Review: Teleglitch (PC, Linux)

I am pulling inch-long nails deep from within my pulped calves and buttocks. Some entered head-first. Such is life on Medusa 1-C.

Full disclosure, it was all my fault. Again, such is life on Medusa 1-C.

Teleglitch, a three-year development haul from Estonian studio Test3 Projects, is a procedurally-generated retro-styled top-down shooter with permadeath and item-crafting. Before we jump to the raw mechanics, I feel the need to wax lyrical about the ambiance and inferences of Teleglitch. Let me start by detonating a barrel containing cross-medium pop culture names I feel relate well to Teleglitch and scatter them about the room for the purposes of observation.

Gauntlet. Alien 3. Get Medieval. Evil Dead. Quake. Pitch Black. Doom. Le Denier Combat. Abuse. Dead Space. Nox. Crimson Fields. NetHack.

While the scent of cordite lingers in your nostrils, you can get an amorphous globular picture of just what we’re dealing with in Teleglitch. This is one interesting grimy, lo-fi sci-fi creation. The pixelated text and thick, raw sprites and textures casts a unique atmosphere, and interestingly, there’s no actual music to speak to accompany a player’s traversal. Nothing but naked, chunky sound effects. A celebration of minimalism until the trigger is pulled, whereby overemphasized weapon blasts churn enemies to mince and grind the environment for its requisite dispensation of masonry dust. It’s not overt in a grotesque way, but the ballistic satisfaction is second to none, simply by countering the visual and aural austerity. It becomes highlighted when we get to weapon crafting, but for the moment, it cannot be understated the near-perfect leveling of ambiance versus player-action pertaining to audio-visual response.

The story of Teleglitch tells of a corporate R&D facility, once operated by the sinister Militech, on a harsh planet on the edge of known space. Assumed tired old tropes fall by the wayside, as anything more than preliminary details are actively pieced together by the player’s investigation. Information logs are scattered throughout the game and I certainly haven’t found all of them yet. Since these reports are gathered non-linearly, the unfolding precursor tale becomes something of an eerie patchwork of personnel notes, technical readouts and basic facility FYIs. Picking your way through the dank and twisting environment, through blasted geodesic domes and biospheres, collapsed hallways and reactor rooms, finding a readout that tells of accidents or an AI malfunction goes a long way, especially when — despite the odd grammatical error here and there — it feels like something out of the SCP Project.

I shan’t say any more about the story than that, but suffice to say that if vague slivers and recounts of events are your bag, Teleglitch offers a strong yet indirect narrative that lurks in the same manner as the tension.

Now, to the dangerous act of mere survival.

Hidden beneath the rough and ready pixelation is a heavy, tense, old school experience. Using familiar, pared-down controls, you’re left to explore the decimated facility for items, information and the eventual teleportation rooms — a technology that plays a large part in the history and downfall of this once-proud corporate bastion of going beyond technological limitations. Suffice to say, in the aftermath of things going awry, adversity is ladled upon the player in true roguelike fashion. Strange undead experiments left in the wake of Militech’s sinister research hound you through the enclosed spaces. Heart-stopping leviathans pursue with feverish speed and fervor. There is such omnipresent danger that I daresay fans of the Dark Souls series, as well as traditional leather-faced genre veterans, will find Teleglitch milking that same dopamine pleasure duct for its dark ooze of hard-won satisfaction against incredible odds.

As satisfying as the aforementioned weapons is the act of crafting firearms and ordnance. Items scattered around levels, as well as those dropped by downed foe or the refuse of utilised articles — empty cans from consumed canned meat, for instance — can be combined into new pieces of equipment for a variety of purposes. And this is where it gets fascinating. A limited supply of gear strewn around each location means combination choice is crucial. Given that ammunition especially is one of the rarest commodities, creating not only new weapons but the ammunition for these new items means other articles might be robbed of ingredients.

Humble RDX_250. A small packet of plastic explosives, RDX in the 250 measurement variety can be combined with a box of nails to create nailgun ammunition. If you combine it with a medpack, you’ve just made a stimulant. If you combine two packets of RDX to create RDX_500, you can then combine this larger packet with that very same box of nails to create a nailbomb. However, if you include an empty can in the combination, you’ve just created a one-shot blunderbuss or ‘cangun’. If you simply use the RDX_500 with an empty can, you end up with a rudimentary Panzerfaust. This is but a sliver of what’s on the menu in Teleglitch‘s crafting aspect. There is over forty different weapon and item combination outputs, which is especially surprising since we’re not talking about the delightful, rural fun of Minecraft. You are keeping the empty cans from rations just in the hope you find enough plastic explosives and nails to stuff into them later.

Oh, and a favorite? How about creating a meat trap? Yes. Like a perverse bees-to-honey crowd control device, just drop one of these and stagger away from the misdirected horde. Wait for the deafening detonation before stepping out from behind cover.

One of the more contentious aspects of Teleglitch is whether it deserves the subgenre application of “roguelike.” There is no character levelling in this game, nor is the combat or movement turn-based. It does, however, feature procedurally-arranged level modules to create a unique map design for every game. And yes, there is permadeath. In fact, you will have to slog through a good chunk of the game before reaching a checkpoint. Once reached, it allows future sessions to start from later levels. Combat is a tight, sleek mouse and keyboard affair in the vein of a twin-stick shooter, so this is no casual game. All in all, it is as much a roguelike as Dark Souls or any other action experience with punishing gameplay.

And is Teleglitch a survival horror game? Perhaps moreso than a roguelike, and not simply based on the scarcity of ammunition. There is of course that very aspect, as shots count and wild and careless use of weaponry will leave you with nothing more than an elevating sense of hysteria at every hammer-fall on an empty chamber. The crunchy graphics and the aforementioned music-free ambiance works perfectly to position a player as squarely as possible in the moment. Bravado is not injected with a thumping soundtrack. Every strange growl or moan does less in giving a target as it does a moment to check your magazine, or select a homemade bomb for use. The acoustics work wonderfully, with the rumble of perpetually-running industrial machinery growing at your approach, sometimes obfuscating the threatening sound signatures of an assailant lurking behind a bulkhead. These are used to great effect, even without the purposefulness of non-randomised assemblage of levels and enemies.

Teleglitch is one of those sweet, succulent creations from a tiny indie triumvirate, going beyond expectation and proving once again that studio size and funding has nothing to do with vision and creativity. I wholeheartedly encourage folks to try the demo and see for themselves.

And, just for your benefit will I reiterate this, but nailbombs? For the love of God, get behind something.

A static-ridden thanks to Test3 Projects for supplying a review copy.

A fantastic, tense and gruelling sci-fi survival experience with effectively austere production values.

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