Any game that will allow us to use a line of dialogue from the Schwarzenegger classic Red Heat as a tagline is already a long way to winning a place in our gaming hearts. The fact that the line fits the whole style of the game is just the icing on the cake. Coming from Rain Games, Teslagrad is a side-scrolling 2D puzzle game that involves electricity or possibly magnets. We say "possibly" because at the beginning of the game, the explanation of who you are and what you do is somewhat terse, if not completely lacking.
In the beginning, you are a young boy and must run away from big scary soldiers, who come to the house where you were abandoned as an infant. What follows is a madcap chase across the rooftops with no reason as to why you are running, or even any explanation as to how to jump. We settled for mashing the A button, which seemed to work very well, and we ran and bounced our way across a Russian cityscape until eventually a tower appeared, that promised sanctuary.
It'd be a bit of a short game if that was case though, so as you may have been expecting the tower turns out to be full of rooms and puzzles, traps and bosses. As you begin your adventure, the only power at your disposal is a simple jump. In the first couple of rooms, you'll find a pair of gloves that are imbued with the power of electricity, that comes in two flavours, Red and Blue. Again, explanation about how to use these gloves is limited to a simple picture in the background of where you grab them. After much experimentation, we discovered that the gloves can be used to punch certain blocks, charging them with one of the two flavours of electricity, one colour mapped to each of the triggers. It's here that the central plank of the gameplay emerges: Red is attracted to Blue, but repelled by Red, and vice versa. So, if you change the colour of a block, it may be moved toward a block of a different colour, or forced away if it's the same colour. Using this new found power, it's possible to manipulate the rooms to make progress through the tower and even battle the first boss.
The game then builds in complexity, and also introduces new pieces of equipment, such as teleport boots and a cape that allows you charge yourself up with either flavour of electricity. This ability is also bestowed by different robots that you occasionally see wandering the floor of the tower, and when you are charged up (there's a halo around your character to show that you are in this state) you can float or even zoom upwards, depending on the currents around you. As an example of how you'll have to string the moves together, one of the more notable rooms requires you to charge up with red, using this to repel off a red block, before landing on a blue block. Then you have to charge up blue, repel off the block at just the right angle, change to charged red to repel from the floor in order to prevent death by electricity. After you achieve this, you teleport through some vertical electricity and float up a narrow passage to land at the top. This is about half way through the room, and it took us more times to get the exact timing correct than we'd care to admit. However, although you may be stuck in certain places for a while, frustration doesn't set in as any deaths are entirely your own fault due to your lack of timing. The draw to see the next room is strong, and will certainly keep players trying and trying, even if you will fail and die in a puff of smoke as the electricity hits you again and again...
The story of the game is played out as you continue to explore and find rooms with theatre curtains in them. As you linger, the curtains open and the story is enacted with puppets, showing the rise of a king and the failure of the relationship between him and his wizard, and all the problems that ensue. Even without a single word of dialogue, the story that Teslagrad portrays is compelling and surprisingly engaging, making exploring a joy when you hit a room like this. The graphical style is also another highlight, with the hand-drawn look perfectly matching the premise of the game, with the animation of the main protagonist being charming, as he pulls pained faces as he climbs, for instance. The controls are responsive and fairly tight, the only complaint we had with it is that the main character seems a little floaty, so when running off a platform to land on a lower one, if the directional input is continued it won't be uncommon for you to miss the lower platform and fall into whatever hazard you're trying to avoid. After a while you'll adjust, and also come to take advantage of the floatiness to optimise your line to make sure you hit the platforms you're aiming at. Speaking of falling, the character can fall forever without dying, which is perhaps just as well!
There are a ton of things to collect as you go through the game, and in true Metroidvania style, some of the collectibles are out of reach until you visit the areas again with your updated abilities. As the achievements are pretty much all tied to collecting the various scrolls that are dotted about (36 in all) the urge to complete the game by one hundred percenting it is quite strong. Once you have gone through the areas, they join up as one glorious whole, so you can go backwards and forwards through the levels at your whim. This is nothing but a welcome addition that serves to enhance to the longevity of the game.
In conclusion, Teslagrad is a very polished puzzler, which ramps up the difficulty almost mercilessly until the very end. The way the powers you obtain enable to you to backtrack and open up new areas is very well done, and with the challenge of the collectibles the game has a good lifespan. Make no mistake, this is a tough proposition, but it's a fair one and the feeling of satisfaction as you finally work out what you need to do to pass an obstacle is enormous. Charming storytelling and a stiff challenge marry up with a reasonable price to form an almost perfect package.