We seem to love Scandinavian games here at Nintendo Life. We began our glowing SteamWorld Dig review last month by espousing the virtues of the Swedish indie gaming scene, but Sweden's neighbour to the west is not to be forgotten: hot on the heels of SteamWorld comes Teslagrad, an equally impressive Metroidvania-style puzzler by Norwegian studio Rain Games.
Teslagrad and SteamWorld Dig open in surprisingly similar fashion – both feature a title screen with evocative music and the name of the game in large letters above a small character walking from left to right in the centre of the frame. Both are full of immaculate hand-drawn 2D artwork with gorgeous animation and a steampunk-inspired gameworld, but while SteamWorld Dig chose a warm colour palette for a humorous Western adventure, Teslagrad utilises deep shades of blue for a decidedly more sombre tale.
From there, Teslagrad's title screen moves directly into the opening scene of the game uninterrupted, which brings to mind Jonathan Blow's modern classic Braid; unlike Braid's lugubrious walls of text, however, Teslagrad tells its story entirely without words. It's much more similar to another Scandinavian platformer about a young boy: the haunting Danish puzzler Limbo, using a minimalist approach to tell a poignant story.
Teslagrad opens in medias res with one of the best video game chase scenes in recent memory; it's a rainy night somewhere in Eastern Europe, and a group of burly men have come to seize a family from their home. A little boy – the player's character – emerges alone from the back door of the house, and from there you must escape the attackers. Why are you being chased? Is the boy a young Nikola Tesla? No context is provided until much later; for now, all we know is the boy must escape.
The boy has no powers or special abilities to begin the game, so all he can do is run across rooftops and evade the angry men giving chase. During this scene we get to see the town of Teslagrad for the first time, a run-down city with an imposing skyscraper towering in the distance. This scene highlights the game's gorgeous parallax scrolling, not only with the background but with objects in the foreground, like walls plastered with propaganda or a stray cat running by. Teslagrad's nostalgic old European art style and music are like a melancholy Professor Layton, if the Professor grew up in Serbia rather than England.
Through environmental storytelling, we learn a lot about the world of Teslagrad during this opening scene. The chase moves from a residential area to a seedier neighbourhood and through a hotel (a nod to Limbo's hotel?) to a more industrialised district full of smoke and pollution, before the burly men chase the boy into an ominous castle with a drawbridge that closes behind him in classic Castlevania fashion. Then the main game begins.
We can't say enough good things about this opening scene – it should be studied in schools. Rain Games subverts our expectations of this slow, moody game by beginning with a frantic chase sequence, and it absolutely nails "show, don't tell" storytelling through the environment and the characters' interactions with each other. No exposition, no dialogue, no tutorial, no UI to speak of. The only controls needed for this are the left control stick and the B button for jumping. We're immediately immersed in the game world and invested in this protagonist who we know next to nothing about – and we're dying to find out more about him.
Once we get into the meat of Teslagrad, it becomes a non-linear Metroidvania experience with a focus on puzzles rather than action; the heartbreakingly beautiful environments are meticulously detailed with tons of secrets and collectibles to come back to later. As its name implies, Teslagrad is all about alternating current electricity, and the core game mechanic revolves around red and blue electromagnets: magnets of opposite colours attract each other, and magnets of the same colour repel each other. The boy gains the ability to use these magnets with environmental objects, with the L buttons for blue magnets and R for red – you'll have to do things like use magnetism to make blocks fly across the room or to propel the boy himself to previously unreachable platforms. New mechanics like magnetic cloaks and the ability to "blink" across gaps Dishonored-style are introduced slowly, never overwhelming players with too much information at once.
There's no health system in Teslagrad, as the boy immediately dies with a single hit. To make up for this, he has unlimited lives and always immediately respawns at the entrance of the room you died in. This is welcome news, because Teslagrad becomes infernally difficult as the story progresses, with some truly cranium-melting puzzles and zero hand-holding to be found anywhere. You'll find yourself replaying the puzzle-fight boss battles dozens of times before you figure out how to defeat them without taking a single hit, which will turn off more casual players but provides an old-school challenge for platforming veterans.
As the story unfolds we also find out more about the history of Teslagrad. Environments get bigger and stranger, and scattered throughout the mysterious castle are auditorium rooms, where paper theatre sequences tell the story of a kingdom torn apart by the corrupting power of electricity. You're not required to sit through these performances, so if you want you can simply run past these rooms to the next puzzle, but if you stick around you'll be rewarded with a more fleshed-out gameworld. This elegantly-told saga of a broken industrial city falling into ruin juxtaposes and parallels the deeply personal story of the boy, adding a heavy emotional punch to what is ostensibly a game about magnets.
On default settings, gameplay is displayed on your TV screen while the GamePad is used as a handy map; there's no Pro Controller support, but Teslagrad supports off-TV play so you can Tesla on the toilet. There is a bit of slowdown when loading new areas or particularly large rooms, but for the most part the game runs at a steady frame rate with tight controls. It's also worth noting there's a plethora of language options: in addition to English, Teslagrad supports Chinese, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, European Portuguese, Slovak, Serbian, Russian, Turkish, and Ukrainian. A fittingly Eastern European collection of languages!
Teslagrad is everything we love about download gaming on Wii U. From the flawless opening scene to the nostalgic music to the luscious hand-drawn artwork to the brain-bending puzzles, Rain Games has a certified hit on its hands. The extreme difficulty will be hard for some to swallow, but it never feels unfair; anyone who appreciates an old-school challenge will find something to enjoy here. If you've finally torn yourself away from SteamWorld Dig, Teslagrad is the worthy heir to the Scandinavian throne.