Tangle Tower Review: The game is afoot
On an island in the middle of a shimmering, rainbow-colored lake, at the top of one wing of a house as bizarre as its history, talented young artist Freya Fellow has been stabbed through the heart. The only witness won't – or can't – say a word. And the only suspect, found at the scene with a bloody knife in hand, is the figure depicted in Freya's final, unfinished painting.
That spine-tingling hook propels you into Tangle Tower, a puzzle-mystery game for Apple Arcade, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. Simple in concept but rich in execution, the game blends compelling characters, a cunningly crafted whodunit, and a great sense of humor into an experience well worth your time.
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A creepy cast of characters
Tangle Tower, created by brothers Tom and Adam Vian and their team at SFB Games, is a sequel to 2014's Detective Grimoire, though you won't need to play the original to understand this one. Private investigator Grimoire – big brain, zero chill, endearingly un-hip – and his partner Sally – unflappable, snarky, and too cool for literally any room – are hired by an anonymous benefactor to bring Freya's killer to justice.
To solve her murder, they'll span the dizzying heights and mysterious depths of Tangle Tower, home to a pair of quietly feuding families united by marriage and divided between the two towers of their ancestral mansion. Each member of the Pointer and Fellow families has his or her own pet obsession, from birds to botany to music – and any one of them could have killed Freya. Meanwhile, you'll have to contend with a severe, enigmatic fellow detective who seems to be investigating another case entirely.
Tangle Tower somehow makes these characters both over-the-top caricatures and living, breathing people. The gorgeous and distinctive character design, blending influences from European and Japanese comics, leans hard into each family member's eccentricities. Flighty Penelope dresses like the exotic birds she loves; shy, scientific Fifi's huge glasses recall microscope lenses.
But as you poke, prod, and question each of them, they reveal painfully human depths. They're scared, jealous, bitter, lonely, regretful, and in one particularly juicy instance, maybe embroiled in a not-so-secret love triangle? The questions these characters don't answer tell you as much as the ones they do. By making you care about them – and poor, kind Freya – the game ensures you're even more invested in the mystery itself.
The story's weightier elements get nicely balanced by Grimoire and Sally's often hilarious observations and interactions. At the very least, their quips and exchanges throughout the game will leave a smile on your face. At most, as in Sally's amazing answer to how she fixes her symmetrical hair-buns without looking in a mirror, they'll make you laugh out loud.
The exceptional voice acting here makes Tangle Tower's strong script even richer. A talented cast plays every shade and nuance of these characters perfectly, landing every joke and really making you feel for the more sympathetic among the tower's denizens. No spoilers here, but suffice to say that even the vocal performances in this game, in and of themselves, might provide you with a clue to the mystery…
That mystery doesn't disappoint. Complex and multilayered, the truth behind Freya's death proves delightfully difficult to guess. I sussed out one part of it pretty early, but other huge chunks kept me in the dark until much later in the game. And I didn't figure out the real culprit until about two seconds before the game showed its final cards.
Deeper than it looks
In terms of how you actually play, Tangle Tower isn't much more technically sophisticated than, say, 1993's original Myst. Each room or area in the game involves a single static image; you'll tap or click on various things that catch your eye to see whether they're relevant to your investigation. But to Tangle Tower's credit, those backdrops look lush and beautiful, and they're accompanied by a cheerfully macabre soundtrack that favorably recalls the film scores of Danny Elfman. Plus, the game drops breadcrumbs in its opening screens that won't pay off until much later on – a clever way to keep you engaged.
Occasionally, you'll find some object that turns into a puzzle to solve to find your next clue. (The inhabitants of Tangle Tower are weirdly into elaborate locking mechanisms for their personal belongings.) Thankfully, those puzzles all relate at least somewhat to the characters attached to them, and they're not so tricky to unravel that they block your forward momentum. In a few clever instances, odd things you find that seem like they might be solutions to a future puzzle actually relate more to the overall plot of the game.
When you're not fiddling with puzzles, you'll be quizzing the Pointers and Fellows about their whereabouts during the murder, the objects you find in your investigation, and each family member's relationships to the others. Having to tap to advance through each conversation can get a little repetitive, but the aforementioned excellent story and acting help to hold your interest even when the game tries your patience.
Ask the right questions, and Grimoire and Sally will steer you toward inconsistencies in many characters' stories. Once you've found one, you can confront that character with a hypothesis. This part of the game works a little like Mad Libs: You fill in the blanks of your assumption with various clues or surmises based on the evidence. Get your hunch right, and you'll learn a vital new fact about the case. The more you investigate, the more of the tower you'll unlock, ultimately leading to an abrupt but satisfying big reveal.
Gone too soon
After several satisfying hours worth of gameplay, Tangle Tower ends somewhat suddenly. But while I wished the end hadn't come so soon, looking back on the mystery made me realize the game had played fair. The story holds together even in retrospect, and more than a few things that raise question marks as you play the game fall nicely into place at its end. The handful of loose ends left behind only made me more interested in a sequel.
Tangle Tower might not be the flashiest or most graphically accomplished title in Apple Arcade's lineup. But its craft and quality definitely make it one of the best.
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Nathan Alderman is an iMore contributor. He’s been using Apple computers since his first Apple IIe in 1985, and writing professionally about Macs and their software since 2005. During his 12 years freelancing for Macworld, he covered email clients, web browsers, web design programs, writing apps, and games, and he’s continued to follow those interests at iMore since 2017. An editor and writing coach in his full-time career, he spends his dwindling spare time writing fiction for fun, volunteering for democracy, and contributing to podcasts on The Incomparable Network. Nathan adores his wife and wrangles his alarmingly large children in bucolic Crozet, VA.