I’m still trying to figure out why I didn’t play Teslagrad when it first launched in 2013. Perhaps it’s because it didn’t quite break out in the same way that the same year’s Fez, Spelunky or Flower did. Looking through the games of the year, it was such a stellar year (Last of Us, GTA V, Bioshock Infinite) that maybe I simply didn’t have time. But whatever the reason, now is the chance to remedy it. In the same week, developers Rain Games released Teslagrad 2 alongside a remaster of their first game. It would be rude not to start with this one.
Having not played Teslagrad, the question of ‘is this a good remaster?’ is a complicated one. From the store page, the focus of the remaster has been on animations, lighting, audio and some additional challenge maps. And from comparing it to Youtube videos of the original, our biggest takeaway is the background depth. The 2D levels of Teslagrad Remastered look cavernous, far more so than the flatter environments of the original, and that has to be down to the lighting work. It looks bigger and more immersive in the remaster, and it’s a genuine improvement.
Visuals were the first thing to surprise us on Teslagrad. Without being overly showy, brandishing sweeping vistas or ray-tracing, say, it’s quietly beautiful. There’s a painterly sweep to the hand-drawn art that often makes it look like an impressionistic art piece. As the game progresses through fire, water and more levels, we found ourselves wanting to screengrab and keep some of the environments. For an indie game, certainly of that time, it’s gorgeous.
Next to surprise was the story, or the surprising lack of it. Teslagrad begins with an escape across rooftops that gave us the impression that it might be story-heavy: we thought it might become the experience of a lost orphan as he tries to escape the whims of others, in the same manner as Inside or Limbo perhaps. But Teslagrad is more interested in its own past, told through friezes and paintings. It wants to pad out its backstory rather than tell the kid’s (although it does still go there, just without the same weight).
It’s a subjective note – and there are a couple of them in this review – but the story didn’t resonate with us. We kept willing the story to look forward rather than back, but it never quite did. It’s also more light touch than we would have liked. The absence of characters, dialogue, relationships etc means that the puzzles are pushed to the foreground, and it gives Teslagrad a bit of a ‘puzzle chamber’ feel, like a 2D Portal. The problem is that Teslagrad doesn’t have the charm or interest of that game, so we found ourselves left a little cold.
But if you’re going to push your puzzles onto centre stage, they could be a lot worse than Teslagrad’s. The clue is in the title: the puzzles lean into the science of Tesla, using electricity and magnetism to create some brainfrying problems. You start with gloves that can turn certain blocks blue or red. The rules of magnetism apply here, so a blue block will attract a red one, and will be repelled by another blue block. It’s simple and cunning, and should be instinctive to anyone who has played with magnets before.
Teslagrad has the outline of a Metroidvania, so the unlocks don’t stop there. Soon, you will be able to wear a cloak that changes your magnetic properties, as you climb ceilings and roofs. Teleportation is possible, as is a huge Iron-Man-like ray that can alter the makeup of blocks on the far sides of rooms, as well as blast away blockages to other rooms. These abilities layer on each other to make puzzle rooms knotty, as it can be difficult to know which upgrade will be needed, and in which combination.
We wheel in another subjective point here, as we’re not entirely sure that everyone will react in the same way. Teslagrad is considered a classic, after all, but we’ve had too much of a spotty experience to really apply that label. The problem is, we didn’t find the difficulty curve to be particularly satisfying or modern. More regularly than we’d like, we’d easily complete a room – through luck or judgment – only to end up in another one that was convoluted, with too many feasible uses of the magnetism, and plenty of ways to die, too. We died enough to wonder whether we should even have been there yet (as mentioned, it’s a Metroidvania, so there’s some freedom of movement). With the room finally done, having figured out the specific solution that it wanted, we would find ourselves in another benign, simple room. It just felt uneven.
It’s made more piecemeal and frustrating by the lack of a satisfying map. Often, we were crossing our fingers that we were heading in the right direction. Other times, we backtracked when we hadn’t intended to. It’s just branching enough, just big enough, to warrant a serviceable map, and we would have loved the Remaster to have added one.
But more often than not, the puzzles are tight coils of genius. Teslagrad has the uncanny ability to find powers and puzzle categories that we have seen either rarely or never in other games. It then explores that niche completely, finding every possible puzzle idea to bake your noodle. It gives Teslagrad a burning sense of originality, even having played countless puzzle platformers, and that’s rare. If you feel like you’ve seen most of what puzzles in games have to offer, you might want to try Teslagrad Remastered.
But we can’t rid ourselves of the nagging feeling that we weren’t wholly enjoying ourselves. With a little more story lubrication, perhaps the spiky difficulty curve would have been worth it. With a little more signs and feedback in the puzzles, and more of a map to use as a crutch, we might have hit walls less. Because while we could see why Teslagrad is loved, and perhaps even see why it’s been conferred that ‘classic’ status, we didn’t love it ourselves. It was just a little too unfriendly, a little sterile, to pull it to our heart.
That’s what sequels are for, right? We have Teslagrad 2 in our queue next, and we are fascinated. We normally get sniffy at a slate of so many sequels, but this is a game that thoroughly deserves a new edition. There’s so much good here, and we can’t wait to see if the second game capitalises on it.