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Platform: PC

Tesla Effect Review

For good and for ill, Tex Murphy has barely changed

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Alright, I knew nostalgia was a powerful force, but did anybody really want to see a return of FMV adventure games this badly? Evidently nearly ten thousand people, judging by the success of the Kickstarter behind our subject today, but I'm worried that they're all kept in a secret facility somewhere in the Mojave desert and subsist entirely on experimental lab-grown proteins or something. Why anybody would get nostalgic enough to try to actively revive a design practice rooted in watching poorly-acted video instead of participating in gameplay is beyond me. I'm sure it was all very impressive in the 1990s when compact discs were a thing and your games could suddenly play video instead of flashing up scrolling text screens every now and then, but we can make in-game cinematics now, you know. FMV – or, if you haven't Googled it yet, Full Motion Video – is a product of a bygone age, like writing the exposition in the tatty booklet that came with the game; an awkward, wedged-in way of introducing a tighter story focus that slunk off to die as technology improved and Half-Life descended from Mount Olympus to show how storytelling ought to be done.

Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

So, for reasons that the clever clogs among you have already guessed, I was more than a wee bit wary of Tesla Effect, the sixth instalment of the FMV-laden Tex Murphy games. It seemed to embody the philosophy of deliberately bringing back things that have no place in this decade, partially FMV but also the Tex Murphy series itself. The hammy mockery of film-noir, the impractical sci-fi elements, the comic-relief narrator and the so-called 'mutants' that consist of regular people in progressively more elaborate makeup might've seemed a tad cheesy when Duke Nukem was considered an acceptable videogame protagonist, but by today's standards the cheese has shot right through three or four levels of irony and disappeared off the scale entirely, leaving only a sticky yellow smear behind. Still, though it would have been gratifying to see the series grow up and confront its own absurdity, I might be getting a bit hasty with the thumbscrews here. After all, it beats the trousers off the standard route of making an unbearably gritty reboot with all the charm and character caked under layers of mascara (alright, alright, I promise I'll let go of this soon), and there is something to be said for a series that stubbornly refuses to budge an inch from the background in which it was born. It's like a little window into the past – perhaps not a past we want to remember, but a past nonetheless.

So, let me paint the scene. Tex Murphy, still the lovably incompetent private-eye living in a nightmarish dystopian future-city as envisioned by the radical day-glo nineties, wakes up on the fire escape outside his office with a head injury, seven years of his life missing, and a bout of amnesia swilling around in his brain instead of coherent memories. Whoops! Now, that's not what you'd call a promising return to form, is it? Why amnesia? It, like the kidnapped love interest or the magical MacGuffin, is a videogame storytelling trope so old and shrivelled that if you put it on a fruit stall you'd be reported for propagating malnutrition. It's obvious why writers keep using it – because it's infinitely easier to let a player inhabit a blank slate and let them learn alongside the character than have them deal with an existing knowledge base – but is there really no better way of connecting this game to its predecessor? I mean honestly, this is a Tex Murphy game we're talking about. With the tone you're dealing with here, you could probably get away with knocking Tex over the head with a giant novelty mallet if you framed it properly. Maybe – given that it's been sixteen years since the cliffhanger ending of Overseer, the last Tex Murphy game – this is supposed to garner a kind of solidarity with all the people whose memories of the nineties have long since faded into a cloudy miasma.

Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

Tex is nothing if not an enthusiastic private-eye, though, so rather than sitting up in a hospital bed for six months undergoing futuristic therapy, he immediately sets about investigating the circumstances surrounding his amnesia, and quickly discovers events afoot that are far more significant than the bruise on his forehead. The writing certainly feels very film-noir at times, full of characters that are introduced once before being lost in a sea of shifting motivations and allegiances, but the actual overarching plot is an insane conspiracy sci-fi concerning the lost works of Nikola Tesla, best known for making lightning bolts arc off things, being intrinsically superior to Thomas Edison and, if this game is to be believed, attempting to communicate with the dead. The resulting tone lands somewhere between The Maltese Falcon and Ghostbusters, and as fundamentally bizarre as it is, it's hard to dislike the game for it when it's so gleefully off-the-wall. If anything, my complaint is that the game quickly escalates to a point where it has just a bit too much going on at once. There's the Tesla documents, but there's also a new kind of mutant that we don't really see, a cryogenic container that might contain somebody's brain or might be totally empty, a missing neurologist, Tex's probably-dead girlfriend, a new love interest who he was working with pre-amnesia who might be a little bit psycho, and a bloke from the 1940s who might have been Tex in a previous life but might've been an ancestor. Like I said, Tesla Effect doesn't really keep any notes, other than the hint system which tells you how to progress to the next part of the story, so it can be difficult at times to piece together everything into something that makes sense. I suppose it wouldn't be a proper detective story unless we were kept in the dark a little bit. At any rate, fans of the series probably don't have to worry about it losing its touch.

And boy oh boy, Tesla Effect loves its fan-service. Not the kind of fan-service that leaves female characters wearing skin-tight leather outfits that leave not nearly enough to the imagination – although that does come up once or twice, funnily enough – but the kind that takes every opportunity possible to indulge in self-congratulatory parading of the series just for the sake of the fandom. Often I'd click on what looked like a useful puzzle item only to hear Tex launch into a reminiscence about how this particular lead pipe contributed to Under A Killing Moon, followed by a cinematic from the 1994 game showing him getting beaten senseless by that shape-shifting bloke. I'm fine with being proud of your work, and it doesn't get in the way of gameplay or anything, but it is slightly nauseating having to interact with a product that thinks it's okay to just wave references in front of the player and go “hey kids, remember this?” There's a building on Chandler Avenue full of pictures of what I can only presume are the developers – which might have been a clever little addition if it had been presented as some kind of obscure secret area, rather as a place that you can simply walk into – and even an annoying fan in the game, whose devotion to Tex is just enough to become grating but not enough to do his hero a favour without first receiving an arbitrary item. Oh, but of course.

Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

Gameplay is virtually unchanged from where we left off in 1998, with the exception that mouse-look is no longer an arcane, barely-understood technique of questionable usefulness and reliability. What that means is that you'll spend part of your time navigating dialogue trees, part of your time solving puzzles, and an enormous Pac-man-shaped slice of your time aimlessly wandering around hoovering up every loose item in sight. It feels deliberately old-fashioned, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but like the bearded chap who rides a Penny-Farthing bicycle around your university campus, you quickly get the sense that it's doing it for the novelty more than anything else. I won't apologise for being used to having a list of notes and objectives on-hand at all times, for instance, and floundering hopelessly in their absence.

Tesla Effect
Tesla Effect box art Platform:
Our Review of Tesla Effect
The Verdict:
Game Ranking
Tesla Effect is ranked #1348 out of 1983 total reviewed games. It is ranked #100 out of 152 games reviewed in 2014.
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Tesla Effect
12 images added May 11, 2014 15:43
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