The term “Metroidvania” is something of a loaded word.
It’s a colloquial term used to describe exploratory platformers borne of Nintendo’s boundary-breaking Metroid and Konami’s turn at a more open-ended Castlevania in Symphony of the Night. It is now its own genre of video game, but with that notion comes a set of standards that are used to decide whether a new game falls into such a category. The only reason this is even a thing is that independent developers, all striking inspiration from the same source, seemingly release so many that we’re at the saturation point.
Teslagrad keeps it old school not in a pixelated presentation, but in the fact that your ability to progress is only hindered by acquiring items that open new areas to the silent child you’re charged with helping climb a mysterious steampunk tower. No level grinding, no power-up harvesting, no gratuitous backtracking (for the most part); just you playing the part of a boy who stumbles upon an enormous fortification and discovering the secrets within as you continually clamber on.
The game begins with an interesting sequence in which a man, with something hidden upon his back as well as a baby at his hip, leaves the child with what is presumably his mother. A clock and quick changes denote a passage of time, which is then punctuated with the boy bursting from the backdoor of his home and being chased away by some very bourgeoisie soldiers into a distant minaret. This helps you acclimate yourself with the boy’s traversal options; a substantial jump and the ability to cling to ledges being paramount abilities. As he escapes his oppressors and flees into the religious-looking building, the game then ushers you into what to expect from the rest of Teslagrad: an adventure in a world where polarity plays a huge part.
No matter the gear you earn as you progress, the gist remains the same – almost every puzzle revolves around traversing this stronghold with a firm understanding of magnetism and its effect on you and the world you find yourself in. Many things are given a red or blue hue, a subtle reminder of what you need to do in order to move on. At first you’re given gloves that gift you with the ability of affecting things with either color in order to manipulate your surroundings. Soon enough you earn a teleportation-like dash that’ll get you through fences and other obstacles, a cloak that changes your own polarity and a weaponized magnet that’ll help you with some end-game content.
The game is built in a way that has you working your way to the top in chunks. The map is sectioned off in a manner that feels cohesive, but it is meant to be played in chunks at the same time. There is no health bar here: a mistake means you start over in a particular spot. It’s meant to lead players into being a bit more experimental with their solutions. There are a couple of instances where you’re set on a sort of gauntlet run that begs for a respite in the form of a mid-area checkpoint, but for the most part Teslagrad keeps the player motivated to keep moving along.
While most new puzzles can be quickly figured out, there is occasionally an obtuseness to it that’ll have you banging your head in frustration. Even when you do figure it out, there isn’t always that “a-ha!” moment you hope for, but a solid head-scratch at its lack of intuitiveness. Again, few and far between in the grand scheme of things, but worth noting because they do happen. Bosses can be frustrating as well, but only because their classic three-tiered layering will get repeated if you make a wrong move. If you go into Teslagrad knowing there’s a lot of trial-and-error and little handholding, the better off you’ll be.
While the puzzling and perambulating you’ll do is very satisfying, it’s only half of Telsagrad’s charm. The pseudo-European design of the game begs to be explored. Hand-drawn animation and painterly backgrounds give the game a heavy dose of personality, helping it stand out from other games of its ilk. The story is presented in small pieces, either by collecting scrolls that when collected tell the history of Teslagrad’s world and its hero or in odd puppet shows on literal stages you’ll find in the tower. There’s never any direct narration, just implication and assumptions. It gets very dark and at moments surprisingly starkly so, but it helps you to understand what’s going on and why you should care, and puts fear into you when you face true evil. The sound is subtle, but fitting; the type of soundtrack you’d expect from a lonesome and somber adventure.
The only true stumbling block I’ve found in Teslagrad, and it’s something I’ve weirdly come across in a few games this year, is the fact that it gates a “true ending” behind collectables. At a certain point in the game you are stopped from going any further until you collect 15 of the aforementioned scrolls to literally unlock a door. At this point the game asks you to go back through the installation to try and grab them. With your newfound powers this can open up new avenues to scrolls you may have seen but were unable to reach. You can march towards the final confrontation, but are then greeted with a half-hearted ending. It lacks a punch and feels very ungratifying for all the work you put in. The game scribbles the suggestion that you get all 36 scrolls, and doing so gives you an interactive finale that shows the effects of your actions upon the world. It’s wonderful to say the least, but it feels short-sighted that the developers would hold that off for all but the most devout completionist.
Griping aside, I still felt compelled to find them all because I just couldn’t get enough of climbing around the monolith. It hampers the experience a bit when you lose the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done well, but the actual experience on the whole is phenomenal and neat to behold. In a sea of Metroidvanias, Teslagrad stands head and shoulders above the crowd thanks to its affecting plot, clever world design and distinct, well-crafted puzzles.
Teslagrad is available for PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, PS3, Vita and Wii U. We reviewed the Switch version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for Teslagrad was provided by Rain Games. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.