Non-linearity in classic point-and-click adventure games is as rare as good acting in FMV titles, but Access Software’s The Pandora Directive proved that least one of these prejudices was wrong.
Tex Murphy: The Pandora Directive (PC)
(USA 1996, developer: Access Software (defunct), publishers: Access Software (defunct)/Night Dive Studios, platform: PC)
Tex Murphy is hired to find scientist Thomas Malloy, while a series of murders by the Black Arrow Killer seems to be somehow connected to the private detective’s case.
A cocktail of genres
Starting out with a simple missing person case, things get really crazy with the serial killer theme, conspiracy theories about alien technology and even a bit of Indiana Jones temple exploration thrown into the mix. Unlike Under a Killing Moon, the comedy elements don’t stand in the way of a suspenseful if somewhat overloaded story. Of course one still meets weird characters like conspiracy newspaper editor Archie Ellis or sleazy landlord Nilo Paglio, but the tone is nowhere near as silly as in the first FMV game. This doesn’t mean that one should consider it a pure sci-fi thriller, adventure or love story, because Tex is still the same old likeable gumshoe private detective who makes sarcastic comments in even the most dangerous situations. The same can be said about the acting which is again over-the-top and pretty bad by cinema standards, although it complements the C-quality special effects.
Different storytelling strokes
The overall story is much better developed and more engaging than the first game, which also comes down to its non-linear approach. Three possible narrative branches (Mission Street, Lombard Street, and Boulevard of Broken Dreams) lead to seven different endings depending on choices Tex makes during his investigation. These can range from being nice, e.g. finding an envelope with money addressed to an orphanage on the street and putting it into a mailbox or giving back the wallet with money the landlord lost, to being mean, e.g keeping all that money for himself. Even if this turns him into an egoistical and rather unlikable character, it’s interesting to see how events play out and people react to Tex, giving the game an RPG-like twist.
Puzzling anger and frustrating gameplay
In addition to questioning oddball characters and finding clues, there’s a much bigger emphasis on puzzle solving. Unfortunately, it’s here where the game crosses the line of frustration too many times. Even if variety in the logical conundrums is impressive and most item combinations are logical, there are enough moments when one wants to smash the keyboard, e.g. in a Mayan temple labyrinth where one has to find objects and use them in a certain order in specific puzzle rooms. Then there’s a very annoying evade-an-alien-entity segment which gives the player a rather short time limit to get rid of it, which isn’t easy with so many rooms on different levels to search through and objects to combine. Navigating a robot through a maze of air ducts and interacting with hard-to-see objects in rooms is another gaming nightmare as well, not only because of the clunky click-on-every-movement-and-interaction-button controls but simply because of the lack of clues. So using the in-game hint system almost becomes second nature in order to avoid pixel hunting and aimless wandering around.
If these parts weren’t difficult enough, too many logic puzzles make the investigation such a drag at times. This is too bad, because finding multiple puzzle boxes which have to be opened and then combined later on in the game is a great narrative device and gameplay concept. At least one can choose between the two modes Entertainment and Game Players, the former of which provides more time and easier solutions in addition to the option to skip certain puzzles, resulting in alternative ways to solve problems as well. It’s commendable that the puzzle design is so varied non-linear, but again this has a major drawback when the use of in-game money is concerned, as buying objects in an electronics shop without knowing which can be helpful or paying NPCs for their services can easily lead to the inevitable emptiness of pockets, so that one has to look for money on the street, in the sewers or in office cabinets.
Old school technology
Controls and dialogue trees haven’t changed, i.e. switching between mouse movement and interaction is as cumbersome as finding one’s way through conversation topics which bring up the same negative responses, because one can’t distinguish between what is essential to the investigation and what is filler material. Graphically, the low-res videos are outdated, and the background textures are even worse in the outdoor locations, making the spotting of small objects even more difficult at times. Again it’s only the varied soundtrack with its higher audio quality that saves the game from a technological relic of the past.
Bigger, better, but not the best
Access Software’s The Pandora Directive tells an engaging story with witty dialogues and memorable characters, even if the sci-fi, serial killer and adventure parts don’t always gel well together and it could have used a bit more social commentary that made the original so refreshingly different from other sci-fi or film noir stories. With a playtime of over 15 hours (the double amount compared to the original) on the first playthrough in addition to multiple narrative branches and puzzle solutions, this is the longest Tex Murphy adventure game yet.
It might not look that great from today’s standpoint, and the bad acting and special effects wouldn’t win an Oscar, either, but it’s still entertaining enough with some genuinely funny, exciting and even touching moments. Unfortunately the puzzle design is riddled with some very annoying mazes and logic puzzles, making a replay only an option for those who’ve got nerves of steel. It almost feels as if the developer wanted to throw everything at the player to prove that FMV games can be as heavy on puzzles as on videos.
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