional animation. I’ve loved it since I first tried doing it, then realised just how difficult it was to really make something look fluid. There’s a graceful loveliness to the animations of Teslagrad. Normally, I’m used to seeing traditional animation clashing with 3D objects in these games – and lord knows Teslagrad has plenty of opportunity for things to clash, with its heavy reliance on Unity Engine physics! Someone in the art team, however, took the time and paid attention to all the little details that make the hand-animated parts look charming and elegant. Characters all have a weight to them, but the animator respected the techniques of 2D animation that allowed for things like expressive expansion or decompression. What makes this accomplishment even more remarkable, then, is that these figures don’t look out of place against the larger, more processed objects of the environment. Typically, when the game wants to show you a big computer generated thing, it still looks like it belongs alongside the charming little people.
Teslagrad looks beautiful. Straight up, just looks really good.
While the game starts out with a very linear play experience – ‘getting into the fortress’ – and slowly but surely expands. Many exploration games, these days, work by dropping you ass-first in a huge map, but Teslagrad is smarter than that. What starts with one long line slowly branches, and branches again, and branches again along each branch, expanding outwards until you realise that you have been exploring this vast cathedral structure and you can travel back and find things you missed. Normally in exploration games, I find myself lost, but Teslagrad is designed with care enough that when I thought I was lost, all I had to do was wander around a little, try poking a few things, and the way forward was revealed.
This means Teslagrad has achieved something remarkable: It’s an exploration platformer that, as I look at it, is relatively linear, but at the same time doesn’t feel linear.
The puzzles are also almost all designed very well. Thanks to being physics puzzles there’s some margin for error in all of them – you can execute them perfectly, you can sort of wiggle around an almost-good-enough execution, and you can also fail spectacularly. Despite this margin of error, though, the puzzles in Teslagrad never stymied me in a way that felt truly unfair, and they are well-paced so that whenever you encounter one, you have the tools to solve it, or you obviously need to go elsewhere.
Now, excuse me, just need to don my little mind-controlling crown.
The Dolorous Lows
OH MY GOD I FUCKING HATE THIS GAME.
This game has some of the most over-tuned, badly-executed, excessively overcomplicated bosses I’ve ever seen in a game. Almost every single boss encounter in Teslagrad made me want to stop playing the game entirely – and at one point, I was sure I’d encountered the final boss, put the game away for a while, and then learned that I had in fact, a whole other boss to go!
Before we can talk about how bad these bosses, are, though, we have to talk about what makes a boss battle good. In my opinion, a well-designed boss battle is an exam for the game components that have come before it. All games tend to iterate, but bosses should work as the place where, when you reach them, they use abilities that you look at and say I know how to deal with this. The very last boss does this excellently, but, there’s still this problem where you have to die a dozen times to learn all the things it does in sequence.
If you’ve designed a boss fight well, the player should be able to experience it, once, and intuitively know what they have to do to solve each part of it. This isn’t how the bosses in Teslagrad work. In Teslagrad, when you encounter a boss, you have to fumble around until the first phase kills you, and then you’ll know what to avoid. Then you’ll try a few more things and then that will kill you. And then you’ll get through to another phase. While memorisation is fine in a boss encounter, Teslagrad doesn’t do anything to teach you the pattern you have to learn.
These boss fights are the most frustrating, iterative parts of the game, and they are the parts which are so overtuned, and simultaneously, random. When I beat them, I didn’t feel exhilarated at having achieved something remarkable, I felt frustrated, annoyed that Wait, That was It?!
Hang on, why am I wearing a crown? Gimme a moment, I just need to take this off.
The Spaces Between
Teslagrad is a game that careens wildly between ridiculously frustrating and charmingly clever. There’s someone in the design factory for this game that played a lot of Super Mario Bros, and beta testers who spent weeks dealing with the same bosses and not once thought I wonder what this will look like to people who haven’t seen these bosses before. It’s jammed full of good ideas, it’s damn near an educational game with how it teaches magnetism and polarity, but at the same time, about a third of the game experience is tearing your hair out at one of its five boss battles.
Look to the backgrounds and you will see a beautiful, interesting story, told without words. Look to the mechanics and you will clever mechanics that use a minimal control scheme. Look to the character designs and you will see a beautiful sense of soul. Just… don’t look at the boss fights too hard.
I like this game. I like this game so much that it makes me care a great deal about the awkward chunkiness of the boss fights. If I didn’t love this game I’d probably have thrown the whole thing in the trash around the damn bird fight and simply stated that the game was unpolished and had bad conveyance. But it isn’t, and it doesn’t – the game’s conveyance is so good, I want to keep playing even through these awful boss encounters.
Buy it if:
- You like exploration puzzle games.
- You want to support interesting indie games.
- You have a lot of patience for slow-iteration bosses.
Avoid it if:
- You dislike imprecise puzzle platforming.
- You’re easily frustrated by high levels of iteration.