Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

[14 July 2014]

By Eric Swain

It was a long time coming. There I was, sitting in my office waiting for a delivery, when who should walk through my door, but a face from the past. Some features not even time can hide. It’s name was Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, but it told me to call it Tesla Effect for short. It was a new member of the now faded FMV gang, last seen some 15 years ago. That mug had gotten itself an HD facelift, and it wanted to make a run of it in our crazy modern world for old times sake. And thanks to some 7000 plus shadowy backers from a Kickstarter hedge fund, it’s taking its shot.

It wanted me to take a look through what it was offering and see if it could still shake it. At first, I’m liking what I see. Back in the day, the FMVs lost ground in the technology gang war. They tried to rise too far too fast and didn’t have the foundation to keep going. The polygons and pixels quickly squeezed them out. But time may have finally turned in their favor. Tesla Effect looks good, and its aging actors are put to good use in this sci-fi noir throwback with Tex Murphy himself now older and more wrinkled, but still the bumbling, yet affable down-on-his-luck investigator.

The game starts with private eye Tex Murphy coming home to the streets of a future San Francisco, monologuing about what a dark turn the last seven years have taken, only to be knocked out when he arrives. After waking, he find the memory of those seven years gone, a bump on his head, and injection holes in his arm. Sounds of a kidnapping and shots fired come from the alleyway outside, and Tex is on the case. Much time is spent canvassing the neighborhood with plenty of familiar faces returning. Things have not been good during those missing seven years, to the point that Tex seems like he had become a completely different person.  Matters aren’t helped when various people are expecting Tex to deliver on promises that he doesn’t remember making.

As I’m working Tesla Effect over I find myself spending time in first person mode, walking around the full 3D neighborhood, collecting junk, talking to potential witnesses and informants that look like real people—because they are. Telsa Effect is wearing a mishmash of styles cobbled together from the old wardrobes of Myst and Monkey Island, but it seems to have learned how to combine them with some of the threads of the new kid in the neighborhood, Gone Home. There are item puzzles that require combining two random pieces of junk that were lying around into a useful tool to get past a zip line or a locked door. But there are also stationary devices that need to be fiddled with to get to the next set. Some are neat, like a spinning globe that is used to align satellites, while others, like a sliding tile puzzle that needs completion in order to get a code for a safe, can burn in a garbage can. And all of this is set in fully realized enviornments.

All of this also exists as an effort in continuing the case, whether it’s getting the low down on where the next point of interest is or gathering the right tools to continue the investigation. Collect the clues, combine the items, solve the case. Occasionally an item will trigger a memory clip from the old days (read: previous games). It may just be Tesla Effect showing how far its come, but it works in giving a sense of the history of the franchise and of the character.

There are two modes of play: Entertainment mode and Gamer mode. The former allows hints, skipping past some puzzles (both at the cost of points) and causes the flashlight that serves as your indicator in the game to sparkle when it hovers over interactive items. Gamer mode, on the other hand, does none of that. If you plan to play, go with the former because the game was designed with those advantages in mind and becomes intolerable without them.

The cops are soon on to you for who knows what. The Doc can’t help with your memory. And soon other parties enter the fray, including an Egyptian-themed doomsday cult. As I’m poking and prodding around Tesla Effect is good natured enough to crack a dry joke or two. Throughout it all, neither Tex Murphy nor Tesla Effect lose their sense of humor. Neither of them are cool in the strictest sense of the word. Tex doesn’t realize that but is competent enough in his job that this discrepancy doesn’t phase him. Tesla Effect just runs with the camp as far as it will go. I’m liking what its brought to my door until I’m not.

Once Tesla Effect allows me to leave the main home area, things begin to deteriorate. Investigations become scavenger hunts like I’m look for Easter eggs—a dozen baseball cards here, a dozen fragments of something there. Complexes have roaming guards and killer bees that add up to instant failure if you’re spotted. It also loses the narrative flow as the plot becomes a bit wishy washy, and I end up wondering, more than once, who this particular person is.

This is a consequence of the second half of the game being so rushed. Plot points are breezed past as the mystery gets explained in expository dumps. One chapter is made up of cutscenes followed by a single dialogue choice that works as follows: choose option A and continue on, choose option B and the game smacks you over the head by turning back time and telling you to get it right this time. They weren’t kidding with the doomsday cult either. Be a little slow on the final puzzle and the world blows up. The whole game goes off the rails and distances itself from the extraordinary, yet small scale circumstances of the first half. I’ve never seen a game lose itself quite so thoroughly as it does here.

Tesla Effect came to me hoping it would have the chops to give the FMVs their come back and carve out a small bit of territory. They may still get their time to shine, but Tesla Effect won’t be the one to lead them. Like the idiot son-in-law in the VP position, it ain’t up for the challenge of being at the head of things. The FMV game has potential, but Tesla Effect is B-grade fun that soon turns into B-grade nonsense.

Tesla Effect walked out a little dejected, but its tight eyes and scrunched up mouth told me it was going to try anyway. I didn’t feel it could hack it out there, yet I could only wish it the best of luck. I turned back to my notes, wondering where that delivery was.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/183650-tesla-effect-a-tex-murphy-adventure/