Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

For disclosure purposes, I have not played the Tex Murphy games. When Under A Killing Moon was released in 1994, I had no means to play it and instead, read the excellent novelization about a dozen times. Considering the fan base that made this new game possible, I feel it important to note that this review reflects the opinions of someone who has taken an interest in the series from afar.

By all accounts, a new Tex Murphy adventure game shouldn’t exist. The full motion video game genre craze of the 1990s quickly became a festering pool of mediocre interactive movies after publishers rode the coattails of proper hits like Wing Commander III and Phantasmagoria. The great deluge of low budget games earned notoriety for their laziness and terrible production values. Thunder In Paradise Interactive was nothing more than an episode of the Hulk Hogan television series reappropriated into a “game.” Some of these games also served as embarrassing attempts to revitalize long dead careers (see: Dana Plato and Corey Haim).

One of the few franchises to separate itself from the trash heap was Access Games’ Tex Murphy, an adventure game that cast players in the role of a character often described as a man out of time. Fashioned after the image of the hardboiled “private dick” popularized by Mike Hammer and Humphrey Bogart, Tex Murphy uses his keen eye and sarcastic wit to solve cases for the colorful denizens of post World War III San Francisco. Murphy seemed to have hung up his hat and coat for good after 1998’s Tex Murphy: Overseer until Chris Jones and Aaron Conners, the creative minds behind the franchise, brought to Kickstarter an offer of a new Tex Murphy adventure. Proving once again that nothing makes money faster than nostalgia, Jones and Conners earned 20% more than initially asked, allowing them to return from a sixteen year absence with Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure.

Playing Tesla Effect without prior knowledge of the Tex Murphy universe is akin to stumbling blindly into a secret gathering of old friends. It makes no attempt to mask itself as anything other than a love letter to its fans. Little has been done to clear the dust that has long since settled on its 1990s era mechanics that defined the experience. Fanservice oozes from every pixel, as a steady stream of references and callbacks intended to trigger a nostalgic response among veterans rather than fill in gaps for new players.

Set in the year 2050, Tesla Effect opens with Murphy waking up from a struggle that has left a gash on his head and needle marks on his arm. The fight has jostled his brain, causing him to forget the events that transpired over the last seven years of his life. Confusion turns to tragedy as he discovers the fate of his old flame Chelsee Bando (last seen in Tex Murphy: Overseer), setting him along a quest for revenge and to regain his lost memories. There’s much more to Murphy’s circumstances than amnesia as he finds himself at the center of a plot involving the lost inventions of Nikola Tesla.

There’s a genuine old school vibe that permeates throughout Tesla Effect that will delight some and confound others. The game’s dated design exists as a snapshot of the past, free from the innovations and rule breaking that have come to define modern 3D adventures. Gameplay is divided into two components, conversation and first-person exploration and puzzle solving. You’ll navigate both Old and New San Francisco using a fairly basic point-and-click interface while moving with the WASD keys (until gamepad support is patched in). Puzzles can be completed by interacting directly with them or combining objects through Murphy’s Smart Alex personal data assistant, a wisecracking piece of tech voiced by Mystery Science Theater 3000 alum Kevin Murphy. The difficulty of the puzzles is dictated by two game modes offered at the start of the adventure. The casual setting offers a more comfortable, relaxed pace to enjoy that story. Also, mission critical items will sparkle when passed over by the beam of light coming from Murphy’s flashlight. The Gamer mode disables both of these features, forcing the player to develop a sharp eye for detail. The puzzles themselves are not particularly taxing but I was amused at their age. They’re practically prehistoric! I haven’t had to complete slider puzzles or Magic Triangles since the Myst era.

Beyond scouring locations for clues and puzzle elements, a significant amount time is spent interacting with the colorful characters that make up both New and Old San Francisco. Murphy can interrogate people on a variety of different subjects to get their input and insight on events, people and places. These characters often act as gatekeepers because the investigation cannot proceed without gaining special insight from certain people. There’s a deeper conversation system in place for moments where Murphy’s interaction with others is designed to drive the story forward. These extended cutscenes make use of a dialog system that is a bit of a headscratcher. When it is time for Murphy to talk, the player is prompted with three responses. Unlike Mass Effect, there is no direct way to determine which statement will yield a good, neutral or bad response. The prompts are laden with smartassery and sarcasm, defining the type of person Murphy is, but the vagueness associated with each response is an issue because the direction of the game, as well its ending, hinges on what you say, hear, see and do. Treat people well and they’ll help out with the investigation. Be too much of a jerk and they will close up, resulting in missing out on important clues and significant portions of the game. Given the consequences, it would have been nice if the dialog choices were clearer. On the other hand, the mechanic strongly encourages replayability as you simply cannot experience everything in one playthrough.

The nature of dialog choices in Tesla Effect comes with an all too familiar and unintentionally hilarious side effect common in FMV games. Bioware succeeded into turning conversations into an art form, allowing characters to smoothly and intelligently shift between topics in a way that felt very natural. Murphy, on the other hand, has a tendency to act in a manner that suggests he suffers from Harvey Dent-style bipolar disorder because many of his responses exist as canned bits of modular film pieces.

The 3D environments are powered by the Unity Engine and comprised of textures that would have looked fine in 2002. Bland as they are, they get the job done and function as a serviceable backdrop to the actors being filmed in 2K resolution, resulting in Tesla Effect offering the best full motion video quality the genre could only dream of. The aliasing, scan lines and video interlacing that were trademarks of the genre are nonexistent, resulting in a beautiful crystal clear image of the game’s actors, both familiar and obscure. Chris Jones reprises his role as Tex Murphy and is joined by franchise stalwarts whose names will be recognizable to those who have stuck it out this long. They are joined by the likes of Todd Bridges, Jodi Russell, Larry Thomas, June Lockheart, and the aforementioned Kevin Murphy. The quality of the performance can be iffy especially when certain characters try to be serious or funny. Murphy is quick to drop one liners, riffs and wisecracks throughout the game, and a few manage to draw a few gentle chuckles. Others can be rather painful. Many jokes rely on tired film references that would have been funny in the early 2000s when eBay was still a thing and people loved quoting Austin Powers. Cringe worthy as it can get, Tex Murphy owns up and enjoys its own sardonic brand of humor and never takes itself too seriously.

Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure won’t be for everyone. Acceptance largely depends on whether a) this is your first Tex Murphy outing, b) you’re a longtime fan or c) you’re an FMV aficionado. New players will likely be put off with how greatly the storytelling assumes they’ve played the previous games. Those who develop an interest in Tex Murphy will be happy to know that the entire franchise catalog is available to purchase from Good Old Games (which I picked up after playing the game for a few hours). Clearly, it is the fans who will get the most out of Tesla Effect. Designed specifically for them, they will appreciate seeing the gang back together for one more noir-fueled adventure.

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.