Review: Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

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I’m old enough to remember the purported death of point-and-click adventures, and full-motion video games in particular, so it’s been a real joy to see their resurgence in the 21st century. FMV games have made a surprising comeback, no doubt buoyed by cult hits like Contradiction and Her Story. But before these, in fact, there was another return to FMV glory happening. The old Tex Murphy saga had been left hanging back in the 90s, but through the magic of Kickstarter, everyone’s favorite hard-boiled post-apocalyptic gumshoe would be brought back for one last case. That’s Tesla Effect, and while it captures so much of the charm and character that made these games classics in the first place, it also stumbles hard in some of its efforts to modernize and innovate.

Tex Murphy is our eponymous private investigator, holed up in a historic district of post-war San Francisco in the 2050s. He’s got a heart of gold but his head’s seen better days, because he can’t quite recall the last seven years of his life. Familiar faces in the neighborhood recall him turning dark and callous, a far sight from the classic quippy, charming Tex that’s just come around. It turns out that Tex’s amnesia is wrapped up in a century-old mystery, encompassing Nikola Tesla, secret societies, a lost treasure, and more than a few figures from past games. With help from the locals (at varying levels of enthusiasm), some eagle-eyed searching, and some real leaps of logic, Tex might just unravel a conspiracy that threatens the entire world.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: this is, first and foremost, a game for Tex Murphy fans. Right from Tex’s office, there are conspicuous references to previous games and cases, going so far as to play actual clips from the original games when you examine them. The actors who played the original characters reprise their roles here, and immediately become the stars of the show through some genuinely funny writing and a massive amount of charm. Even without having the background of the previous games, I fell in love with all of these characters, Tex chief among them. He’s an incredibly earnest main character, snarking constantly but doing so with plenty of heart so as to never become too tedious or sour about it. The dialogue and cutscene-heavy portions of the game are absolutely the highlights, and the introduction of new characters is always a thrill.

Where Tesla Effect goes wrong is in how it wanders away from the strength of its characters. The main gameplay here is not traditional pointing and clicking as you might expect, but rather a first-person adventure. Tex has the run of his neighborhood and a few supporting locations, wandering around freely to examine anything that falls within his cursor’s purview. Most characters do not appear as 3D models in the game, and their dialogue scenes are triggered by activating doors or entering rooms. Early on, you’re mostly running around from one establishment to the next, testing dialogue options on characters and following up on leads and lines of inquiry. Between these FMV scenes, you’ll go hunting for items hidden around the environment and do some old-school item combining and using to solve mostly simple puzzles. Later in the game, though, the dialogue scenes become fewer and further between, and the first-person scavenger hunts start to take up the bulk of your time.

It was honestly dramatic to me how quickly Tesla Effect fell from my graces. I was 100% on board with this one for the first two-thirds or so, cackling madly at the high-quality yet cheesy FMVs and wracking my brain to turn up the items I needed. Things take a bit of a turn around the halfway mark, as you head off to a puzzle and item-hunt-heavy building with very little dialogue to break things up, but the payoff is worth it. From Night 8, though, the game swerves hard into that puzzling and item hunting, and never really recovers. The tone of the game goes from goofy noir to this weird solitary horror, Tex stops quipping so much, and lots of things start showing up to randomly kill you. I don’t know if the budget for the actors ran out, or if the ending was rushed, or what could have happened, but the last third of the game becomes a tedious slog, culminating in a finale that doesn’t really wrap much up and has some truly perplexing elements.

I don’t think Tesla Effect is a bad game, per se. I also don’t think it’s one that’s only for Tex Murphy fans, because I came in cold and had a grand old time, at least at first. But it’s a game that falls off hard by the end, and your enjoyment of it is going to hinge mightily on how much issue you take with that. For me, I’m still happy with the time I spent with the characters, and the old-school puzzling that got me to that break point near the end. I’d be lying if I said I was satisfied with the ending, but I’d also be lying if I said it ruined the game for me. Really, FMV games are such a precious, charming commodity that it’s hard to fault one even if it is as uneven as this. As long as you know what you’re getting into, I think you’ll come around to our good buddy Tex.

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