Sorry, everyone, but this is going to be one of those weird reviews where I spend most of my time complaining, before explaining why those complaints might not matter and then vaguely recommending the game. Such is the joy of reviewing a nostalgia-trip game made thanks to a successful Kickstarter: while it does a lot of things wrong, those are not the sort of things which are likely to offend or annoy too many of the people who actually backed it. So, y’know, the target audience.
Tesla Effect is the first Tex Murphy game since 1998’s Overseer. The Tex Murphy titles are first-person FMV adventures set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, in which you take the role of – can you guess? – Tex Murphy, a sarcastic and ineffectual trenchcoated private investigator with a deep desire to be Philip Marlowe and a habit of getting involved in apocalyptic schemes. The old Tex Murphy games were fantastic. Yes, I know: they were FMV heavy adventures and they were actually good. This was as surprising in 1994 as it is now.
Unlike most of Tex’s earlier adventures, Tesla Effect doesn’t open with a simple-looking case that turns out to be so much more. Instead, he wakes up with a scar on his head, no memory of the past seven years, and all of his old friends telling him that he turned into a total bastard. The last thing he can remember is him and his sort-of girlfriend Chelsee Bando getting into a stranger’s car, and then both of them being shot. With that in mind, it’s time to figure out what happened over the past seven years, if Chelsee is still alive, what role he played in the shootout that apparently took place just as he was knocked unconscious, and what Nikola Tesla has to do with everything.
It’s a compelling start, and the story builds well from there. It’s unlikely to have the same impact if you haven’t played at least one of the FMV-heavy Tex Murphy games – if you don’t know Chelsee, you’re not going to be so intrigued by what happened to her; if you don’t know Louie and Rook, you’re not going be so thrilled to see them again. Although being thrilled to see Rook may be an exaggeration. He’s kind of a dick.
The story itself is told through gratifyingly cheesy live-action sequences. While the world itself is computer generated, any conversations you have are with real live actors playing the roles. This leads to a slightly bizarre feeling that the world is entirely empty, because with one or two exceptions you will almost never see another living thing in the world around you. You can’t wander into the Brew & Stew and see Louie behind the counter – you just click on the door, and you’re instantly in an FMV conversation. With an area as vast as this game’s rendition of Chandler Avenue (Tex’s local stomping ground), the palpable loneliness is kind of eerie.
Then again, maybe it’s for the best. The few characters you do see outside of live-action sequences aren’t exactly wonderfully rendered; graphically speaking, Tesla Effect could probably have been made in the Quake 2 engine, and that’s really not hyperbole. There are a few really nice areas and sites – mostly down to a few bits of really nice art direction – but it’s not exactly a looker.
Chandler Avenue isn’t the only vast area, mind you; pretty much every area you explore is gigantic. With most of the others, the lack of people doesn’t matter so much – it’s somewhat more understandable in abandoned research facilities, or when breaking into someone’s home. A bit more problematic is a lot of what the game asks you to do in these places.
A lot of the time Tex is just trying to investigate things, which means talking to people or reading notes. Sometimes you’ve got an inventory puzzle to solve, most of which are really far simpler than you might expect. An early-game example has you trying to get into an office protected by a security system; step into the camera’s view, and you get an instant trip to the graveyard. The solution is not to find sci-fi electronic gizmos and hotwire it, so my initial thought to ask about the device at the nearby electronics shop was fruitless. The solution is to drop an anvil on it.
Sometimes, you’ll have to solve Professor Layton-esque logic puzzles. There’s a sliding block puzzle, and a variant on the old chicken/fox/grain riddle. Few of these are overly taxing, although they’re all thankfully skippable at the expense of your score.
The big issue, though? The big issue is that Tesla Effect regularly resembles a sodding hidden object game. Excluding the fact that finding items you can take in these gargantuan areas can occasionally be incredibly painful, the game goes so far as to force you to scour areas for nine pieces of whatever before you can use it to solve a puzzle. There’s a bit where you’re hunting for baseball cards, and another section where you’re trying to find a bunch of pieces of a symbol that have been broken up and hidden. I’ve never liked hidden object games, so I do not find this fun. I find it aggravating. Playing on Casual mode (which is highly recommended) has your flashlight beam sparkle on objects you can take, but the size of the rooms, the size of some of these objects, and the fact that white sparkles don’t show up particularly well under white light means this is less help than you might think.
How bad is this? Well! I resorted to using the rather useful in-game walkthrough at one point, after wandering aimlessly around a gigantic area for half an hour. It told me the object I needed to find, and the room said object was in. Even with that assistance, it took me a full five minutes to find the bloody thing. It’s entirely possible that I’m just blind, but I sent a screenshot of the room and a close-up view of the object I was looking for to IncGamers staffer Peter Parrish, and he couldn’t see the object until I pointed it out. If the areas weren’t so staggeringly massive this might not be so bad, but the combination of “tiny hidden objects” and “planet-sized environments” is not a favourable one.
And then there’s the bugs, and the occasional sections where a lack of polish is far more obvious than the objects you’re trying to find. Putting aside the giant bloody spiders for one moment, there are a couple of gamestoppers within. One logic puzzle was bizarrely offset so that the correct solution wasn’t actually the correct solution until I reloaded a save, and this same puzzle also had the problem that – on reloading said save – the statues I was supposed to be shuffling around were completely out of sync with where they were supposed to be. So, yes, that required reloading an even older save.
There are a few pretty obvious continuity errors with the plot, a section where I magically received an item because I’d somehow avoided the cutscene where I was supposed to be given it, iffy sound levels, and a bunch of other niggling little problems. A lot of the deaths just instantly cut to the graveyard cutscene and give a stock response, rather than having an amusing FMV death scene and a unique “why the hell did you try to hug the electric fence” voice-over. Probably down to financing, but a little sad.
Also, there are giant spiders. Please fuck off with the giant spiders. I would like the next game to have a stretch goal for no giant spiders. I would like every game to have a stretch goal for no giant spiders. Stop with the giant spiders. Seriously. Developers, I’m going to start taking points off for the inclusion of giant spiders if you keep this shit up. Stop it.
So we’ve done the bit where I’ve complained loudly about pretty much every aspect of the actual gameplay. Now’s the bit where I say that, despite all of this, I don’t actually hate Tesla Effect.
Despite all of this, I don’t actually hate Tesla Effect. It’s pretty much exactly what I backed on Kickstarter: an old-school Tex Murphy adventure, with only a few concessions to the modern gamer. The logic puzzles? Yeah, the old games had them. Nigh-invisible objects? Yup. Some rather weak inventory puzzles? Absolutely. Stealth sections? At least there’s nothing so bad as in Under a Killing Moon or The Pandora Directive.
None of these things are likely to bother old-school Tex fans too much, and despite the frustrations, I was pretty willing to accept the majority of these – probably because I am an old-school Tex fan. It helps that it’s all tied together with genuinely likeable characters, some witty dialogue, an interesting plot that mashes up history and reality, Nikola Tesla, multiple paths, multiple endings, and FMV so hammy you can make a sandwich out of it. But it also helps that all of this – even the flaws – create something that tweaks my nostalgia nipples in a particularly pleasing way. I’ve complained, yes, but I really want to see more Tex Murphy games, even if they follow the exact same footsteps as this one, because I’m pretty sure they’ll frustrate and thrill me just as much.
Which leads me to the good old games journalist cop-out. Are you an old-school Tex fan? Then you probably backed this, already played it, and probably quite enjoyed it, despite nodding your way through every complaint I made. Have you never heard of Tex Murphy? Then you might want to steer clear of this, for now. Head on over to GOG and pick up one of the older games – probably Overseer, if only because that sets up Tesla Effect and gives you plenty of grounding with the characters – and see what you think. If you fall in love with it despite its issues, then congratulations! You’ve found a series that you’ll thoroughly enjoy exploring for the first time, and Tesla Effect will definitely give you more of what you want.