Teleglitch is horrible: horrible to play, and especially horrible to watch. But don’t stop reading just yet, because it’s definitely not a horrible game.
Teleglitch has been described (somewhere, by someone at some time) as a “top-down System Shock”, which seems like a fair assessment, in terms of the setting, plot and atmosphere the game produces, but also in the fact that it feels rather out of place in comparison with recently released games.
The story, there is very much a story in Teleglitch, as odd as it seems given the workings of the game we’re about to uncover, the story is about military research base (which are always the best kind for a game) which has been experimenting with teleportation, but something has gone awry, much like it did in Doom 3 (when will they learn?), with you as the sole surviving scientist trying to, well, stay alive. There’s a healthy dose of backstory that’s gradually revealed to you as you find data terminals throughout the levels, and brilliantly, this is all accumulated in an in-game encyclopedia across your playthroughs, along with entries on different enemy types you’ve encountered.
There’s a short tutorial that at least teaches you the controls (and kills you, if you’re like me and ignore advice not to drop explosives on yourself), and which you’ll note the most immediate characteristic of the game: how parts of the level are only revealed if you have line of sight (although you are blessed with 360˚ vision). You use WASD to move, space to activate items, the mouse and the right mouse button to aim, the left mouse button to shoot or throw an explosive (depending on what you have equipped), or the left mouse button to drop an equipped explosive or to stab. The scroll wheel lets you cycle the current item. I’m not sure whether it’s intentional or not, but it’s very easy to try to stab something but instead drop an explosive (which have an extremely short fuse).
The rest of the game is about steadily making progress through levels, surviving the onslaught of enemies and swarms of enemies, finding loot (much of which is hidden behind partially concealed exits that you detect by looking for the telltale spikes in your vision as you move around). You’ll also find a bunch of items, though nowhere nearly as many as you would in a regular roguelike, but there is a rudimentary crafting system which serves to create ever more powerful weapons.
Once you reach the end of the level, you can save the game and then teleport out (it’s kind of annoying that you can’t just save whenever you like). Some of the levels branch, giving you a choice of exits. There’ll be a terminal that vaguely explains what each one is (such as “go left to abandoned military depot, right for genetics research lab”), but which you choose seems meaningless, and in any case, I found myself wondering whether that was “left” of the terminal from my perspective, my character’s perspective, or the terminal’s perspective.
The game is short, but that doesn’t matter because you’ll likely never reach the end as the game is so tough to beat. It starts out tough but bearable, but by level 3 it’s tough to the point of feeling unfair. I haven’t made it past level 5 myself (as is the case with many roguelikes I’ve enjoyed), but even so I feel spent on this. Part of the problem of course is that you often don’t get punished for mistakes made early on until much later. Burning through ammunition at the start of the game will see you through easily, but becomes a massive problem when you’re up against superior opposition, against whom your staple attacks do much less damage and put you at greater risk.
I still can’t tell if it’s a crappy action game rescued by having roguelike bits grafted on, or a roguelike game that’s been masterfully cultivated into some sort of action game. Either way, I can’t imagine someone wanting to play an action game, and then enjoying this. Though the weaponry on offer has a good feel to it, from the guns to the explosives, ammunition is extremely scarce to the point of needing to be hoarded rather than used, and thus the majority of fights are won and lost in the game’s knife-based combat system, which plays out like Hotline Miami, only with much less fidelity. The combat can be thought of as being more forgiving than Hotline Miami though (as it takes more than one hit to kill you), at least until you realise that death doesn’t instantly restart you back at the beginning of the current stage, but instead ends the game. This is true of any roguelike, but I don’t consider it a good mechanic for an action game (I should point out that savepoints are available at the start of each level, but this is a lot less generous than it sounds. That said, you do unlock new starting points if you get far enough, so you can skip the earlier levels on subsequent playthroughs).
So it’s not a particularly good action game. The question then, is whether this game redeems itself by being a good roguelike. We can argue the definition of a roguelike all day long, but what I’ll say is this: in essence, every good roguelike needs to keep you coming back to it. In more “traditional” roguelikes, this is accomplished by having the levels change every time you play, but the basic mechanics remaining the same. Playing a roguelike is generally a lesson in failure, but the important word there is “lesson”. Each time you lose, you gain a bit more knowledge to progress a bit further the next time (a process that can be accelerated to some degree by researching related wikis). It’s the “no pain, no gain” mantra in digital form, and yet, those who persevere will succeed.
In this respect, Teleglitch feels a lot leaner than most roguelikes. There are no stats beyond ammunition and health to juggle, so at first everything you learn is environmental (don’t walk into that thing that makes your head instantly explode), do hug the walls to spot secret openings and so on). As mentioned, the number of items available is rather limited, and because it’s real-time rather than turn-based, there’s a lot less analysis involved (and therefore has fewer options for strategizing), but on the other hand, it’s much quicker to start over again. Likewise your motor skills will improve on each run, as you get better at controlling your character, and master the weaving and stabbing required to conserve ammunition.
The big issue I have with the game then is lack of pacing, both in the sense of your character improving over the course of playing, and in terms of the moment-to-moment gameplay. In the grand scheme of things, your character actually does improve, at least in terms of acquiring more powerful weapons and things like teleporters on later levels, but you actively become wary of using these new weapons for fear you’ll need them more later. More to the point, you don’t actually experience the game in this manner, so you might have found a shotgun by level 2, but then get killed and have to continue without it. But then this is even true of traditional turn-based roguelikes.
Turn-based games have the luxury of letting the player dictate the pace of doing things, as in, now I’ll do a bunch of combat, now I’ll optimise my loadout, now I’ll craft some stuff. Teleglitch doesn’t give you a respite. You can find a quiet spot and take a bit of a breather and craft or reorganise your stuff or maybe check the wonderful in-game map (at least until the third level, when patrolling enemies ruin even that bit of downtime), but ultimately you’re just going through the process of: Open door. Move. Open door. Move. Open door. Mo–ARGHwhatTheHellIsThat MOVEMOVESTABSTABEXPLODESELFdead. But this leads me on to the single redeeming feature of the game: the atmosphere.
If you’re going to love this game, it’s because the atmosphere is so compelling. How it manages to do this in spite of the atrocious graphical style is incredible in and of itself, but I’d suggest that primarily it’s down the distinctive line-of-sight mechanic, where the map utterly disappears when your character can’t see it, lending a sense of immediacy to everything, and that the sound design is as good as the visual design is bad. The inclusion of lore snippets secreted throughout the game, and the fact that there’s no real exposition thrust upon you despite being in such an alien environment, no doubt all contribute to this.
If you’re the sort of person that loves to be immersed in a game like that, I’ve no hesitation in recommending this game to you. After a while you’ll get over the jagged, nondescript scenery with its drab colour palette, and even be able to identify the various moving pixel clumps as different enemy types, and this will keep you coming back, keep playing again and again. Unless you get too immersed, and ultimately find the game too terrifying to face for another time.
But if that’s not you, I suspect you may come away a bit bored or frustrated. Because there are certainly games that do everything else this game tries to do better. There are better action games, and better roguelikes, and there might even be better action roguelikes (Don’t Starve comes to mind, and although I’m loathe to make comparisons to The Binding of Isaac, as I haven’t spent enough time with it, I suspect it’s a good candidate too). Even so, I have no hesitation calling this game unique, and for the right audience, it will be their game of the year.
Performance & Quality
As you can tell from the body of this review, I’m not a fan of the retro, extremely pixellated style this game has been cursed with. That’s not just me hating on a look that’s so in vogue right now, but I think the game actively suffers for having it. It’s difficult to distinguish and visually identify things, it looks cheap, but by far the worst culprit is the typography, which is just so abysmal that it put me off reading the otherwise rather lovely descriptions and lore throughout the game. The display is also locked to 4:3 so it will pillarbox on widescreen displays (given the way the map visibility works though, that’s actually not a complete disaster).
The sound is very good though, with meaty sound effects used throughout. In terms of performance, the game runs well, though there are no graphical options to speak of, other than the ability to turn off some of the more motion sickness-inducing effects like the screen spinning and zooming.
There’s a pre-order version that swaps out your starting pistol for another random weapon, and gives you some other starting gear. If you have the pre-order version, you can disable this option if you prefer to play the game vanilla.
There seems to be support for mods via the folder at ~/Library/Application Support/Steam/SteamApps/common/TeleglitchDME/Teleglitch.app/Contents/Resources/mods though no significant mods seem to be published (in fact, many of the games parameters are easily modifiable using TextEdit if you’re inclined to re-balance the game yourself.