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.
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.
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.
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.