Review: Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

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The evolution of gaming and technology over the last twenty years is kind of staggering to think about. 8-bit art moved into 16-bit and the advent of CD-ROM allowed better music and video quality. Way back when, 30-second to minute-long video clips were selling points in video games. Unleashing the power of CD-ROM in games (in retrospect) is hilarious now, as most games on PC are only available as digital downloads and CD-ROM, DVD or Blu-Ray drives are likely only used for ripping media instead of being the source driving the content. Basing an entire game around full motion video was a rage that came and went as quickly as technology moved from 8-bit to 16-bit to 32-bit. But that doesn’t mean those games weren’t good.

Access Software created the first Tex Murphy game, Mean Streets, as a sprite-based point and click adventure, but subsequent releases moved to more advanced 3D environments with FMV performances. What I fondly remember of those games was their full embrace of semi-bad/semi-fantastic make-up effects and performances from actors that dove full on into the characters even though they also seemed like they weren’t sure whether or not the job they were getting paid for was going to be any good. That’s part of the charm of FMV–cheesy acting without any regrets. Everything else about the game is just a vehicle to get to the next clip. Except with Tex Murphy, the actual games were good. The characters were rich, the mysteries were complex, and the puzzles were interesting and challenging.

Sadly, the tastes of gamers (and corporate intervention) changed the landscape of gaming and the last Tex Murphy adventure game dates all the way back to 1998. Since that time, technology has made great strides in providing video playback in high resolutions without requiring ridiculous amounts of storage, and computers have also advanced to make 3D worlds look real without needing overly expensive hardware. With a resurgence of high profile point and click adventures making their way into the mainstream again, Big Finish Studios has released a new Tex Murphy adventure, Tesla Effect. Is the gaming world ready for the return of FMV adventures? They better be!

Getting back on a bike after a few years without riding is pretty much exactly how playing Tesla Effect feels. Moving around the full 3D environments, finding objects to interact with, collect or manipulate is just like I remember from Under a Killing Moon and Pandora DirectiveTesla Effect offers a bit of a tutorial on how the interface works, but for the most part the game is pretty intuitive as objects that can be clicked on change the crosshair cursor into one with an eye or a switch indicating Murphy will comment about something or interactive with it. Of course, not always being able to find an object can be a challenge, but to solve that problem, Murphy has a handy flashlight which will make any object sparkle if it can be used. (The flashlight is also helpful at times toward the last half of the game which takes place in a dark, abandoned research facility.)

While Tesla Effect feels like a modern version of past Tex Murphy games, the characters have grown. Murphy himself is a mix of his former self and a bit of an enigma as he tries to piece together his memories. When the game opens, our boy Tex is no longer a bumbling, self-depreciating gumshoe. He is a cold, hard, unlikable dick, driven by money. While the opening scene is a bit jumbled, the outcome is that Murphy has been hit on the head and injected with something which has caused him to lose his memory of the last seven years. This provides the game the chance to let players choose a direction for Murphy, either remain a callous jerk, or return to his more humble ways.

When Murphy interviews neighbors to gain information about the events which caused him to lose his memory, players have a choice of how to approach the interview. My only complaint about this is the fact that the various choices all feel like they will ultimately lead Murphy to the same final encounter in the game. Since Murphy has always been a bumbling doof who luckily stumbles across the solution to a puzzle, I found myself usually leaning toward the interview option that played in that direction. Seeing Chris Jones playing Murphy as a hardass just doesn’t feel right, even though his performance is top notch with any selection chosen.

Most of Tesla Effect is played out by moving through a rundown slum in San Francisco, interviewing returning favorites from past games. One really neat touch the way Big Finish incorporates flashback footage from previous adventures triggered by random objects found in the world. For example, a basketball in a back alley triggers a video sequence of Tex going in for a layup and ending up hitting flat against a brick wall instead. These nostalgic trips are great for existing fans, but they also allow a better sense of what Murphy was like as a bumbling doof for any new gamers to the series. As the old neighborhood is inspected, clues lead Murphy to chat with old and new characters.

Returning to the game is the use of FMV (now in HD), and these segments are presented with a much higher level of polish than the previous games. Almost as a nod to the old games, though, the same so-bad-it’s-good make-up effects are used on familiar faces. HD video clearly shows the flaws of what was previously masked by lower resolution video capture. Keeping the old flaws in a modern game where better effects could be produced adds to the B-movie charm. Some interviews are played out as full scenes, while some are simply a list of topics to be clicked on which then trigger a response from the character being talked to. Some of these list interviews feel a bit strange as the HD capture allows you to see when an actor is seemingly reading directly from a teleprompter. I can’t say it was too distracting, but I also can’t say that I didn’t not notice it.

As Murphy learns more about who caused him to lose his memory, the title of the game comes into focus. Nikola Tesla was an inventor living at the same time as Thomas Edison. They were peers and rivals, but Tesla lost the PR campaign and was vilified as a crackpot, and now the world lives on inventions by Edison instead of Tesla. One of Tesla’s biggest inventions supposedly would’ve revolutionized power usage and how it was brought to homes and neighborhoods. During a test, Tesla’s invention accidentally blew up a portion of Russia, from New York. Obviously this sort of power could easily be misused and this led to his rapid decline. However, a fanatical group of believers never lost faith in Tesla and they secretly have continued to try and harness and improve upon his inventions since his death. A rift in this group has formed and they try to use Murphy to stop the other half from making Tesla’s inventions a reality.

At least I think that’s what was going on. By the latter half of the game, I found myself a bit confused by whether I was trying to control Murphy to help or hinder either side. The game offers choices during certain conversation points that make it seem like Murphy is siding with one or the other, but by then I had lost any connection to the plot. Maybe I was just trying to get through the game to finish it, but I don’t really think so because I didn’t begin to feel this way until the last two chapters. The first half of the game focuses on Murphy understanding why he lost his memory. When a much more convoluted reason for his amnesia is made apparent, I began to lose any compulsion to stay interested. By the end of the game there are “choices” of doing one thing to stop or help an enemy, but the resulting cutscene simply plays out and then puts players right back at that choice. To me that doesn’t really feel like anything more than a meager “what-if” that doesn’t mean much more than a brief glimpse at an alternate ending. Maybe there are additional endings beyond the ultimate one I saw, but if there are, the game doesn’t provide any obvious indication that there is more than one.

Despite all this, Tesla Effect is among the best point and click adventures I’ve played in the last few years, and the hint system is one of the main reasons why. Now I’m not one to lean too heavily on hints if I can help it, but when I get stumped, I tend to want to say nasty things about a game out of frustration. Tesla Effect has several ways to help without outright holding the player’s hand. First off, almost every time Murphy interviews someone, picks up an object and looks at it, or discovers a key plot element, a Detective point is added to a hidden pool. Anytime Murphy dies (which isn’t too often, but can happen) points are taken away from this pool. These points can be used to reveal a detailed list of steps that needs to be accomplished, or if a puzzle has you completely stumped, points can be spent to auto-complete it. Player frustration is kept at an absolute minimum because of the way this Detective pool and hint system is implemented. I love the fact that the system is available, but never advertises or pushes players down that path. Sometimes hint systems end up being a crutch, but in Tesla Effect it wasn’t until more than halfway through that I even realized it had been in place from the start. To me that is a smart and elegant way to provide aid without making it the sole reason to keep playing.

Tesla Effect does a great job of offering both newcomers and experienced point and click gamers a funny, well performed and interesting adventure while bringing the series into a super polished HD modernity that I can only hope will continue on without another long layoff. Returning fans will also get an extra kick out of the fun throwbacks to the original games. While the game can feel a bit too full of itself at times, there is a likeable consistency with Tex Murphy and his bumbling ways that you can’t help but want to see him through to a happy end.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Tex is back and as sarcastic and funny as ever
+ Retro cutscenes play clips from previous games
+ Fantastic FMV performances
+ Great hint system implementation

Cons:
– Story is a bit convoluted, especially toward the end
– Multiple path endings don’t feel genuine

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Big Finish Games
Release Date: 5/8/2014
Genre: Adventure
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.