True to its subheading, this updated version of Teleglitch will make you die. More. It’s a brutal game, with a difficulty level bordering on unfair, but one which compels you to keep returning to its cruel embrace. The original was released towards the end of 2012 by Estonian developers Test3 Projects, and it now has a more high-profile reissue thanks to a publishing deal with Paradox.
In a rather excellent gesture, the developers gave everybody who bought the game through Desura a free upgrade to the Die More Edition.
That’s probably the kindest thing the creators are ever going to do in relation to the Teleglitch playerbase. The rest of the time they’re fully focused on making sure the game kills each of them over and over and over again.
A lot of previous titles come to mind when edging your way along the game’s minimally rendered corridors. The techno-horror backstory of System Shock 2‘s rogue AI. The top-down, swarming mass of creatures from Alien Breed or Gauntlet. Procedural level generation and permadeath from The Binding of Isaac. Desperate ammo conservation from whichever survival horror game you tend to consider the best. The manic move-n-shoot of early FPS efforts like Doom and Quake.
It’s a little bit of all of those things.
You are, as is so often the case, a lonely fellow trapped inside a madhouse of corporate making. Experiments with necrotic tissue and military hardware, mixed with a demented AI and ill-advised tests on teleportation devices have led to a thoroughly dangerous building. Everyone else is dead (or worse) and you need to get the hell out.
By the way, if you’re a scientist and you’re reading this: can you agree not to get involved with crazy time-and-space-bending experiments on the behest of swivel-eyed army brass? I know the urge to discover new things is a powerful one, but these things never seem to end all that well. It’d probably be for the best if you just refused.
Anyway, yes, the terrible starting situation in Teleglitch. Unfortunately, your character wasn’t rummaging through a fully-stocked weapons locker when all the bad things started to happen so all you have at the outset is a 9mm pistol, some explosives and maybe a tin can or two.
The Die More Edition is supposed to give you the option to start off with slightly more randomised equipment, but for some reason this review copy didn’t include that stuff. It may only have been a pre-order bonus deal of some kind.
What it certainly did include was a few additional levels that manifest as branching pathways at certain points in the game. Do you want to continue your journey through the ‘abandoned’ biofarm area, or the zombie-slave processing facility? Surprise! The answer is neither of them. They’re both terrible places to exist as a human being.
Survival is key in Teleglitch and the inhabitants of the offices, pipeways and gardens won’t make that at all easy. Mutants and zombies will madly rush at you, hoping to claw at your gentle flesh. Sentry robots will attempt to gun you down; and the less said about the giant, seething horrors of the game’s later levels the better.
Getting decent at melee is of paramount importance. You won’t have enough ammo if you merrily pick off every stray beast that lurches your way, even if your accuracy is unerring. Scavenging for more equipment is a constant risk. It’s possible that it’ll pay off, but the semi-procedurally generated levels (the room types themselves remain the same for each section, but are rearranged) mean you can never be certain of finding a vital storage cabinet or secret area with hidden ammo cache. You may well expend more than you can make back.
Dying is a big deal. Death is permanent and the only save option occurs between levels. That doesn’t mean you can restart at that level when you die, however. It’s just a chance to stop and pick the game up again later. To be able to actually start at a level beyond the first one, it’s necessary to reach the milestone of level five.
Reach five, and you can start again at three. Reach seven and you can begin at five. It’s a glorious, horrible, wonderful, bastard of a system that has amazing effects on the in-game tactics you’ll employ.
That first visit to level four is heavy with tension. You know that if you reach the teleporter to level five, you’ll only be sent back to level three on your (inevitable) death. I’d battled my way through most of the fourth section. Carefully. Meticulously. I’d located a terminal which showed me precisely where the exit teleporter was located. It was close.
But I was also out of ammo and had barely enough health left to survive a love-tap, let alone a full-on zombie gnawing. Teleglitch’s eerie, discordant sound effects were tugging at my brain. As the door slid open with a menace unbecoming of such a small collection of pixels, the creature jumped me. What followed felt like the tensest knife fight in videogame history. Thrust and parry. Backing off. Picking the moment. As the dreadful dance ended, the foul zombie lay dead. I was rewarded with an almost nourishing tin of canned food and the distorted crackle of teleportation to level five. Whereupon I died almost immediately.
Not every fight goes that way. You’re lucky if an encounter is one-on-one; even if the ‘one’ on their side is a tough foe. It’s far more common to be facing different enemy types who each demand a different approach. If you’re focused, you’ll deftly mousewheel-scroll through your weaponry list, pick the right gun (or knife, or bomb) for the job and do your best to conserve bullets while ducking and moving out of danger. Or, like me, you’ll panic, spam all of your precious heavy rifle ammo at a piddling mutant and instantly regret it.
To stay alive you need to be quick, alert and able to keep an eye on both your own movement and your current choice of weaponry. Nobody enjoys being the guy who accidentally tosses some explosives at the floor instead of whipping out a nailgun.
Teleglitch does want you to stand some, minimal, chance of staying alive however. To that end, there’s an easy to use crafting system (press ‘c’ to see what you can make out of your current bits and pieces, then click the one you want) that can augment your guns and build you handy bits of extra kit like detectors and illegal stimulants. That latter choice somehow makes use of explosives in its pharmaceutical recipe. It has quite a kick.
Crafting in games is so often an excuse for meaningless busywork, but here it’s a pivotal part of the tension between the need to explore for more stuff to survive and the need to just keep pushing onwards in order not to use up too much stuff.
By default, Teleglitch adds disorientating auto-rotate and zoom functions to its stylised, jagged looks. That hammers home the woozy feel, but becomes a bit much at times of high stress, particularly as the screen already has a separation effect whenever a gun is fired. You can, fortunately, switch these camera motions off in the options.
What you can’t really mitigate is the slight awkwardness of recognising your enemies in such low-resolution conditions. Your combat survival depends upon an ability to make split-second decisions about who and what you’re facing, and while the pixel artists have done a damn fine job of making the foes look distinct there is a limit to what they could do.
Some unfairness, though, is part of the deal. Sometimes you’ll blunder into a horde of creatures at the worst possible moment. On other runs you’ll get that medkit just when you need it. That’s Teleglitch at its best. Tense. Punishing. Skill-reliant. And just a little bit unfair.