Giant Bomb Review

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Tesla Effect Review

3
  • PC

Tex Murphy is back, which means the best and worst parts of adventure games from the 90's are back, too.

Nostalgia is a blessing and a curse. Not all games age like a fine wine, and it's easy to imagine a 2014 sequel to the FMV-driven Tex Murphy adventure series would be a better idea in theory than in practice. It's a mixture of both with Tesla Effect, a crowdfunded revival of Murph and his mutant friends on Chandler Avenue, one that succeeds in updating the 1990s cult classic for the modern era as much as it stumbles. Much like Tex, Tesla Effect is a game out of time. While it often stumbles to the finish line, it does just enough to save the day.

Like old Tex Murphy games, Tesla Effect bounces between FMV conversations with the locals and solving weird puzzles.

Technically, the series got its start in 1989 under the name Mean Streets, a game which mixed genres (there was shooting!) and was ultimately remade as Tex Murphy: Overseer in 1998. The rest of the series--Martian Memorandum, Under a Killing Moon, The Pandora Directive--were made in the point-and-click style it's known for. Players assume the role of Tex Murphy, a dopey but surprisingly effective P.I. who constantly finds himself in the middle of death, intrigue, and global conspiracies. Under a Killing Moon is where I joined the series, and I have not-so-fond memories of calling the game's 900 tip line for hints, not knowing it was simultaneously charging my parents money. The game got me grounded. Overseer was to introduce Tex Murphy to DVDs, but ultimately the series ended on a cliffhanger about the fate of Tex and his longtime romance, Chelsee Bando. Chelsee's fate has gone unresolved for 16 years, and in Tesla Effect, developer Big Finish Games makes clear it has answers for fans that have been waiting.

But first thing's first: the FMV. Boy, the FMV. Tesla Effect is loaded with FMV. The developers even filmed this in 4K. YEAH. That's how committed these people are to this lost art, and that element of Tex Murphy remains just as potent 16 years later. There are green screens all over the place, and I mean that in the best way possible. It embraces the shlock. If you're the kind of person who can derive pleasure from an evening spent with a SyFy film (one of the "better" ones, like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus) and a pack of beer, Tex Murphy is right up your alley. Some of the special effects are shockingly decent, even! The amateur nature of the whole production--the green screen, the acting, the makeup--creates a genuinely handcrafted feel. Without copious FMV, it's not a Tex Murphy game. There's plenty to go around in Tesla Effect, and it's a warm, fuzzy feeling.

The cheese may practically ooze out of the monitor, but like its predecessors, Tesla Effect doesn't pretend to be anything but a goofy good time. What continues to set Tex Murphy apart is its characters. The acting's bad, but the residents have a real charm to them. There's a heart beating in Chandler Avenue. It might be the nostalgia talking, but I don't root for the leads in most b-movies. By the end of Tesla Effect, I really wanted Tex to learn, for better or worse, what happened to Chelsee. The ending even pulled at my heart strings a little bit.

In Tesla Effect, Tex has lost track of the last seven years. He wakes up with no memory of what's happened in nearly a decade, but he's apparently turned into a real jerk. His friends are happy to have the old Tex back, even if his last memory is the death of the love of his life. With a bump on his head, Tex sets out to figure out what he's been up to and where his memory went. Apparently it has something to do with inventor Nikola Tesla.

There are three phases to playing Tesla Effect: walking around the world and collecting items, talking to people, and solving puzzles. All three phases have tried to balance the look and feel of the old Tex Murphy games with the benefit of some modern design conveniences. This is where the game runs into trouble.

You don't want to spend too much time looking at the game's 3D models. Unlike the FMV, it's not charmingly bad.

Pixel hunting is a trope of old school adventure games, one that's been mostly lost to glittery items pointing the way forward for players. Tesla Effect tries to have it both ways. Players are allowed to choose from two difficulty levels at the start of the game: casual and gamer. On casual, there's a built-in hint system to help guide players along (this drains from a ratings system, but one that has zero impact on the multiple endings) and pointing a flashlight will make interactive elements sparkle. Being a Tex Murphy fan, I went with the gamer option, figuring the developers have surely learned a thing or two since 1998. That's not really true.

Though Tesla Effect does take place in a fully 3D environment, it largely remains a pixel hunt for very specific items needed to progress the story. This is less of a problem in the early hours of the game, since there are only so many locations to scour over and over again. This changes later in the story, as Tex is exploring multi-level environments. You know exactly what needs to be done (i.e. you need to find a key card) but have no idea where that key card might be. It could be hidden anywhere in two dozen dark rooms, but because I chose gamer mode, there's no way get the faintest hint. I would have switched to casual, but it's not possible. Instead, I did the modern equivalent of calling a 900 number: watching YouTube videos. This problem is exacerbated by inconsistencies in what objects Tex can interact with. Some drawers but not all drawers. Some doors but not all doors. Worst still, physical distance is a factor. More than once, I'd waltz back into a room, desperately seeking an item, only to realize I simply hadn't been close enough for the cursor to change into the "open" button. This only came up a handful of times throughout Tesla Effect, but it was just often enough to remind me why this type of game has changed so much. Inherent to the genre or bad design? Either way, it wasn't fun.

And don't get me started on the few times when the game decides to incorporate AI-driven enemies into the mix, the point at which the game's modest production values clashed with its design ambitions in ways that had me looking for a drink. I've blocked these levels out of my memory, and I encourage you to finish them quickly.

Tex's office is a mixture of new and old. Even in the future, he still gets faxes.

Chatting with folks is largely the same, though some of the changes made are curious. Conversations happen one of two ways, depending on whether it's about an investigation. If you're grilling characters, you choose from a a list of topics. Simple. During back-and-forths, you have dialogue options, but none really describe what Tex might say. "Slapped and stunned," "get acquainted," and "optional equipment" are the options in one such conversation--two of those are far too vague. The game would have benefited from being less cute about its descriptors and being more plain about the actual outcomes. It leads to frustrating situations where Tex doesn't act like the character you want him to be.

Finally, the puzzles. Either you love them or hate them, but the puzzle design in Tesla Effect feels right in line with what the genre (and Tex Murphy) is known for. Many involve sliding blocks, lining up lasers, and generally shifting objects around until the solution is found. Besides being unable to reset a puzzle, I didn't have much of a problem with the puzzles themselves. Instead, it's how the game distributed those puzzles. Tesla Effect often ditches its story for more than an hour at a time, asking the player to solve puzzle after puzzle after puzzle. We're talking four or five rooms with puzzles back-to-back. The game flows best when players are rewarded for solving an obscurity with a new FMV sequence or story beat, but there are two lengthy areas in Tesla Effect, both towards the end, where Tex has zero interaction with anything but puzzles for lengthy stretches.

But for every moment Tesla Effect had me cursing the '90s, another put a big, fat grin on my face. It's unapologetic about its roots, even when it probably shouldn't be. But I really enjoyed my evenings with the barely functional gumshoe, and it didn't destroy my memories of Tex Murphy in the process. Tesla Effect ends with the chance for more adventures with Tex Murphy, but if that never happens, it's okay. You've done good, Murph.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
39 Comments
Posted by LarryDavis

Heresy.

Edited by NorseDudeTR

Nice review. Seems somehow appropriate for that genre of game, and I mean that in the best way.

Edited by Video_Game_King

I've heard this game being referenced with Text Murphy for so long that I honestly thought it was called Tex Murphy. When I saw the review on the page, it took me a couple seconds to connect the dots.

Edited by Fobwashed

Sounds like it's pretty much exactly what you'd expect from the game. Except the AI driven enemy stuff. I don't really get how that'd even fit into a point and click adventure beyond say what Walking Dead does... Maybe I don't want to know.

Hot review! I think I got more than my fill in that one quick look but it's good to know the game is enjoyable =]

Edited by BatmanBatman

I like seeing people playing this games, but probably wouldn't play them myself. God bless Giantbomb

Posted by ColossalGhost

Disappointing that the game has pixel hunting. Still seems worth it for the 4K FMV.

Posted by MichaelBach

For 20 bucks I had a good time with the game so far. Nice game to relax with when you want to play something chill.

Posted by Cirdain

I LOVE THIS GAME and I totally agree its a 3 star game. But its so bloody endearing.

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Edited by chiablo

If you have really fond memories of Under a Killing Moon... I highly recommend it. I can overlook some of the more annoying pixel hunting, because there is a good hint system built in. The only time I got frustrated is when you have to find 9 small objects in a room and the flashlight you have doesn't highlight them well enough.

Edited by ArbitraryWater

I have zero nostalgia for Tex Murphy, but hearing that they just straight up made a mid 90s FMV adventure game with all of the parts of those games that were terrible sort of warms my heart.

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Posted by DRM_LVR

They probably should have named the "Casual Mode" and "Gamer Mode" options better, cause casual mode is really the way to play this game.

Posted by astonish

Fair review. I liked it far more than I expected being a big fan of the old games. However, some of the games later locations left a lot to be desired and I too had to youtube my way out of some pixel hunts (that light switch!)

Posted by Rayeth

Sounds like I should check this out in the casual mode. I can really enjoy a bad b-movie, and this sounds right up my alley.

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Posted by Yummylee

Wait a minute, Patrick reviewed this?? For some reason I went in and read it as if this was an Alex review O.o

Posted by Fake_Empire

Would've been cool if Vinny reviewed this.

Posted by Gum

It's a great time-waster for twenty bucks. I feel like I got my money's worth as it has something like 5 different endings and several different paths that you (as Tex) can take.

I sincerely hope this makes a killing and they keep going with the series as it's just so much fun. The schlock value is through the roof but they know it and keep an amusing tongue-in-cheek attitude throughout the game.

Posted by synthesis_landale

I'm not going to say the environments in the 3d areas are great, but I think reviewers are being a bit harsh on them too. What they lack in technical they make up a lot in style. (That said I do wish the few textures with text were much clearer). I do wonder how much better this game would have reviewed if gamers (and reviewers specifically) didn't have the hangups about being a 'casual or a 'gamer'... or if they didn't even have the gamer mode at all. The gamer mode adds nothing to the game (that includes the previous Tex games as well which also had this system) and only detracted from the fun by taking completely optional in game help and putting it behind a checkbox at the beginning of the game.

I'd have to say though, I agree with Patrick, but my score probably would have been a 4, only because GB doesn't do half stars. I find myself on the higher end of a 3.X score than close to a plain jane 3. I wonder how Patrick's score would have panned out if he had chosen casual at the beginning.

Edited by jiggajoe14

4K FMV sounds too crazy to be true. I need to try this game out lol.

Posted by DrZing

The video halfway down this page where they introduce the (very small) team that made this game, really puts things into perspective. Did you know the guy who plays Rook is also a level designer?! Awesome, and good for them. I hope they sell a bunch of copies.

http://www.cubed3.com/news/20911/1/interview-big-finish-games-discusses-tex-murphy-and-tesla-effect.html

Oh, and yeah, casual mode is a must, being able to get hints and auto-solve puzzles will likely help everyone at least once.

Edited by MATATAT

If you're the kind of person who can derive pleasure from an evening spent with a SyFy film (one of the "better" ones, like Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus) and a pack of beer, Tex Murphy is right up your alley.

Yeah alright I'll get it.

Posted by Lucien21

Searching your environment to find objects in bins and hidden areas in the likes of Bioshock Infiite is somehow state of the art gameplay, do it in an adventure game and suddenly it's pixel hunting that belongs in the 90's.

Obviously the game never pretended to be an update to modern double standards (The basic game play of shooters hasn't changed since the days of Doom, but game play in Adventure games are somehow outdated)

It was sold on the idea of a classic Tex game and that's what it delivered.

If they wanted to turn it into Telltale they would have removed all the gameplay and made it about 3 mins long.

Posted by wibby

Tex is back in my life!

Posted by fogz

"This game got me grounded" - Patrick Klepek

Put that on the box!

Edited by patrickklepek

@lucien21 said:

Searching your environment to find objects in bins and hidden areas in the likes of Bioshock Infiite is somehow state of the art gameplay, do it in an adventure game and suddenly it's pixel hunting that belongs in the 90's.

No, it's crappy in BioShock Infinite, too! It's a little different there. In BioShock, you're digging through trash for money, health, and power-ups. You can avoid it! That's not an option in Tesla Effect, which I completely understand is part of the appeal. What I'm saying is that they often hid the objects in places that weren't enjoyable to discover. There is a fine line in pulling that off.

Staff
Posted by john_gannon

@lucien21 said:

Searching your environment to find objects in bins and hidden areas in the likes of Bioshock Infiite is somehow state of the art gameplay, do it in an adventure game and suddenly it's pixel hunting that belongs in the 90's.

No, it's crappy in BioShock Infinite, too! It's a little different there. In BioShock, you're digging through trash for money, health, and power-ups. You can avoid it! That's not an option in Tesla Effect, which I completely understand is part of the appeal. What I'm saying is that they often hid the objects in places that weren't enjoyable to discover. There is a fine line in pulling that off.

Those are all fairly consistent in BS:I as well. If you see a trash can 99% of the time you know you can search it which in turn minimizes frustration.

Posted by Y2Ken

This sounds about how I was expecting. Definitely still going to pick this up at some point though; it may have it's frustrating moments, and be very stuck in its past roots to a fault, but I'll be damned if it isn't one of the most endearing releases I've seen this year.

Posted by StingingVelvet

I know in my brain it's a 3-star game, but my nostalgia for the original FMV trilogy makes it a 5-star game in my heart.

Posted by buemba

@stingingvelvet: Yup. Under a Killing Moon remains one of my favorite games of all time and Pandora Directive and Overseer were also pretty great so as soon as I saw Chris Jones wearing his fedora in the beginning of Tesla the game won me over regardless of any flaws it might have.

Nostalgia's one hell of a thing.

Posted by Axiomatic

Very fair review. I've not finished the game yet, but remembering the pixel hunting in the old games I went with casual mode and I feel my experience has been better for it.

Usually I look around as well as I can a few times, and when I'm coming up blank I turn on the flashlight as I enjoy playing it and don't want to stop.

My biggest frustrations so far have been in regards to a stealth section and a bit with spiders that I just didn't want to deal with. Frankly I'd much rather skip these sections of the game than any puzzles.

It's so damn good to have another Tex Murphy game though, but I can see myself in line with Patrick's score if I played without a hint flashlight. As it stands, unfinished to be fair, it gets an extra star from me.

Posted by stomachcancer

I totally agree with Patrck on this. Had a great time for most of the game but when you are in the last area everything not FMV related falls apart. Christ those fucking bugs that would randomly kill me. Those old puzzle formulas from the old games were inconsisent and sometimes downright awful but dammit do I want to play another one of these games if one should happen to rear its head.

Posted by mlarrabee

It looked from the beginning like they made a Tex Murphy for the fans of Tex Murphy. It sortta should be a three-star game, at least by today's game design standards. A Thief sequel that followed in Metal Age's shadow would be fantastic, and nobody who didn't love Thief 1-3 would enjoy it.

Edited by Mr_Creeper

Would've been cool if Vinny reviewed this.

Agreed. This needs to be the first game with a dual review. Really want to read @Vinny's take on it.

Posted by JeffGerstFan

Ryan would have loved this game. I LOVE YOU RYAN! I hope he hears me through his drunken haze while staggering in the vicinity of God's right hand. He bitch-slapped Jesus and told him to get a damned job.

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Posted by misterbuns

Awww Patrick! Under a Killing Moon had an extensive hint system that you could access at any time within the game! And if you couldn't beat any of the stealth sequences, the game came with read-only save files that started you after the danger had passed!

Getting in trouble for calling a 900 number for that game is a truly heartbreaking tale!

Posted by dbene

Any chance of Telsa Effect on consoles??

Edited by synthesis_landale

@dbene: I certainly hope so. The controls in Tesla Effect have been so FPS-ified that it would translate to console very well.