“The earlier, the more fun. Why put it off? It’s the atomic age!”
–Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward
“The following is a guest post by the Moronic Cheese Mage.”
There are so many indie games pouring out it’s difficult to keep track of them all. For instance, it took me five years to hear about and play through FEZ, the Flatland inspired reality twister which dreams of the sci-fi genius Philip K. Dick.
One I certainly didn’t miss out on is Teslagrad, the critically acclaimed Metroidvania indie gem which has physics-bending themes like FEZ. This is with good timing, too, as it’s just been given a new lease of life on the Nintendo Switch! It masterfully merges all manner of science-fiction mumbo jumbo with elements of recent fascistic history and, with its striking looks, challenging gameplay, and mesmerising soundtrack, there’s much to be in awe of.
Released on Steam in 2013, Norwegian developer Rain Games channeled the old Super Metroid approach to gaming, hurled in a bunch of Soviet-era poignancy, and added a whole heaping load of physics-based fun to boot. For me, when I first played it on the Wii U in 2014, this was an immediate classic, so here we go as I introduce this magnetic, bittersweet, and rather difficult little adventure.
The clue is right there in the title – Tesla and Stalingrad. Since the advent of the internet, images of Nikola Tesla perched on a stool as fountains of electricity buzzed around his person have turned the man into one of the online world’s favourite dudes.
Physics has been propelled forward in popular culture, too, by the likes of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, but for many of us, it remains a peculiar world which, when lacking a scientific mind, doesn’t lend itself to immediate access. Thankfully, it’s becoming more accessible; anyone can read the likes of Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics for fundamental insights on it all, proving physics doesn’t have to be insanely confusing.
Video games have been using physics-based elements for a while now, too, whether through gesture based controls or titles with the demented genius of Half-Life 2 (oh, nice plug!). Teslagrad openly embraces electromagnetics, kinetic energy, and propulsion as one of its core mechanics, with the evident steampunk considerations of 20th century Europe draped all over the 100+ hand-drawn environments.
Teslagrad’s application of physics is straightforward, after a brief initiation period, and this is allied with the familiar Metroidvania gameplay mechanics most of us know and love. You begin the game, which almost entirely avoids plot exposition, and you’re off running away from what appears to be USSR troopers.
The plot is thinly explained and some gamers, myself included, may not know what’s going on during the first run through. To explain – Teslagrad is set in the Kingdom of Elektropia where there’s a tyrannical King ruling over a country inspired by Europe of yesteryear. Here we find an unnamed young boy who is, without warning, hounded by the King’s guards. He flees to Tesla Tower and there begins to unravel the mysteries of the evil despot who rules over the land.
In this opening section, you can enjoy the music, graphics, and immediate difficulty level (you’ll likely cop it a few times before completing this section), before you power-up with some powerful gloves. From that moment on, there emerges a brilliant puzzle-platformer with minimal combat, some luminous moments of propulsive delight, and a level of challenge which is either welcome to you or a total pain.
The Laws of Attraction
The central mechanic is the magnetic attraction principal, which will take a bit of getting used to. Once you’ve got this Super Metroid-styled power-up, the electromagnetic gloves provide some bizarre and highly inventive ways of getting about your environments – in other words, you’re all set up to take on this steampunk, seemingly abandoned Tesla Tower.
The place is a maze of mysteries and full of quite startling surprises and dashing set-pieces, but the real beauty here is your path is relatively non-linear. I’m not on about Breath of the Wild levels of freedom, but you are able to tour around the tower at leisure – exploration is encouraged and, as you pick up new power-ups, you’ll master some unique and nifty tricks to help you get higher up the increasingly imposing tower.
The higher you soar, float, or are propelled, the more atmospheric the game gets. The puzzles also ramp up a notch. Precision is the name of the game, along with inch-perfect timing – you’re not going to get far in Teslagrad without these skills. This may prove a frustrating aspect for some, as the difficulty is high – not only are some of the puzzles demanding, as they require the electromagnetic element to complete, but trial and error becomes a regular part of the experience.
The result is rewarding, rather than frustrating, when you complete certain areas and advance onward to your goal. You’ll want to progress, too, as there are inspired, industrially-minded set-pieces (one of which involves a giant hamster wheel) to enjoy as you make your way up, down, and around Tesla Tower, gathering new power-ups, unveiling new sections of the story, and mastering the unique magnetic mechanics. It’s challenging, but it’s riveting, and it’s powered along by one of the best indie game soundtracks I’ve come across.
Echoes of Blade Runner
As a gamer, I tend to focus on gameplay and a soundtrack above graphics. It’s a point of view I ranted on about in my Ori and the Blind Forest review (another nice plug, eh?) simply as I find a brilliant soundtrack can immerse a player into the gaming experience way above the latest fancy HD graphics.
There’s a real sense of poignancy thanks to the score, along with moments of tension and menace. It also, on occasions, reminds me of Blade Runner. I adore the 1982 film (directed by Ridley Scott), although I didn’t make much of the sequel. Regardless, composer Vangelis’ soundtrack is remarkable and Teslagrad, on occasions, riffs on the Greek composer’s work. The result is there’s an inherent poignancy the two media texts possess.
You can hear it below – the soundtrack was created by Bear and Cat Music Production in Bergen, Norway. They did an incredible job! It’s primarily tilted towards melancholia, but there are also upbeat compositions which also verge towards the type of material Krautrock legends would have been proud of.
Ridley Scott’s early work is considered special as Alien and Blade Runner are so exceptionally good. The latter is everywhere in its influence – moody plots are super fashionable in culture, raging like a misanthropic plague across films, TV shows, and video games. This moody mood was advanced during the 20th century by existential and dystopian literature the likes of Philip K. Dick, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Kenzaburō Ōe perfected.
Their efforts influence society and culture to this day. In particular, Dick’s influence is ever-present and constantly growing. His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) put across radical concepts on the nature of reality, which when adapted into Blade Runner in 1982 was taken to a whole new level – you can positively hear the existential angst crying out of Vangelis’ soundtrack.
If you have a listen to the composition below, you’ll find there’s a brief segment from Teslagrad which sounds almost exactly like this but, unfortunately, I couldn’t locate it on the official soundtrack. You’ll just have to trust me on that one.
What am I getting at with all this? If I’m comparing a video game soundtrack to the much-revered Blade Runner soundtrack, then I can’t help but feel Teslagrad, brilliant as it is in so many areas, has some real artistic merit behind it. It isn’t simply a rip-off of other peoples’ ideas, however, it’s a unique title in its own right.
Teslagrad lives and breathes the advances made during the 20th century and it does this by showcasing some of the worst aspects of humanity – oppressive state control. It’s not a sad tale, however, as despite the sodden beginning, the maudlin music, and difficulty level, there emerges quite a joyous ending. It’s a special one!
Reaching the Summit
Along with its brilliance, Teslagrad offers gamers a real challenge. It can be merciless at times as it harks back to the NES era – you’re faced with the anxiety of one hit deaths! I noted at the time of its release this difficulty was highlighted and called into question by some journalists, a criticism I feel led to another genius modern platformer to be unfairly snubbed – Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
Anyway, as with certain sections of the glorious Ori and the Blind Forest, a central goal to Teslagrad is to reach the very peak of Tesla Tower. I was tempted to include a picture of this from my Steam account version, but feel it would spoil the surprise somewhat (although if you watched the above trailer, I guess the surprise is over, or just do your best to forget about it) – the view up top is rather lovely and you shouldn’t spoil that, along with many other interesting developments during the course of the game.
Ultimately, it may be a short indie but, after your initial playthrough, you’ll likely be tempted to head straight back into the world of Teslagrad to unearth more secrets. There’s a scroll-collecting side mission to keep yourself busy with which has a few mind-bending moments to complete 100%. However, there’s something so very appealing about the use of electromagnetics which turns this into an innovative winner. It’s back out now on the Nintendo Switch – here’s your chance to relive the experience, or to enjoy it for the first time.
The 8-Bit Review
Teslagrad has a unique look about it which helps it stand out from a lot of indie, if not AAA, titles. Its hand-drawn art style can be found in other titles such as the obscure classic Ōkami and recent indie efforts such as Seasons After Fall. It looks stunning, frankly, and uses red, blue, and grey hues throughout rather strikingly to turn what could have been quite a gloomy experience into something rather haunting and beautiful.
An absolutely fantastic soundtrack which adds so much atmosphere and emotional involvement to your tower climbing experience. Bear and Cat is the team behind it and, in an age when many soundtracks are so utterly fantastic, Teslagrad stands out due to its graceful sense of melancholia, occasionally complemented by jauntier numbers.
Enthralling when at its best, frustrating when at its worst. Despite the difficulty, everything you could need from an exceptional game is wrapped up in this package: challenge, moments of innovation, and a great deal of fun. The difficulty can be grating, but it’s also rewarding once you clear a difficult section, so there shouldn’t be total abandonment on this one from rage quitting gamers.
Like that drawbridge up there, Teslagrad has a bit of a steep difficulty level at first and, by heck, it’s only going to get steeper. Many could be attracted by its looks, but this is one for seasoned gamers. It’s tough as nails in places – those one- hit deaths can be particularly frustrating during the boss battles. For those who stick with the game to the end, you’ll be rewarded with a rather fantabulous experience and many happy memories.
Yes, it is there. Teslagrad is, by no means, the most difficult game ever. It’s also quite a short experience which, inevitably, makes it a target for speedrunners, yet it’s simply a great fun game and a fine example of how important 2D platformers remain to the games industry.
Teslagrad is a game I regularly think of – from the music to its looks and electromagnetic infatuation, it appeals as it’s a game into which I can happily plunge multiple times a year. It’s short, sure, but that’s perfect for quick playthroughs if you’re a busy modern professional such as myself. Ahem.
It’s one of the best Metroidvania games I’ve ever played – its soundtrack, graphics, concepts, and challenge help it stand out amongst a crowded indie market. The production values are high and it’s clear a lot of dedication and love went into creating it. Ultimately, it’s the electromagnetic powers you pick up which really add to the unique nature of the game and, as you climb, or occasionally propulsively soar, up a desolate tower you can’t help be impressed.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I’m happy to state the following – Teslagrad is an indie classic. As a Metroidvania title, it does everything right and can, surely, hold its head high as one of the finest examples from this regularly exceptional genre. It’s a game positively crackling with magnetic, innovative, and rewarding concepts and it’s one every seasoned gamer should be eager to try and conquer. It’s back out now on the Nintendo Switch – if this is your type of thing, don’t delay!
Aggregated Score: 8.8
The Moronic Cheese Mage is also known as Wapojif. That’s Mr. Wapojif to you. He’s a self-deprecating humorist with his head on straight. For silliness and surreal humour, definitely find your way to his blog at professionalmoron.com.
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Categories: Game Review