With adventure and especially FMV games becoming less popular in the late 90ies, Access Software still tried to deliver another interactive sci-fi film noir experience with Tex Murphy: Overseer, a re-imagining of Mean Streets.
Tex Murphy: Overseer (PC)
(USA 1998, developer: Access Software (defunct), publishers: Access Software (defunct)/Night Dive Studios, platform: PC)
During a date with newsagent Chelsee Bandee, private detective Tex Murphy tells her the story of his first case involving the suicide of scientist Carl Linsky who secretly worked on mind control implants.
An old story retold in a new way
Despite telling mostly the same story of the first Tex Murphy game, there are quite a few differences, not only with characters and locations, but also plot twists. In addition, the frame story plays after The Pandora Directive, which is an interesting narrative device, as Chelsee and Tex often comment on certain situations and people, making it a much livelier storytelling experience, although the interruptions can get quite tiresome and disruptive to the suspense and immersion built up at some points. However, for the most part, it works and creates an emotional layer by showing how Tex’s and Chelsee’s relationship has grown and how the private investigator has changed over the years.
Unfortunately the main story and its characters aren’t nearly as memorable as in previous games. Even with the imitable dry humor of Tex (minus the fedora hat) and some oddball characters (minus those of Chandler Avenue), the story and characters take themselves too serious, while dialogues are sometimes full of pathos, which isn’t helped by melodramatic gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. Granted, this was always a problem with the FMV series, but it becomes much more prominent when conversations take up more time than necessary. This is especially noticeable with long monologues about the human condition and social injustice reflected in the discrepancy between the Norms (normal people) and the mutants. The low budget can not only be seen in the talent-free actors and actresses, but in the setting as well, with most locations being offices and apartments or looking rather cheap with badly implemented CGI backgrounds. Some Blade Runner-like special effects which show an impressive futuristic San Francisco are sadly in the minority, while the stunt action sequences are laughably bad.
Same old puzzles and gameplay problems
The gameplay hasn’t changed much since the last title, with interviewing various people, finding clues and following leads being the most fun whereas puzzles are the most frustrating parts. The former is lateral thinking business as usual, only made more interesting by the use of the AID (American Information Database) which helps to find out more about persons or organizations and therefore their current whereabouts or connections. The latter usually comprises mindbending object combinations, logic or sliding puzzles in addition to finding out passwords or codes. Even if these are connected to the story and used to great motivating effect when one learns about individual people involved in the secret project who all have their unique passwords and keycards, the repetitive nature of these brainteasers means that they’re rarely original.
Add in some pixel hunting, an unfair hide-and-investigate part in a killer’s apartment, an extremely annoying maze game forcing the player to guide a small dot (a serum) through brain nodes while evading other small dots (antibodies), a brick puzzle involving the rearrangement of the various pieces to clear a path without the whole thing collapsing, and one ends up with more filler than killer puzzles. Chess plays a major role in the game, but at least its terminology and rules are cleverly interwoven with the story.
Only one storytelling way to go
It’s more disappointing that there aren’t any multiple solutions to puzzles, with the established Gamer and Entertainment mode only increasing the difficulty in certain segments. Alternative story paths are also absent, so that the RPG-like nature of Tex’s former adventures is lost on the way. With few clues of where to go next and often looking for a conversation topic to unlock a new location being the only way to progress, the linear structure of the game is always present. Even some action set-pieces require a specific order of what Tex has to do. This is a refreshing idea, but the dynamic effect is minimized, as one also needs to pick up specific items before.
Controls, looks and sounds more modern
The first-person movement is still not perfect, but at least one doesn’t have to switch to the interaction mode, while using the keyboard to walk around is much more intuitive than the fiddly mouse controls. The screen is less cluttered, although the inventory which has to be scrolled through from left to right due to its small size brings its own problems. At least going through conversations is more user-friendly with topics which have already been discussed disappearing from the dialogue options. However, one still receives standard repetitive replies when people don’t know anything about a certain topic. More problematic is how difficult it is to make the game run, as it requires some additional codecs for the videos and sounds to work properly, being the buggiest of the Tex games yet.
Technically, the game hasn’t made huge leaps, compared to its predecessors, but at least the environments are more detailed (except for outdoor scenarios), and the videos (especially in the DVD version) are much nicer to look at. The music is great, too, with an orchestral soundtrack and more variety than simple MIDI jazz tunes.
The beginning of the end of FMV games
Overseer clearly tries to do something different. Even in the confines of a remake, it offers new gameplay and story ideas for those who’ve played the flawed original. While the plot is interesting and most of the dialogues are witty, it takes itself too serious at times, which is made worse by the atrociously bad acting. Unfortunately, the game also lacks what made the Tex Murphy games, especially The Pandora Directive, so replayable, namely non-linearity in gameplay and storytelling. With too many frustrating logic puzzles and mini-games, timed sequences and dialogue options which don’t really change the outcome of the story or how the main protagonist is received by NPCs, the game ends up as a rather conventional adventure game with a cliffhanger ending that hinted at a sequel that would never come… or at least not until Kickstarter made it possible.
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