Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure
First posted on 20 May 2014. Last updated on 11 March 2015.
|Tex is back!|
|Chandler Avenue is still Tex's favorite stomping ground.|
|Tex's life takes a wrong turn after that fateful night at the Golden Pagoda.|
|Where is Chelsee?|
|Taylor's interest in Tex is more than professional.|
Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure Collector's Edition
The Collector's Edition includes an exclusive DVD version of the game as well as a digital soundtrack and bonus music CD for the game.
Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is the sixth game in the Tex Murphy series created by Chris Jones and marks the return of this beloved series after a 16-year hiatus. Based on the novel Tex Murphy and the Tesla Effect penned by Aaron Conners, the game's story picks up after the cliffhanger ending in Tex Murphy: Overseer but quickly pivots to an original mystery involving an ancient cult and a lost invention of Nikola Tesla. Importantly, it is not a straight retelling of the previously planned Tex Murphy trilogy stories—Chance, Polarity, and Trance—once rumored as possible sequels for the series.
When last seen, Tex and Chelsee have just been shot by a mysterious assailant from whom they are hitching a ride in front of the Golden Pagoda. The story continues now with Tex waking up to discover that 7 years have lapsed since the fateful event and that he has no memory at all of his life during these past years. He is in a seemingly happy romance with Louie's niece Taylor but has also gained notoriety for being a private investigator who is willing to do "anything" to be on the "winning side". When Tex learns of Chelsee's supposed death, however, he grows determined to find her killer and the perpetrator responsible for his amnesia. Suffice to say, Tex's investigation soon leads him to uncover a grand conspiracy across time and space (really)—all the while saving the world (once again) from a religious fanatic who is hell-bent on destroying it.
It is obvious that Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is a love letter from its creators to the series, their fans, and the adventure game genre. It is a work of passion. While the game is neither revolutionary nor evolutionary, it solidly embraces all the nostalgic qualities that have made the Tex Murphy series a fan favorite. The series has also become a poster child of FMV (Full Motion Video) games blending live action with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) cinematic. In this sense, the game reflects the unfading appetite of legions of adventure game fans who are still fond of this narrative medium. Although fans of the series will definitely get the most enjoyment, this game is sufficiently accommodating that even newcomers will enjoy the story without being burden by the series' history.
Visually, the game is unapologetic about returning to its retro roots. Indeed, even when playing at the highest screen resolution, some of the 3D modeled environments look as if they have been lifted from previous Tex Murphy games. Textures are in low resolution, flat, and lacking in details and proper shading. Windows and doors are sometimes just painted on the sides of the buildings, and garbage and rubbles are just amorphous globs on the ground. This is a disappointment, given that the game now uses the Unity engine that can render in much higher graphical fidelity. Pre-rendered cut scenes look much better, though—the many flyover scenes of New San Francisco at night are simply breathtaking.
By contrast, the live action FMV cinematics in the game are all crisp looking and in high resolution (2K video). Credits must be given to Adrian Carr for his masterful directing and editing. Unfortunately, the chroma keying sometimes fails to match the lighting and depth of focus used in the FMV filmed against green screens to those used in the CGI backgrounds, resulting in some jarring composites with pronounced edge artifacts. There are other odd visual glitches too. For example, in an early scene when Tex steps through the door into his office while looking back at the camera, his trench coat is seen abruptly cut off by the door frame instead of brushing against it.
It is to Jones' credit that he is able to reunite most of the recurring cast from previous Tex Murphy games even after so many years. Notably, Jones himself reprises his iconic role as Tex. Other fan favorites, including Rook (Douglas Vandegrift), Louie (Randall Edwards), Zack (Curley Green), Clint (Steve Barnes), Archie (Bill Bradshaw), Slade (Richard Norton), and, of course, Cheslee (Suzanne Barnes), also make their return in this game. It must be remembered that most of the original cast, including Jones, are not actors by trade. Yet, their performances are inherently charming, perhaps because they are able to leverage the innate campy nature of the act and play up their characters accordingly. I am continually impressed by just how good an actor Jones is, playing a hardboiled noir character who is perpetually out of his elements, with a touch of self-doubt and vulnerability hidden beneath a wisecracking and womanizing exterior. Though always quick with a witty retort, in this game Jones manages to deliver some genuinely heartfelt monologues.
The game also features a Hollywood cast, including (among others) Jodi Russell, Larry Thomas, Shannon Engemann, Donna Casey, Sewell Whitney, Nicholas Watts, Travis Eberhard, Todd Bridges, Kevin Murphy, and even June Lockhart. It is surprising that the performance of the new cast is actually more uneven by comparison. This is particularly true for Thomas who plays Lieutenant Danwicz, whose uncomfortably flat performance is a clear misfire. On the other hand, performances by Russell, Casey, Watts, and Eberhard hit their marks perfectly. Murphy voices the underutilized Smart Alex, a perfect foil to Tex—injecting just the right dose of sarcasm to show Tex that he is actually not as cynical as he believes himself to be. It is clear that Russell's character, Taylor, is introduced as a competing love interest for Tex, whereas Engemann's character, Ariel, is meant only to be a friend to Tex with benefits. Fans of the series who are rooting for Chelsee need not worry—if Tex plays his cards right, he may just have another chance to recapture Chelsee's heart!
Conners is to be commended for crafting a story that pays ample homage to the series for existing fans and yet includes enough exposition to get newcomers readily caught up in the series mythos. Most importantly, the story retains the biting sarcasm and comedic edge that are trademarks of the series. The connection to Tesla is admittedly tenuous, though no more fanciful than the alien conspiracy in The Pandora Directive and definitely more grounded (pardon the pun) than the doomsday cult in Under a Killing Moon. Fans will be pleased that the story finally brings closure to Chelsee's fate after the events of Tex Murphy: Overseer. In fact, the story includes a surprise reveal about Chelsee's family, of which Tex knows little until now, and retrofits an extremely clever backstory about Tex's origin that explains why he always finds himself in midst of some great conspiracies to destroy the world.
It is implied from scattered exposition that Tex has become corrupted during the immediate years before his amnesia. Unfortunately, there is little opportunity to explore this part of Tex's persona in the game. On the other hand, there are ample opportunities to interact with the eccentric denizens who have taken up new residence in the neighborhood. These range from members of the Nights Templar (with a 'K') to a larger-than-life cross-dressing dominatrix. Like in The Pandora Directive, the player can choose among a number of narrative paths for Tex to take. There are 5 different game endings—be warned, though, the paths diverge quite early in the story, and the endings are conditioned on multiple choices, not just a singular choice, that the player makes in the game. Without spoilers, the game ends on a brief epilogue 10 months after the events of the main story, on a noir farewell that befits Tex's true character.
The game's interface has been significantly tweaked for the better and is now less cluttered. Once again, the game is played from a first-person perspective. The player navigates through the game world and interacts with the environment using the keyboard and mouse (game controller works only partially). Strangely, the ability to crouch has been eliminated. In addition to being Tex's personal digital assistant, Smart Alex doubles as the game's interface for the player to access the inventory, map, hint guide, and even a flashlight. Items can be examined and combined in the inventory. The map allows for fast travel to previously visited locales. Some (but not all) functions, such as look and use, can also be triggered by pre-assigned hotkeys. The player can save the current game or load from a previously saved game at any time whenever the game is in free roaming mode. The game also makes frequent autosaves from which the player can reload later if backtracking is needed. When interrogating an ally, a witness, or a suspect, a rosette of 3 dialog choices appears from which the player can choose as Tex's response. Like before, these choices only hint at the demeanor by which Tex will react. Admittedly, sometimes the choices are too vague to make an informed selection, though it is always fun to deliberately make the most inappropriate choice just to watch Tex's reaction. Once the branching dialog ends, the player can then choose from a growing list of topics for Tex to continue the interrogation. The game mostly does a good job keeping tracking of each character's knowledge in relation to each other, so that a character will not divulge information that makes no contextual sense, even when that knowledge changes over the course of the game.
Fans of the series will quickly grow familiar with the combination of exploration and puzzle solving that form the game's core gameplay. Early on, the player is limited to exploring the local stomping ground and interviewing Norms and Mutants for clues to aid Tex in his investigation. Chandler Avenue, while still perpetually deserted, has been greatly expanded with new locations to explore. The game also rewards the player for exploring by planting collectibles (comic books) for Tex to collect. Once Tex discovers the Tesla and Sesen connections, other locales open up to include more inventory based puzzles and standalone puzzles that the player must solve in order to make progress. Alas, some standalone puzzles are just rehashes of classic logic puzzles, such as a variant of a well-known river crossing puzzle. Moreover, sometimes the description Tex gives for an item in the inventory inadvertently gives away how the item is to be used later in a way that Tex has yet to discover. There are also some tricky stealth sequences (in the monastery, for example) in which Tex must negotiate to avoid capture while snooping around. Like previous games, Tex can die from engaging in foolish shenanigans. Fortunately, after a quick scorn from Smart Alex on the virtue of staying alive, Tex is miraculously resurrected (perhaps by "The Big P.I. in The Sky") without the player losing much progress.
The game uses a points system to help track the player's progress. Each time the player completes a certain action, even for seemingly mundane task, the game shows that points have been added. For reasons I cannot fathom, however, nowhere is the total score ever shown in the game (apparently, this differs from a pre-release build of the game). Instead, at the game's completion, the player is simply given a P.I. Rating (there are 9 possible ratings) based on this hidden score. While the points system does not affect how the story ends, its obfuscation will undoubtedly irk a few achievement hoarders obsessed with scoring every possible point in the game.
Gamers familiar with adventure gaming tropes will have no trouble solving the puzzles in this game, which are comparatively less difficult than those in previous games of the series. There are a few odd glitches with the puzzles, but none of them are game breaking. Importantly, the player must choose between playing the game in "casual mode" or "gamer mode". Once selected, the mode cannot be switched without restarting the game. In causal mode (but not gamer mode), the player can access the in-game hint system and skip over certain puzzles. Doing so, however, costs points that are deducted from the total score. As well, the flashlight doubles as a hotspot finder only when playing in casual mode, though there is much less pixel hunting (except for the hook) in this game than previous games. Similar to his previous cases, Tex's investigation is broken up into days (12 days in total, but with an added secret day that can be unlocked). Each day begins with a brief exposition recapping Tex's investigation and usually introduces a new locale for Tex to explore.
Sound production for the game has been dramatically improved. With few exceptions, actors' recorded voices no longer sound hollow. Ambient sounds and sound effects are more realistic and more closely match the distance of the imagined source that produces them. The game features a full orchestral soundtrack composed by Bobby James, alternating from noir to light jazz to sweeping dramatic music that befits the tone of each scene.
Codenamed Project Fedora, this game is among the first adventure game projects to be successfully funded on Kickstarter (raising nearly $600,000 USD in 2012). Not surprisingly, it works hard to pay fan service to the many Tex Murphy fans who have backed the game there. The story is filled to the brim with subtle (and not so subtle) nods to characters and anecdotes from Tex's previous cases. Flashbacks using recycled FMV clips from previous Tex Murphy games provide many genuine and welcomed moments of nostalgia. Indeed, a photo of The Colonel (Brain Keith, who in real life died tragically in 1997) in Tex's office is a reminder of just how long this series has been in the consciousness of adventure game fans. Numerous Easter eggs and visual gags can also be found in this game—even a TruGolf (Jones' other company in real life) golf simulator. (Be sure not to miss the post-credit scene!) Still, only diehard Tex Murphy fans will be able to spot the most subtle reference when Ariel tells Tex that they have met once before years ago: it refers not to Tex's amnesia but to the fact that Engeman has previously appeared as a different character, Melahn, in Under a Killing Moon. Most importantly, the story finally ties up the many loose ends (Chelsee, the Fabergé egg, among others) from both the Tex Murphy games and the Tex Murphy Radio Theater episodes which fans have endlessly dissected and re-dissected while waiting for the series' return. Even the returning cast is not afraid in poking fun at themselves in the game for the fact that they have all aged (gracefully) in real life, far beyond the years accounted for by the game's story.
Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is a perfect sendoff for a beloved series that has survived the rise and fall of a once dying genre. The game is an easy recommendation for all Tex Murphy fans who long to see Tex return in full form. For newcomers to the series who are searching for the pinnacle of FMV games, they can find no better exemplar than what is offered here. It is important not to unfairly judge this game against its contemporaries through the colored lens of history, without understanding what its creators have always intended for the game to be. Beyond this, the game stands as an example of true success in crowdsourcing as a funding model for adventure game developers. It also stands as proof that a crowdfunded adventure game can represent a complete realization of the creators' vision, not a half-done game of fake promises and unrealistic commitments. Let there be no doubt—Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is a bona fide, full-length Tex Murphy game. The 12-15 hours of play time does not include the many extra hours of enjoyment of replaying the game to experiment with the different narrative paths that Tex can take and to hear all of the wisecracking bantering that Tex can muster up at every chance he gets. Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is a true labor of love from its creators—a shining star that currently has no equal in the adventure game genre.