The mid-'90s were a heady time, when "multimedia PC" was the new buzzword, Sound Blaster was coming into its own, and MSCDEX configuration woes provided a constant challenge outside of gaming. Quite a few developers wanted to jump on the CD-ROM bandwagon to one-up Hollywood with "interactive movies," and Access Software's Under a Killing Moon was a pioneering piece that featured James Earl Jones and Margot Kidder. Two sequels followed, all with Access co-founder and in-house thespian, Chris Jones, in the leading role as Tex Murphy.
Unfortunately, full-motion video (FMV) was something of a passing fad, even with actors such as Christopher Walken loaning their talents to titles like Ripper and Privateer 2. Retail outlets shifted priorities, markets changed, and the adventure genre suffered as a result of the first-person shooter and console revolution.
Tex Murphy's flirtation with live-action video, CG settings, and tough puzzles would have been forgotten if they weren't pretty damn good adventure games. When Chris Jones and the series' original writer, Aaron Conners, launched a Kickstarter to revive Tex Murphy in 2012, enough fans contributed to make it a reality. Like a lot of Kickstarters, it also severely underestimated its release date, and Tesla Effect debuted nearly two years later. For fans of the original series, however, the wait has largely been worth it.
After Jones tells Tex Murphy that he's heading back, a dramatic credit sequence kicks off with a montage of Nikola Tesla's work, which is accompanied by a stirring and foreboding score by Bobby James. In Tex's world, only seven years have passed since 2043. In that time, he is no longer the person you don't want to meet in a dark alley — he is the dark alley. That's what Tex learns after waking up in his seedy office. He's been clubbed in the head, so he doesn't remember much of anything. To him, it's still 2043, but to everyone else, he's not the same man who inadvertently saved the world. There's also the question of what happened to Chelsee, his love interest from the last three games.
Despite the murky reputation that FMV has earned, Tesla Effect sticks with it and proves that in the right hands, FMV can provide plenty of entertainment. Just as a number of indie titles have chosen pixel art as a stylish, often functional choice, Access' old-school repertoire works for this game.
The effect is still striking, especially with none of the compression issues from the old days, though it occasionally gets cheesy. After playing through this title, I didn't soon forget the people in it, whether it's superfan Mojo (Travis Eberhard), Mantus (Todd Bridges), neighborhood nice guy Louie Lamintz (Randall Edwards) or the grumpy Rook Garner (Douglas Vandegrift).
Visually, the art isn't going to put Crytek out of a job, so don't expect Tesla Effect to wow you in that department. Some of the 3-D models used to represent bodies or certain other items are best left unmentioned, but the locales don't look bad — just dated. The artists still squeeze in enough detail throughout the game to provide venues like Tex's rubble-strewn home of Chandler Avenue and a mysterious beach house with plenty of visual snap. The locations are where most of the exploration takes place in first-person view. Don't expect the movement to feel like a typical FPS; it feels a lot like a floating camera, without jumping and mantling capabilities. This is just basic WASD movement in a point-and-click environment using the keyboard and mouse (no gamepad support).
Picking a difficulty level gives you two choices: Casual or Gamer. Casual activates the in-game hint system for puzzles and the option to skip most of them so you can proceed with the story. Using hints (and skipping puzzles) also costs the player points in the final evaluation at the end of the game. Tex's flashlight "lights up" objects that players can pick up. The Gamer option removes the hint system and skip option, but you can still get a description of the puzzle and how it works. Items need to be found the old-fashioned way, and the only way to lose points is by dying. The difficulty level can't be changed mid-game, so if you want to switch, you'll have to start over again.
The narrative is broken up into "days," which pass for major chapters. Each area, with others opening up during the course of the adventure, is largely self-contained and small enough to explore without feeling lost. The hints and items needed for each particular puzzle are often found nearby, which is a good thing. Searching a 3-D world for small items or clues can easily turn into a grinding chore if the designers want their audience to sweep every turn of the camera with their cursor. Thankfully, that's not the case here, though a careful eye is still needed, especially in Gamer mode.
If you've never played a Tex Murphy game before, previous knowledge isn't required. Thanks to Tex's amnesia and a stroll down memory lane via its characters, there are plenty of hooks to draw in newcomers. Fans who remember the original series will find a lot of familiar ground. There are even small mementos that trigger cut scenes from Tex's older games as he reminisces. It makes it fun for retro gamers and series devotees alike.
The threads tying Tesla's works to a larger conspiracy can seem like a serious adventure one minute before skating on thin ice the next. There's a sense that there are a lot of tangents that could've been explored to flesh out the adventure due to the scope of its subject matter, but what is here provides a solid entry in the Tex Murphy series. Much of the key dialogue is spoken by Tex Murphy as a part of the title's hardboiled detective noir. He might not seem like the most hardened detective on a post WW3 world, but his heart is in the right place — that is, as long as you want to play him that way.
One of the biggest strengths of the series has been its multiple endings depending on certain dialogue choices. In Tesla Effect, like in the previous games, dialogue choices represent what's going through Tex's mind at the time, so they don't specifically tell you what they mean — just a sense of how he'll shoot his mouth off. It can be a little confusing at times but adds personality to Tex in unexpected ways. It makes it fun to reload and repeat these moments to see what he and the NPC might say next. Depending on whether Tex is cooperative or a no-nonsense brute in certain instances, the ending could play out very differently.
After playing getting-to-know-you with a character, the camera shifts and the character faces the screen as if they're talking to you. You get a list of topics that Tex can ask them about. All the player has to do is go down the list and earn points for every topic covered. Players can even revisit most characters and grill them again in case they forget what they were supposed to be doing.
With that said, the story can feel a bit disjointed and rushed. There was a part in the game where references were made to the mysterious holes in Tex's apartment that he doesn't remember, and the reasons didn't come out until much later. In an earlier segment, however, Tex seemed to know that they were related to a search for an item that he names. It was confusing since I thought I had missed out on a valuable conversation, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
The puzzles mix item-based problems and pure puzzles, just like the original games in the series. Kevin Murphy (Mystery Science Theater 3000) provides the voice of Smart Alex, Tex's virtual assistant who also doubles as his inventory tracker and is not above sharing a Schwarzenegger impression or biting sarcasm when the situation allows, especially if Tex tries to combine something that doesn't work. Most of the puzzles follow a logical sense of progression, but there are a handful of raw problem-solving exercises.
At the same time, a few puzzles and solutions also felt as if they were crammed into the game. In one puzzle, which is also featured in the demo, Tex must blow up a cabinet to reach the hammer inside. Conveniently, the hammer lets him fix a broken piece of equipment in the same room. Other puzzles require a bit of dexterity to get past physical obstacles, whether it's a ball of deadly plasma or a patrolling monk with a flashlight. These puzzles might rub some players the wrong way, but fortunately, they aren't the norm and only appear in specific areas.
While Tesla Effect's world is largely functional, it also comes off as a bit unfinished. Obvious invisible walls keep Tex from climbing over things. There are a few texture issues (some of the computer screens in a level seem reversed) and places where geometry is missing, leaving part of an arch or the back of a machine sliced into unrendered space. Floors segments in another area clip through walls. It's a level of roughness that flies in the face of the especially good 2K FMV sequences and pre-rendered cinematics elsewhere in the game. For those who care about them, there aren't any Steam achievements, though a "bonus" storage room unlocks at the end.
As a fan, after spending 12 hours in Gamer mode wrestling with puzzles and replaying conversations to tease new one-liners and puns from Tex, I felt that Tesla Effect is a compelling return, despite its issues. The conclusion leaves things open for a potential sequel, but the ending I received was worth the choices I've made.
Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is more than a love letter to the series' die-hard supporters. It's a solid adventure title that's loaded with brain teasers, personable characters, and a great musical score. The alternate endings add to its re-playability, and it's a time capsule of the '90s interactive movie rush, giving it a bit of retro appeal. Though it's not perfectly polished, it's a good business card for the hard-boiled gumshoe to leave for armchair detectives. Tex is back and is ready for his next case ... whatever that might be.
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