A young woman has been murdered at Tangle Tower. Freya, nineteen, a free-spirited artist, was killed in the middle of painting a portrait of her older relative, Flora. Nobody else in the house claims to know what happened. Flora, the sole witness, refuses to say a word. The unfinished portrait shows Flora holding a knife and curiously, its tip is painted with real blood.
So begins Tangle Tower, the third entry in SFB Games’ Detective Grimoire series. It’s a short mystery packed with character, wrapped up in a charming art style. Between its painted-style scene backgrounds and the slick character animations, it reminded me of a light Saturday-morning cartoon – a tone closely matched by the story, despite the morbid initial mystery.
It’s not a complicated game. Most of the gameplay comes in the form of point-and-click interactions. After entering a new scene, various objects and characters can be found; click on them to discover new information. In some rooms, there are additional puzzles to be solved, usually involving unlocking an object to see what’s inside. These make up the bulk of the game’s variety, from using magnifying lenses to match up different-sized parts of a key, to rearranging three torn scraps of paper in four different ways to discover the code to a lockbox. They’re well-themed to the characters they’re relevant to and are satisfying brainteasers, fairly easy to solve once the core concept is understood. None take longer than five minutes or so, so I never got bogged down or stuck.
This simplicity is no bad thing! The distinct advantage of point-and-click gameplay is how simple and easy-to-master the mechanics are. It makes them excellent vehicles for story, and particularly for mystery stories such as this one. I wasn’t spending my time learning many new ways to interact with the game. Instead, I was free to pay attention to the various clues hidden in the dialogue and setting, and work out what happened to Freya.
Tangle Tower also adds another variation to the point-and-click theme. After gathering enough clues and talking to enough people, suspicions about each suspect are unlocked – little inconsistencies in their stories, or sometimes plain obvious avoidance of a topic. These particular puzzles rely on the player having picked up on the clues seen so far to piece together an accusation or explanation. Interrogating the suspects over my suspicions led to some satisfying resolutions, but I found that more often than not the resulting character moments don’t have much to do with the murder in question.
The character moments I did get were good, though. The inhabitants of Tangle Tower are an entertaining bunch. The cast is the game’s strongest aspect. Two rival branches of the same aristocratic family, living in opposite towers of a shared mansion. Each of the surviving family members is splendidly characterised with delightful voice acting, musical themes and artwork. They’re extremely fun to talk to, and uncovering the web of connections, feuds, and friendships linking them all together is a great distraction from the murder. Rather refreshingly, most of them are generally decent people. They may be vain at times, or superficial, or evasive, or simply odd, but by and large they’re not bad at heart.
Their relationships are surprisingly complex too. The silent matriarch Flora is respected and loved despite her apparent coldness. Fitz, the frighteningly large gardener, is torn between two women; his bubbly fiancée, who neglects his gifts of specially-bred flowers, and another who shares his interests. The three teenage girls, Fiona, Poppy, and the murdered Freya, were particularly well-fleshed-out, their close friendship strained as they fight over leaving Tangle Tower for good.
As for the player characters, we have the private detective Grimoire and his sidekick, Sally. They’re a fun pair to direct around, again with excellent voice acting (particularly for Sally) and sharp banter. They dabble in the tired trope of the male lead being a bumbling but endearing idiot, while the female lead is evidently more qualified for his job, yet relegated to his sidekick. As the mystery progresses, however, Grimoire pulls more of his weight and the story ends with them on equal footing.
Throughout the first act, you search the sprawling old building and gather clues, talking to the eight suspects as you go. This is the longest section and the one most packed with character, and it ends up only being partially related to the murder itself. By the end, the mystery of the mansion begins to deepen. Mutagenic waters in the lake? Local cryptids? A conspiracy to overthrow the wealthier of the two family branches? A sense of genuine overarching weirdness begins to build, reminiscent of the older Professor Layton games. I was utterly convinced something bizarre was going to be revealed, until, after charging through the handful of smaller investigations that make up the second act, I reached the ending.
No spoilers, obviously, but it left me unsatisfied. Tangle Tower joins games like Backbone in its attempts to deliver a twist that doesn’t carry off the previous story. There’s also no new interesting gameplay here. After one final solve, done in the same manner as the previous ones, the murderer simply explains everything. It left me wondering if there were multiple endings, and somehow I’d unlocked the sedate one, but no – there’s only one. There isn’t really a conclusion, in the conventional sense for a game. No great show of mastery from the player or grand spectacle, or even a cathartic confrontation. It just peters out after spending quite some time implying something much more interesting was going on.
Despite this, Tangle Tower is a fun and polished little game. A great weekend afternoon adventure. The care that’s gone into the visuals and audio make up for the simplistic gameplay, the puzzles are engaging, and the cast is excellently characterised. If only it had allowed itself to be weird and live up to the expectation it set itself – then it would be an absolute gem.