Long ago, back when multimedia was king and the future of video games was clearly going to be fueled by low budget actors performing in front of green screens so that viewers could watch cut scenes in tiny pixelated boxes, there was only one name in private investigation. That name was Tex Murphy. Over the course of the 1990s, Tex stumbled his way through five point and click adventures, most of which were highlighted by the same FMV goodness that made Mad Dog McCree a household name. Now, thanks to the magic of crowdfunding and nostalgia, Tex is back for a new adventure in 2014, ready to take advantage of both the lowered expectations of FMV games and the high quality cameras available in our own far flung future. Tesla Effect nails it when it comes to weird video insanity, but drops the ball when it comes to basic gameplay. This shouldn’t matter for FMV fans who’ve been waiting for a new fix since Lococycle, but fans of point and clicks may not be satisfied with what’s presented here.
Tesla Effect picks up Tex’s story from 1996’s Pandora Directive, but it’s not long before there is a time jump and memory loss which whisks Tex even further into his alternate future. In the intervening years that Tex can’t remember, he had become a hardened man willing to work with criminals and lowlifes, falling in with a man known as The Translator who seeks out ancient artifacts once owned by Nikolai Tesla. Tex, along with the assistance of his robot PDA sidekick (voiced superbly by MST3K’s Kevin Murphy), must piece together what his life has turned into and decide which set of morals he will now follow. That all sounds super serious, but the story is at its best when its having fun with itself, while also serving as a great reason for all of Tex’s compatriots to reintroduce themselves to players who probably haven’t picked up a Tex Murphy game before.
Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure (PC)
Developer: Big Finish Games
Released: May 8, 2014
Speaking of which, the highlight of the game is easily the initial hour or so wandering around Chandler Avenue and talking with various characters for the first time. A majority of the actors give great performances, and the dialogue is likably cheesy without too many groan-worthy jokes. Learning about Tex’s world and seeing all the little nuances cooked in by the writers was very enjoyable, but that’s only half the experience. The other half is a point and click adventure navigated in the first person. When you’re directly controlling Tex, he moves very slowly, and the environments are sparse and lifeless. It’s easy to pass by vital clues because you were pointing your head in the wrong direction while walking by. This is solved by your flashlight, which on the easier difficulties points out said objects in the environment with glowing and sparkles. During these sequences, you come to rely on the funny comments you get by clicking on everything, but even they seem to fall away by the very end of the game, and you’re left with way too much spartan downtime in what is supposedly a humorous endeavor.
Tesla Effect‘s story is sectioned off into individual days, and it splits its time between its two halves for most of them. However, on the final few days, there is a sudden heavy reliance on the adventure game puzzles and item hunting, to the point where your home base and all the characters on it become completely useless well before the game is finished. The puzzles are fine, but I found myself skipping them more often than not, as their controls are wonky and their goals are sometimes ill defined or too reliant on trial and error. There are a few item combinations that also venture into the old adventure game insanity that people deride this genre for, but that part of the game is doable and there are walkthroughs built in if you ever get completely lost. The developers seem to appreciate that most players are here for the FMV sequences and give them tools to stumble through the adventure game parts, so its final few levels left me wondering if they had run out of budget for those sequences entirely.
I will give the game credit for respecting what came before despite its age and obscurity in younger circles. Spread throughout its early parts are reminders of past events in the Tex Murphy canon, which load up flashbacks taken from previous adventures (even one from 1989’s more action focused Mean Streets) when clicked on. It was fun to look back on what came before, but it also lead me as a player to draw some bad comparisons between Tesla Effect and the other installments in the series. Maybe it’s just my own age and nostalgia, but the goofy moments shown in those flashbacks are more desirably over the top than anything presented in Tesla Effect. The characters in those old games seemed more original even if their costumes looked a bit bargain basement, and the wacky puzzle solutions hit better in FMV then they do in a 3D environment. Overall, there is a strange strain in the dialogue that makes Tesla Effect seem embarrassed of the past and eager to show you its crisp new HD effects. However, since your direct actions in the game are taking place in first person levels that look like they were designed for Quake and most of them feature little to no animations, you’re not drawn is as much to the world around you as you might like, and the whole thing suffers for it.
All negatives aside, I feel I must express how much of a joy it is to play a full FMV title in 2014, and I do hope that other developers see Tesla Effect as an inspiration to reconsider FMV as a tool rather than a weird fad from a foregone era. Fans of Tex Murphy will probably have no problems wading through the subpar adventure here, but I might recommend seeking out the older Murphy games first before jumping into this one if you’re brand new to the universe. It’s a hard balance to strike between retro and modern, and Tesla Effect misses the mark one too many times in favor or the more boring and standard aesthetic we’re used to today. It also doesn’t help that there is a glut of excellent adventure games on the market that outclass Tesla Effect’s puzzles and environments in every way. I do hope that the team at Big Finish get the chance to take another crack at bringing back Tex, but I can’t help but be underwhelmed by this first attempt at a retro revival.