A thoughtful, minimalistic puzzle-platformer with a gorgeous aesthetic and interesting mechanics manages to shine in an over-saturated genre.
World-building & Story
Teslagrad takes place in the kingdom of Elektropia, inspired by European history with a particular emphasis on Soviet designs – understandable since they’re using electricity and Tesla as their focus. It’s in this world that we’re introduced to the main character – a young boy who attempts to escape the henchmen of a tyrannical king by fleeing his hometown and into a gigantic nearby tower.
The game is completely silent throughout, with the world-building done through the exploration of the main setting – the Teslagrad tower, a metroid-vania style labyrinth full of secrets and history, connected by a central shaft linking all the areas which you can use your newly-acquired electromagnetic powers to travel through.
The story is told through two methods – the first is a series of puppet-shows in various rooms in Teslagrad which the boy stumbles across; the second is a series of collectable in-game ‘scrolls’ which contain images depicting the history of the land and in particularly the tower. It’s quite interesting to see the plot unravel like this and certainly a lot of things can be left to your own interpretation – although there is a general flow that should be fairly easy to follow.
The actual story itself is quite an emotional tale, involving a power-hungry king degrading into madness and a race of electricity-wielding warriors known as Teslamancers. Throughout the scattered scrolls and puppet-shows you’ll uncover the entwined history of the two and the tragic events that led to the Teslamancers’ near-extinction. It’s a minimalistic but fitting tale and I enjoyed finding out about this world’s history. I’d note here that there are two endings, the ‘true’ version of which was very touching and well worth hunting down.
Presentation & Sound
Graphically, Teslagrad uses a beautiful hand-drawn artstyle which really makes the game look unique. Starting with the characters, these are beautiful and always have exaggerated animations which are an absolute treat to watch as they interact with the environments. Sadly there are very few characters in the game but I feel this is a thematic choice, since exploring the Teslagrad tower is supposed to be a lonely experience.
Equallly impressive are the magnetic effects which litter the world, which get increasingly more elaborate as you explore deeper into the tower. Environments can vary from bland to stunning, but I did find myself stopping quite often to take in the scenery – including taking many screenshots of various areas which were beautifully drawn. There’s a decent amount of visual variety in the places you’ll visit – impressive considering the game is set in a single tower, showing a lot of thought went into this aspect of the design.
Sound is another high point – this is used effectively throughout the game, with all the effects having a fitting place – everything from the ‘zap’ of the Teslastaff’s electrical discharge to the screaming of the shadowy ‘grue’ enemies.
This extends to the soundtrack, which is used sparingly but well – for example, the central shaft has a more calming tune; the mechanical factory area has a more industrial sound and the darkened grue pens use brief, ominous bursts of music to create tension. Although there’s no catchy pieces of music that I’d find myself whistling for hours afterwards, I would say the soundtrack definitely adds to the experience.
Silence is also used extremely well – you’ll go through long stretches with little noise, creating an atmosphere of loneliness and isolation – as previously mentioned, a thematic choice meant to indicate the loneliness of the boy discovering this forgotten world. It’s all handled in a thoughtful way and goes a long way in helping to craft the world that Rain Games created.
Gameplay & Content
At its core, Teslagrad is a 2D platformer – the main character can run, jump and will gain various attacks over the course of the game. There are definitely metroid-vania elements in the exploration of the tower – it’s a labyrinth, but never feels overwhelming thanks to the central shaft connecting all of the areas meaning back-tracking is kept to a minimum.
The main hook of the game is electromagnetism – upon first entering the tower you’ll encounter various magnetic fields of either blue or red and you’ll quickly discover ways to charge yourself to either be attracted to or repelled from these fields. This creates pretty much the central mechanic of the game – you’ll use these magnetic charges to propel yourself around the various areas to reach new zones that were previously un-accessible.
As such, a lot of thought has gone into the puzzles in Teslagrad – I found myself constantly just stopping to think how to progress and I found myself using a significant amount of trial-and-error just to figure out how things work. This extended to occasionally having to use a guide to figure out how to progress because things weren’t always obvious – though I wouldn’t say the puzzles were ever too taxing if I’d really put my mind to it.
As the game progresses you’ll obtain various new skills to aid your progression and I found these incredibly fun to use, really adding to my enjoyment of the game. Initially you obtain gloves allowing you to magnetise items, followed by a cloak allowing you to blink a short distance forward and through certain objects. Later you’ll obtain the ability to charge your cloak red or blue (great when combined with the gloves) and finally a staff you can use to attack enemies and charge items from a distance. Each one has a distinctive use and they’re all really enjoyable to experiment with.
After obtaining each new skill you’ll eventually reach a boss battle to put your abilities to use. These tend to be the most challenging parts of Teslagrad, mostly due to the get-hit-once-and-die nature of the game. All the battles are pattern recognition and make you use your skills in interesting ways (for example, using your cloak charge to reflect projectiles but will attract them if timed wrong), however bosses can be frustrating due to the large difficulty spike they provide.
Content-wise, the experience is brief – without attempting to go for 100% completion you can probably clear the game in one sitting, although much of this will depend on your ability to figure out the puzzles. Length is added by attempting to get every single scroll (which unlocks the true ending, so is worth doing) but there are no extras once the game has been completed. Personally I quite liked this aspect as it meant no ideas outstayed their welcome, but I would’ve liked a little more post-completion content.
It’s worth nothing Teslagrad runs extremely well – although there appear to have been some slight areas that have been adjusted for the Vita version, some serious effort has gone into optimization and as such I encountered no frame-rate drops throughout (although I did run in to a couple of bugs, one of which crashed my Vita but the rest managed to fix themselves).
Despite there being many different ideas at play in Teslagrad, they all come together well – it’s a beautiful 2D puzzle-platformer with a well realised electromagnetic theme; its emotional core is touching and it’s easily worth recommending if you want a memorable – if brief – experience on the Vita.