Before you see James Bond (now more of a hit man who has random epiphanies, than a classic spy) in Spectre, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to play Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise.
“Agent A is a spy-themed point-and-click puzzle adventure game,” says one half of Agent A’s development team (Yak & Co), Jason Rawlings, “you play as a secret agent trying to track down villain Ruby La Rouge. Ultimately, she locks you in her house, and through solving puzzles you have to try to simultaneously capture her and escape from the house.”
The first great point-and-click adventure I played was Escape from Monkey Island on a Windows 98 driven PC. Now, 15 years later, I find myself engrossed in another point-and-click journey albeit on a completely different platform (one that involves actual pointing). The future is here, but the genre never dies.
Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise is not a free game, it is not the first click-and-point puzzle game available on mobile devices (See The Room and Myst), there is no multiplayer, it is intended to be released in episodes, and there is no pussy galore- though there is a cat (a pet that seems to be reserved for villains of the spy genre). And yet, I’m not surprised it was on the PAXAus indie showcase list for 2015. So what is it that makes me think that the game I spied with my little iOS, is a ruby in the rough?
Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise begins with a cutscene (a design feature that persists throughout the game), which provides context, helps to drive the narrative, and moves the feel away from the casual gaming scene that app games seem to perpetuate. The voice acting (exclusive to the cut scenes) is spot-on- the spy chief has a deep, rich English accent reminiscent of ’60s spy films, and European-accented Ruby La Rouge sounds as though she has walked straight out of a Cold War classic.
As the eponymous agent, you then proceed to solve puzzles in La Rouge’s lair. The puzzles are not esoteric, and are all integrated in terms of narrative and geography- puzzles and clues in multiple different rooms interact with each other, as opposed to having isolated puzzle domains. For the most part, the puzzles are quite simple but do require some memory and logic.
“Old-school point and click adventure games like Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island- the Lucas Arts/ Sierra classics- had a big influence on the types of mechanics in Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise,” says Rawlings, “but where those old games had quirky characters and quirky uses for the inventory items, our puzzles and inventory items are all logic-based. For example, the screwdriver is used to unscrew something- it’s all very functional.” A far cry from the bicycle tyre inner tube plus Y-shaped branch equals giant slingshot thinking of the Monkey Island games but the focus on logic and functionality in Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise does help to give the game a nice flow, and nothing seems unfair.
However, perhaps the game is a little too safe in this regard. During beta testing, a friend and I played through the first mission ‘Infiltrate Ruby’s Lair’ successfully but found that there were many puzzles left unsolved. After considering whether the flickering light outside Ruby’s Lair was trying to communicate something in morse code (spoiler: it isn’t), I received a response from the other half of Yak & Co, Mark White (who signs his emails as ‘M’ – what a champion) telling me that not all the puzzles in the mission could be solved in the beta version. What this demonstrated to me was that Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise has a lot of value as a co-operative, social puzzle game if the puzzles are difficult enough (upon completing the full version, they turned out to all be quite easy puzzles), and that there is a lot of scope to create difficult puzzles- using morse code, hidden messages, memorisation, time limiting factors etc.
Rawlings agrees about the multiplayer element. “We have found that when people play the game together, it becomes a different experience. People like bouncing ideas on how to solve each puzzle off of each other. We are looking at doing an Apple TV version that will encourage that kind of multiplayer.” He also commented on the inclusion and exclusion of different puzzle elements. “We had to remove a lot of things. We would think ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we added this thing!’ but then realise that the audience will think that it means something. We had to be very careful about what we did or didn’t put in the game.”
In terms of visual presentation, the game has a geometric, drawn polygon art style that is uber stylish and a refreshing change from the high-tech 3D overtly computer-generated graphics that most app developers feel they have to use. BUT it is how the art direction interacts with the level and puzzle design, that pushes this game into a class above. Almost every pictorial element of each room provides some kind of clue to the location or solution of a puzzle, even the simplest decoration could have a hidden meaning. As with most point-and-click adventure games, you can get away with tapping every element of each room to try to uncover a new puzzle or item for your inventory but more enjoyment will be had by considering each scene and deriving meaning from a seemingly pointless decoration.
Further, everywhere you look there is a nod to spy films and stereotypes- it is the sheer quantity of references and puns (e.g. ‘this is a timely clue’ appears when you press on the clock) that makes this game acceptable, as it’s an acknowledgement that the game is not trying to take itself too seriously (I mean, La Rouge lives in a giant waterside villa, not exactly conspicuous for a wanted super villain). The tongue-in-cheek comedy also helps to offset the serious themes of the plot (La Rouge blows up a cruise ship and attacks someone in a lift during the first cut scene) and keep the feel light-hearted.
There are many additional elements of this game that can be appreciated- even the often under-appreciated features like the alliterative, supremacy-implying, Bond-style single letter identifier agent name. No internet connection is required after the initial downloaded, and there are no in-app purchases or advertising in-game. Further, the environmental and puzzle-related sound effects blend well with the score, creating an audible experience that is immersive as opposed to distracting.
Of course, there are some elements that require improvement. The navigation between rooms becomes tiresome quite quickly, as you are dashing upstairs, downstairs, poolside, and to the front garden searching for clues. It would be helpful to have a mini-map that could be used to quickly teleport to any location in the house you have seen before- though there is certainly something to be said for the uncluttered HUD. In addition to this, though the creators were aiming for a 2-4 hour experience, Agent A: A puzzle in disguise can easily be completed in 1.5 hours and would have benefitted from a few more difficult puzzles, a much more involved narrative and some greater character exploration. There is also the issue of the game being episodic in nature. Rawlings assures me that part 2 will be a free update for those who have purchased Agent A: A puzzle in disguise but it is unclear how this will be executed.
Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise is a game with a keen sense of humour, inspired puzzle design and excellent art direction. In terms of narrative, if you cruise into Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise knowing it is designed to be episodic in nature, then the ending is a little less of a let down and you can enjoy the easy flow of this game. I eagerly await the next instalment.
DISCLAIMER: Jason Rawlings never confirmed he was not part of Treadstone. This review will not self-destruct in 5 seconds.