It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
When we talk about production values in video games, it usually means big-budget titles like The Last of Us or Red Dead Redemption 2. The kinds of experiences where the studio can put additional time into seemingly minor things like making sure characters walk up stairs in a way that looks normal, or having horses realistically poop. They aren’t things that greatly affect the moment-to-moment gameplay, but instead help to create an illusion of realism, allowing for more immersion. In Tangle Tower, there is so much production value put into the game’s animation and voice acting that I actually forgot I was playing a game for about the first hour.
Tangle Tower is a murder mystery adventure puzzle game set in a mysterious mansion on a strange, secluded island full of unique plant and animal life. You play as Grimoire and Sally, a team of private detectives called on to look into the murder of Freya Fellows. Freya was killed in a locked room at the top of one of the mansion’s two towers while she was painting a portrait of her aunt, Flora Fellows. Unraveling the mystery involves uncovering a lot of the strange goings-on and strained relations between the Fellows family and Pointer family, who cohabitate in the mansion.
The gameplay is a bit like a combination of the Professor Layton and Ace Attorney games. You’ll be interrogating all the interesting characters who inhabit the mansion with different clues you’ll find, while exploring the mansion’s rooms in a way similar to the investigations in Ace Attorney. However, some clues are hidden behind intricate, puzzle-like locks, which, unlike many Professor Layton puzzles, feel more appropriate to the situation and less like an abstract puzzle from a book.
For instance, there’s a model of the solar system in the observatory that has a secret locked drawer in it that only opens when the model is arranged in a specific way, involving how the planets cast shadows. The clue you find in it becomes important not just for what it is, but also for the fact that it was hidden in the first place. Collectively this makes it feel less like a puzzle and more like a secret lock you happened to stumble on and cleverly figured out how to unlock.
The really great thing about Tangle Tower, though, is how engrossing it is. From the screenshots, it is probably hard to understand how that could happen, as the game looks like a pretty standard visual novel / adventure game, but there are lots of things it does that cause you to get swept up; at times it feels less like a game and more like watching an animated murder mystery. A big part of it is the animation and voice acting for each of the characters, which lets you know very quickly what sort of person they are.
There’s also just so much of it. It rarely feels like you are seeing characters repeat animations, even when they are, since the bigger gestures and flourishes are timed perfectly with the voice acting. And each character has voice-over for every bit of dialogue, not just for the few questions you have or during big scenes, but for every piece of evidence you present them and every person you can ask them about. Often, even the way they deliver that information says so much about them as a character, like how Poppy Pointer recites these Emily Dickinson-esque poems whenever you ask her about someone else in the mansion. This not only conveys how she sees everyone else, but also plays into her goth musician aesthetic.
What makes all the animations, performances, and writing fit together is that by default they just play. Normally with this sort of visual novel, even when there is voice acting, the player has to press a button to move to the next line of dialogue. Often in these games, there are options to make it play on its own, but with autoplay as the default in Tangle Tower, the dialogue and animation take center stage. You can just sit back and be absorbed in watching it (in fact, the trailer above has some great examples of this.)
It was so absorbing that I found myself going through the paces of playing the game, searching rooms, and solving puzzles almost reflexively in order to move on to the next bit of dialogue or animation. It wasn’t until I had to stop and think about a puzzle for more than a few moments that I realized how immersed I had been. The closest comparison might be if you’ve ever been sucked into reading a comic or a book.
Even without the excellent voice acting and animation, Tangle Tower is still an interesting murder mystery full of complex characters and relationships, with an assortment of puzzles that are the right amount of challenging, varied, and narratively cohesive. But the production values of the animation and voice acting push it from being a good murder mystery into something memorable.
Tangle Tower was created by SFB Games. You can get it on Apple Arcade with a subscription, or for $19.99 on Nintendo Switch, and Steam (Windows and Mac OS.) It takes about 5 to 6 hours to finish.