Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure review: Back to the future

Tex Murphy would make Dick Tracy proud. More of a "sunny-side up" detective than a hard-boiled one, Murphy protects and serves his friends in the post-nuclear WWIII city of New San Francisco with a pleasant blend of grit and goofiness. He may have been out of the game – and out of games – for some time now, but his return feels like he never missed a beat, even when the journey gets a little bumpy.

For those just getting acquainted, Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure is a successfully Kickstarted entry in the Tex Murphy series of adventure games which began in 1989. The series came to be known partly for its use of full-motion video (FMV), where game designer Chris Jones took on the role of the titular gumshoe, Tex Murphy. Tesla Effect is the sixth entry in the series, and once again features FMV performances for its cutscenes.

Yes, a game in 2014 is using FMV cutscenes. It's retro and a bit dorky, but it's also fun to see real people surrounded by CG environments that are not at all convincing. Jones reprises his role as Murphy, albeit a version of Murphy with 16 years' worth of mileage on display – the previous Tex Murphy game, Overseer, released in 1998.
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Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure

The plot begins simply: Seven years are missing from Murphy's memory, and his desire to find out where they've gone leads down a rabbit hole full of interesting twists and turns. Despite his lack of memory, Murphy has most certainly been active the past seven years, and evidence suggests that he might not have been his usual, straight-laced and honorable self.

Tesla Effect makes a concentrated effort to reach out to potential new fans. Clips from older games are sprinkled throughout to give everyone a chance to catch up, and, thanks to Murphy's amnesia, expository dialogue doesn't feel forced. On Casual difficulty, a hint system and a flashlight that makes interactive objects sparkle add some modern tricks to the aged point-and-click adventure genre.

There are moments of disconnect, however. When Murphy chats up someone, he's usually given three responses to choose from when it's his turn to speak. Unlike recent adventure games such as The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us, or even the Mass Effect series, all of which all give pretty clear indicators of what the protagonist can say, Tesla Effect's responses are often vague and confusing.

For example, when Tex met a flirty brunette, three dialogue options popped up. While the first options "confused," "pinch me" and "straight to the point" make enough sense, the next selection of choices was a baffling mess. The brunette offered Murphy coffee, to which the possible responses were "metaphor or less," "my way" and "helpful Hank." Uh ... what? It can be tough deciphering just what each response means, and since breaks in dialogue happen frequently, it's jarring when you accidentally cause Murphy to go from a suave, Maltese Falcon Humphrey Bogart to an irritable, Gran Torino Clint Eastwood. Get off my lawn, dollface.

Murphy's sudden changes in character aren't the only ways in which Tesla Effect can feel uneven. While early chapters focus on Murphy questioning various characters – some shadier than others – the story takes a hard left late in the game. In order to infiltrate a cult lair and learn what he needs, Murphy must pass a series of initiation tests, which just so happen to be a gauntlet of puzzles that involve sliding tiles and rotating rings.

The puzzles themselves aren't poorly designed, but the abrupt shift from detective work and interviewing suspects to solving puzzles one right after the other makes the pace of both gameplay and story feel unbalanced within the context of the game's 15-20 hours. That's unfortunate, because interviewing the residents of New San Francisco and solving riddles are fun in the moment, but these two gameplay elements could have been mixed together and spread throughout the adventure more evenly. As it stands, both can sometimes feel like a grind.

Despite these hiccups, Tesla Effect's story is enthralling; it takes awhile to introduce all of its elements and find its footing, but once it gets going, it introduces a ton of fun, memorable moments mixed with some genuinely dark and intense sequences. Murphy's world is full of cheesy one-liners, but it's also full of danger and intrigue. There's always some yarn to follow, some new clue that tugs at your ear and begs to be inspected. But of course, the story wouldn't be interesting if its leading man were boring.

Thankfully, Jones packs a ton of personality into his portrayal of the aging private investigator, from his onscreen acting to voiceovers about the collectible comic books hidden around New San Francisco. Watching and listening to Jones act out Murphy's adventure is like watching your little sibling in the high school play; none of it is Oscar-worthy material, but it's enjoyable nonetheless, and you can't help but feel a certain fondness and attachment for the character, even if this is your first outing with Tex Murphy.

Ultimately, it's Murphy himself who saves not only the day, but his game as well. The most beloved adventure games in history are those with strong charisma. Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure has it. Or, to use a more appropriate term, it's got moxie. If you're a fan of the noir genre or '90s adventure games, you're gonna like the cut of its jib.

This review is based on a Steam download of the PC version of Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure, provided by Big Finish Games.

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