Review: Tesla Effect

There's a lot of charm and personality to like in the Tex Murphy series, and Tesla Effect is no exception, but it also holds onto the old foibles of FMV games.  The story-writing is the same mix of comedy and hard-boiled detective serial you've might remember and love, but beyond that, the puzzles are fairly simple adventure game logic, and while the game actually looks rather good in the FMV sequences, the 3D semi-sandbox you interact with otherwise looks a decade out of date and juxtaposes poorly with the FMV.  Nonetheless a good game for fans, and that's who it was made for.
Review: Tesla Effect
Date published: Apr 7, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Tesla Effect is a full-motion video (or FMV) adventure game developed by Big Finish Games and published by ATLUS.  I have to confess, a part of me wonders why I write this review: the people to whom this game was marketed probably are onto buying their fourth or fith copy now, perhaps.  It's another Kickstarter success story from the annals of gaming history as it were: a project aiming to remake a game series of past fame, in this case the Tex Murphy series, which was kind of a stand-out in adventure games back in the day, for being the one series of FMV action games that actually was worth purchasing.  So the question becomes two-fold: is Tesla Effect a good game on it's own merits?  And does it offer a faithful continuation of the series that it was ostensibly sold upon the strength of?  To the latter, I can definitely answer yes -this is assuredly a Tex Murphy game.  To the former, however, well the answer to that is a bit more nuanced.

Tesla Effect is a game true to the roots of its series

There's kind of two statements hidden in that little bullet point there: first of all, this isn't just the movie that FMV can easily devolve into, and secondly, this is a game that stays very true to the theme and writing style of its forebears and inspiration.  Like previous Tex Murphy games, a novel was released shortly before the game was, although in an inversion of fans might expect, the game's plot is adapted from that novel, not vice versa.

Tesla Effect puts you in the flat-foot PI shoes of Tiberius "Tex" Murphy, a noir-style detective in a decidedly not-noir world, living in the slums with the mutants and the destitute after a catastrophic World War III.  The game opens with the ominous lamp-shading of dark deals and the fact that his latest case is the one that he is least proud of, and you are then neatly amnesia-fied in storytelling trope #13, as Tex is attacked and loses any memory of the time between the past game (Tex Murphy: Overseer) and now.  You are then left to sort out the puzzle pieces as they've fallen, and set on the trail of an artifact of Nikola Tesla, indeed, the titular element of the story.

The story and dialogue are the kind of big cheese-ball that could probably send you to an early grave if you were diabetic, full of schtick, plays on noir tropes, and comedic takes on the gritty one-liners of the noir film source material Tex Murphy has always been something of a homage to and parody thereof simultaneously.  Just about every significant inventory item has a humourous description and much of the scenery in the game can be examined for the same.  In something based so wholly on that comedy it's a rather subjective assertion to say whether it's good humour or not, but in my case I found it to be much more hit than miss, with only a couple of jokes I didn't really get.

The FMV presented in the game has a very stylish presentation

A FMV game is only as good as the video it presents, and to it's credit, Tex Murphy presents a very slick-looking video throughout, with quite apt cinematography and just the right amount of the same cheese with the film-making that evokes the videos out of it's predecessors, such as being rough around the edges with the green-screening or one fourth-wall breaking gag a little later in.  But most importantly, for all of that cheesiness, it's delivered with some very good acting, with an aged Chris Jones giving a hell of a performance as Tex, and a rather understated but rather masterful bit of acting from Larry Thomas as the police Lt. Danwicz.  There are some scenes that are assuredly stronger than others, but I would say all-around the quality of the acting is spot on, it's that cheese in the content that some might find a bit off-putting. The actors and actresses certainly sell the hell out of it, though.

The dialogue in the game in particular stands out with great renditions of the various mainstays and some new faces as well, all fairly convincing, even in their over-done  prosthesis that are quite obviously intentionally made to look fake in a nod to the original and a bit of a jab at other FMV titles (one the game actually highlights itself).  Each response is delivered in a little bit of acting and they're all quite well done, even if the dialogues themselves are a bit confusing.  Which leads me to one of two main beefs with Tesla Effect -

A lack of clear sign-posting in the dialogue makes the choices confusing

Each dialogue bit in the game plays out in a style that many will be familiar with from Mass Effect, with a radial sort of menu offering you three choices each, but often these choices are vague, and you won't really know what exactly Tex will do with any given one.  Since these choices affect the story and the outcome of the plot, it's somewhat frustrating.  Let me illustrate this with an actual selection of the choices presented at one point:

  • Skeptical
  • Even more skeptical
  • PI 101

Believe me, having the context of the scene that's going on doesn't help too much in knowing Tex's reactions.  Thankfully, the ones that have super-important consequences do get more clearly lampshaded ... usually ... but it seems a weakness in the game design.

That lack of clarity in the dialogue is not the chief design flaw in the game, however.  For that, we need to get on to my second beef with Tesla Effect:

Puzzle design is not Tesla Effect's strong point

You know, I complained about this in the Vanishing of Ethan Carter too, but the puzzles on offer in modern adventure games often seem quite simplistic to me.  I am hardly asking for a return to the Sierra adventure game days where your only hope of progress was to rub everything against everything else in hopes that the sparks it created might fuel some progress, but there certainly weren't any puzzles in the game that really felt like a head-scratcher to me.  Perhaps it's a result of having played so many adventure games as a kid.  In either case, the puzzles in Tex Murphy are mostly reliant simply on observing all of your surroundings and combining items together, all of which make sense (seeds plus pot equals potted plant, for example).  The absolute nadir of those puzzles was an obnoxious sliding-tile puzzle to which the only difficulty was not dying of old age in the time it took the tiles to, well, slide.  That was a source of some frustration, to give it the very slightest, but even the puzzles I didn't mind I could say were simply inoffensive, and this wasn't a game like Vanishing of Ethan Carter or the earlier LucasArts adventure games, where the games did a very good job of having the puzzles and the gameplay go hand-in-hand.

The frustrating thing about Tesla Effect's puzzles is that they are, at best, lazily designed, and deducing the solution to most of them came down to "brute force" combination trying.  The vast majority of the puzzles break down to four-state switch combinations of various sorts, and many of them don't really give you any environmental clues as to what the "combination" is, so it comes down to simple trial and error.  I'd say probably a good hour or so of my listed playtime above was simply going through the permutations of said puzzles to get them right.  I have a tendency to miss things in the game, so I thought to go back and check walkthroughs afterwards to see if perhaps I was just being my old blind self, but they make no mention of environmental cues for the puzzles affected either, so I can only conclude that they do indeed reduce to simple trial-and-error.

That said, if the puzzles are still frustrating to you (which they can be, more for lacking design than for difficulty), the game offers a "casual mode" which gives you hints, allows you to skip some puzzles, and makes your flashlight also highlight interactive objects, so if you feel you might be affected by the frustration factor in the puzzles, you can go with that mode.

The game engine only has a few bugs, but it looks quite dated

Kind of a mixed bag here, and to be fair, I might have been a little unfair about the puzzles earlier to not mention that their technical implementation is quite solid.  The only real problem I had was with the cursor occasionally freezing when I used the Steam overlay, although that was a particularly persistent thing that needed a few times flipping the overlay on and off to clear up.  The game engine is nonetheless solid otherwise, and seems decently-put-together, which is more than I can say of many AAA releases recently.

Yet we can't really address the engine without talking about the elephant in the room: the actual 3D world you wander in when you're not in the FMV sequences, to pick up items, solve puzzles, and the like, doesn't look too great.  In parts it looks about on par with the original Deus Ex, with some really grotty textures.  This is intentional to a certain point, like most of the rest of the game, meant to evoke the appearance of its forebears, but in this case, while some parts of the game, such as Tex's office, look fine, there's others, like the ruined tower that is the locus of one event in the game, that just look bad.  There really isn't any getting around it, and it's unfortunate, especially when there is some obvious care and attention taken in the development of the rest of the game.  It feels like an area that was starting to feel the sting of a kickstarter budget that was no longer feeling as ample as it once did towards the end of development.

Performance-wise, it's nothing to write home about.  The framerate is solid as one may expect, there was no problem at all with the video, which indeed was an issue of the time, but it doesn't stand out as spectacular either.  Game options are sparse, for example, and the kind of graphics on offer aren't exactly something that are going to tax any computer that's at all recent.  Worth noting, however, that as such, Tesla Effect is a good game to pick up for someone who enjoys adventure games and doesn't necessarily have a rig quite as powerful as the computers on the starship Enterprise or the like.  The install size might be a sticking point for those older computers however, those gorgeous 2K-resolution FMV sequences don't come cheap, weighing in at about 16 gigabytes if the install size on Steam is right.  Weighty indeed, even compared to AAA games with full 3D.

The Final Word: Neutral - At the end of the day, Tesla Effect will take you through a rollicking-fun cheeseball of an adventure that's well-worth the price of admission for a fan, but if you're not, it might lose you if you aren't also a fan of that kind of humour.  It has a very good length for a game  of its price point.  Well-produced, well-acted, but with its flaws, some ported from the past, and others not, and with an acquired taste in terms of humour.  Since one of the relics it offers is a free demo, give that a try.