Kickstarter is a good way to revive old franchises and an even better one to breathe new life into niche genres. So is Big Finish Games’ Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure still relevant in today’s industry and a fitting conclusion to the series?
Private detective Tex Murphy wakes up in his office with seven years from his memory erased, and while he tries to find out what happened to his sweetheart Chelsee, unsolved murders and the lost technologies of scientist Nikola Tesla crop up as well.
Forgetting and remembering the past
Using amnesia as a narrative device isn’t the most imaginative, but like every Tex game, it has a tongue-in-cheek effect on the main character and the people he meets. The player shares the likeable private detective’s confusion of what happened in the lost years and why he became alienated to people around him, adding a layer of suspense to the intriguing story. Unfortunately, the mystery is only slowly unraveled, with strange connections to even weirder people. Of course this is what a mystery story is all about, but when only more questions are raised with fewer answered, one can get rather impatient. This isn’t helped by the nonsensical background story of electricity, ghosts and mistaken identities, although the locations Tex visits are varied enough to provide as many opportunities to meet oddball or creepy mutants as well as dangerous femmes fatales.
Meeting all the old faces of past games with the same actors is a joy for those who remember them, with newer, memorable NPCs thrown into the mix, e.g. a transvestite who has a fetish for pain or a little man who is a hacker and a big fan of Tex’s detective work. Dialogues are again witty, even if a bit too silly, but at least they’re more enjoyable than the serious conversations in Tex Murphy: Overseer, already exemplified by Smart Alex, a smartphone functioning as an inventory, contact list, and provider of hints, that comments on Tex’s actions and social encounters. Acting is unsurprisingly not the best, but just like in Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon, the exaggerated facial expressions, gestures and intonation add much to the B-movie fun. Special effects and make-up masks fare much better, as they’re surprisingly well done, even if the illusion of being in those places is often destroyed by the use of actors and actresses in CGI-backgrounds.
Nostalgia kicks back in
However, the game often tries to deliver too much fan service, e.g. when one finds all the Kickstarter backers put into photos in various buildings with Tex commenting on their appearance and facial expressions. This makes the rather large world even more difficult to traverse when looking for usable objects. There are also many points of interaction which open up videos from past games. This is obviously a nice nostalgic touch, especially with the higher video resolution, but there are simply too many, so that one is always interrupted while looking for important objects to pick up. The same attention to collectible detail can be found in comics which don’t only have amusing pop culture reference titles like Citizen Candy Cane or Candyman Rings Twice, but which also unlock an additional chapter at the end of the game, which isn’t an easy feat, considering how well hidden they sometimes are.
Talking as in the good old days
The detective adventure gameplay is as old school as it gets, with most of the time spent on interviewing people about all kinds of topics, unlocking new locations and looking for clues. While this can get tiresome with long conversations, at least the relevant topics and optional questions are marked as such. Unfortunately Tex’s replies to questions or reactions in certain situations aren’t as well structured, as they’re very confusing with cryptic descriptions making it very difficult to predict the outcome of these conversations. Unlike the very linear narrative experience of Overseer, there are 3 alternative story paths to follow, depending on the player’s choices. This doesn’t only result in 5 different endings, but also in other puzzles, adding to replayability.
Puzzling as in the bad old days
Puzzles are varied and despite a slow start with very few of them, the difficulty and number increase exponentially. Unfortunately, the quality isn’t always of a high standard, with the usual suspects like the bring-people-over-water-to-by-abiding-to-specific-rules game or stepping-on-stones-with-symbols-and-avoiding-others conundrum. Even if these serve as tests in a secret society initiation, they’ve been done to death in other games and lack originality. More problematic, in addition to out-of-place frustrating stealth sequences, are the tiny objects which are hidden in a way that one doesn’t have any other choice but to look in every nook and cranny.
Additionally, there are some locations, e.g. a research facility, which are so expansive with various levels that it’s difficult to keep track where to use objects which are scattered all over the place, sometimes even requiring to go to other locations. This was a problem in The Pandora Directive and it’s even more prominent here. Of course it makes puzzle solving more cerebral in a way, but one shouldn’t confuse complexity with annoying backtracking and obscure solutions. Fortunately, one can choose between two difficulty settings, the easiest of which makes it possible to skip puzzles, while the use of hints is just as helpful as the flashlight that highlights points of interaction, something that is much needed in the pixel hunt.
Tired looks and bombastic sounds
The first thing one realizes is how amazing the full motion videos look, thanks in no small part to a 2K Blu-Ray-like HD resolution never before seen in the FMV genre. What this means is that every pore of the actors and actresses can be made out, the colors are vibrant, and even the make-up masks are convincing with all their small details. The second thing one notices is how unspectacular the actual in-game graphics are. They’re obviously better than in any other Tex Murphy game, but compared to contemporary 3D games, the textures are older than a decade, and only a few lighting effects and building structures can impress. It’s acceptable, considering that the game can be run on older machines without any problems, a welcome service to those fans who’ve been waiting for the return of their favorite adventure game character and haven’t upgraded their PCs to play the latest FPS or other graphically impressive games. Musically, epic orchestral parts and more subtle arrangements make for a varied, but also a bit overblown production.
Good fan service, but with outdated gameplay and storytelling
Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is everything fans have been craving for. The main character might have aged as well as the in-game graphics, but the nostalgic feeling of revisiting a well-crafted, well-known and well-loved sci-fi world is strong. Maybe too strong for some, as the game still suffers from the same pixel hunting, logic and other same-y puzzles as the other games. The many references to past titles can also become very annoying and confusing for new players, while the plot and character development are even more difficult to follow without knowledge of previous titles. Even for seasoned players, the story takes quite a long time to make any sense, while the witty dialogue isn’t always up to scratch. All in all, the game is partly successful in continuing and concluding the story of Tex Murphy, but it won’t necessarily win over adventure gamers who’re more accustomed to accessible puzzle design, sense-making storytelling and good in-game graphics.
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