Tesla Effect review
Well, this is a review I never thought I’d be writing. When we last saw Tex—a would-be Philip Marlowe, born a hundred years too late into a Blade Runner world where day is night and mutants are the latest minority—it was being unceremoniously shot in the cliffhanger ending of his last case, Overseer. Endings don’t get more agonising. With Kickstarter help though, the old-school PI is back, along with 3D environments that I’m still irritated so few other games have ever tried, and full-screen FMV sequences filmed against a greenscreen that may feel more dated than Tex’s insistence on owning a fax machine in 2050, but in the most charming possible way. Besides, it wouldn't be a Tex game without them.
Like a lot of Kickstarted projects, Tesla Effect does assume from the outset that you’re an existing fan of the series, excited to return to Tex’s home on crumbling Chandler Avenue, ready for a story and characters rooted deep in the previous games. The main hook of the plot for much of the game isn’t really the lost devices of super-inventor Nikola Tesla, but what the hell happened in the last few years—Tex having become a cold bastard-for-hire who’s alienated what few friends he had, before a mysterious case of forced amnesia regresses him to the dopey and confused PI that we know and love.
None of this is going to mean much if you’ve not played the previous games (and if you haven’t, definitely check out The Pandora Directive on GOG), but for long-time Friends Of Tex it’s pretty much the perfect starting point. It’s not just a sequel, but the sequel; seemingly two parts of the planned post-Overseer trilogy we never got rolled up into one game, as well as finally picking up on plot threads that extra-devoted fans will remember from the short-lived Tex Murphy Radio Theatre.
Speaking as a long-term fan, it’s an absolute joy to return to this world and catch up with its characters, made all the easier by the fact that Chandler is now a single map rather than a street of loading screens and disc-swapping, even if it is now a bit overly littered with objects purely to spark FMV flashbacks from previous games. A newspaper on Tex’s wall to trigger a memory? Fine. Jackson Cross’ NSA ID badge just sitting on the street? Pushing it. The graphics may not be that great by general standards, but the series has never looked better—HD FMV sequences throughout, detailed enough environments, and in Chris Jones, a Tex Murphy who feels like he’s never been away. (Though I am a bit confused why he now has a sidekick in the form of his ‘Smart Alex’—an incredibly thin excuse to put MST3K alumni Kevin Murphy into the game that would work far better if Tex wasn’t already a champion snarker in his own right.)
As before, most puzzles revolve around exploring the 3D world for carelessly placed items, interrogating friends and suspects alike for information, and the occasional logic puzzle like opening a locked box covered with flowers with the help of a nearby calendar. Finding objects can be a pain, especially when you don’t know they’re even there, but for the most part there’s not too much challenge. Tex himself may be hard-boiled, but this game is served over-easy. It’s a solid format though, encouraging poking and prodding, throwing open desk drawers and peeking under things for hidden clues, with the overall game path based on how you choose to have Tex handle himself in conversations—what drives him, be it finding out the truth about his seemingly dead girlfriend Chelsee, uncovering his own regrettable lost years, or moving on with one of two potential new love interests who end up playing oddly little part in the story beyond being that, especially after Regan and Sylvia in the last games.
It’s very easy to pick holes in Tesla Effect, from the way many of the FMV sequences are a bit out of focus, to the world not being the prettiest, to an odd lack of death animations throughout, to the occasional scavenger hunt that just goes on far, far too long. At least to begin with though, there’s no point bitching. It’s cheesy, but in the right way—Tesla Effect knowing exactly what it is, and revelling in everything from the hammy acting to shooting for Hollywood level production on the kind of budget that even the SyFy channel would be spending on, say, catering. It all comes from the heart, making for an adventure that’s rough around the edges, but so enthusiastic and committed to its own goofiness that it’s tough not to be swept along. Even at its silliest, its ambition and energy crackles away like one of Tesla’s finest creations. It may not hit the moon that it shoots for, but it gives it a damn good try. Tex is finally back, the spirit of Tex is just as enjoyable now as it was in the 90s, and all is well in the world of adventuring.
...at least until the fifth day of the story.
Yes, come Day 5 (of 12), it all goes wrong. Painfully wrong; Tesla Effect dropping all its balls like a greased up juggler having an epileptic seizure on a bouncy castle. It begins with a truly appalling level set in the world’s dullest temple, which phones in its puzzles to the extent of having a Sokoban bit, a maze and that ghastly ‘crossing the river’ puzzle in adjacent bloody rooms (rounding off the accursed Elder Puzzles later with some sliding blocks, though thankfully not the bloody Towers of Hanoi).
Now, to be clear, that would be forgivable, even if it is followed up by a stealth section that should be put behind glass as a warning to designers of the future. It’s not like Tex games haven’t had crap moments before—hell, Pandora had two whole areas full of them. Unfortunately, this one turns out not simply a frustrating blip, but a line that marks the moment the story plunges into a confused mess that more than once trips over itself and its own forgotten or fumbled plot points, with design, writing and puzzles all becoming a depressing mulch that often feel like they were hastily scribbled onto a napkin on deadline day, and at worst smack of having been outsourced to Douglas Adams’ infinite monkeys.
To call it a quality drop is a painful understatement. Drops like this normally require a cliff and a suicide note. An area devoted to a group of Tesla fanatics especially is one of the worst things ever inflicted on the series; The Pandora Directive’s Roswell complex without the tension, but with the tedium stretched out long enough to girdle the world four times. After waiting so long for the Overseer sequel, and spending the first half grinning at wandering down the Avenue, catching up with Louie, mocking Rook and just generally hanging out with Tex again, the one thing I never expected to be doing for the final hours was longing for the bloody thing to be over. And don’t even ask about the ending I finally got.
It’s heartbreaking, really. Until that point, Tesla Effect is absolutely the game Tex fans have been crying out for. After it, one just worth crying about. If you’ve not played the series, and if you’re an adventure fan, you should, make Pandora or at a pinch Overseer your first case. Even at its best, this one very much plays to the crowd in ways that the series has absolutely earned the right to do, but aren’t going to leave the ideal first impression of Tex and his adventures. For long term fans, I wouldn’t say you should avoid it. The half that works well is both a joy to play, and long-awaited closure. But in the end, it literally is only half of the trumphant return both we and Tex deserved for what will likely be his final adventure. That said, should he manage to beat the odds and fit in another more consistently enjoyable case or two before hanging up his fedora for good, don’t let the score fool you—nothing would make me happier.
Not half bad. Until the half that is makes for a disappointing return.