The acting is a bit of a doubled-edged sword, ranging from heartfelt and intense to blatantly over-the-top. While most of the bigger roles have been capably filled, the supporting cast hams it up quite generously, though this is far from a complaint; having characters like Rook and Louie deliver out-of-the-ordinary realistic performances would have robbed them of their appeal and been at odds with their outlandish appearances. Unfortunately, Tex’s Smart Alex – essentially a talking PDA device that doubles as Tex’s inventory system – is sorely underutilized. Voiced by Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Kevin Murphy, Smart Alex is often completely absent for long stretches of time, only chiming in occasionally with a bit of (largely unfunny) banter with Tex, or commenting if I somehow caused Tex to die.
Speaking of which, while it is entirely possible to walk Tex into certain doom any number of ways, often at the hands of some unsavory creature or other, death doesn’t carry a very large penalty with it. You’ll simply be restored to the last save… and the game auto-saves A LOT! Far more punishing are the points deducted for dying. Remember earning points in adventure games? The kind awarded for making smart decisions, being thorough in your techniques and diligent in your observations? Well, points are back in Tesla Effect – at least so it would seem. I quickly found out, however, that there was no way to tell just how many points I had racked up, or how many were possible. As it turns out, there is an invisible tally being kept somewhere behind the scenes, and it determines which of nine possible detective ranks is bestowed upon you at the game’s completion. This less-than-transparent method of tracking your progress, along with the completely arbitrary rankings which carry no discernible rewards, makes the point system rather irrelevant.
There were also one or two moments throughout the adventure where I was left scratching my head, wondering if I’d missed or misunderstood some vital clue. At first I assumed these were due to my not paying close enough attention, when in fact they were the result of branching dialog trees. With multiple paths through each conversation, a person or place mentioned in one response could be entirely omitted in another, causing confusion when these facts were casually thrown around later. While a tad disorienting, I can accept that such discrepancies are bound to sneak into a game with such a complex web of narrative threads. Besides, it really only makes a minimal difference, as playing through the game multiple times to uncover each possible ending inevitably reveals new tidbits missed the first time through.
These branching conversation paths give players a choice of three possible responses. This is commendable, but I found it very difficult, if not impossible, to know which tactic I was actually choosing based on the prompts displayed. A vital decision may have a positive or negative response, and one that makes light of the situation and dismisses it as a joke. Though I wanted to stay true to how I thought Tex would answer, I couldn’t readily tell which was which based on the insufficiently descriptive clue. For example, the dialog option “Buddy Speak” in an early conversation with Louie is actually a way to question why he treated Tex like a stranger, which wasn’t made sufficiently clear. Again, this wasn’t a big concern for me, as I was content to let the chips fall where they may. However, players attempting to steer the game towards a certain outcome by having Tex behave in a particular way will likely be forced to resort to trial and error, replaying conversations over and over to get the desired result.
The musical soundtrack impressed me to a much higher degree, and was easily one of the game’s standout characteristics. So much so, in fact, that I found myself really missing it during the silent beats in dialog scenes. Alternating between a jazzy brass vibe and a plucky background bass tap, the fully orchestrated score kicks things up a few notches during the game’s finale, ending on an exciting, action-filled theme song during the credit roll. As a whole, the music fits the game’s noir detective atmosphere and nicely elevates the experience to the same cinematic level achieved by its predecessors.
In the gameplay department – especially gameplay, in fact – Tesla Effect stays true to its classic puzzle roots. Tex is able to pick up items in the environment (including unwieldy items like a ladder and an anvil) and carry them with him to progress past environmental obstacles elsewhere. The inventory screen, including the interface for combining items, is cleaner and less cluttered than in previous games, and is accessible via a mouse click or keystroke. I rarely felt challenged by the puzzles themselves, or at a loss as to how to progress past an area; most items have a clear use and there isn’t an overwhelming number to find in each area. The only time I wasn’t able to easily advance was when I had to collect multiples of a specific item and was unable to locate one. Rather than roadblocks, the puzzles for the most part serve as narrative aides and keep the game moving at a fairly fast clip. Later parts of the game take a different approach by incorporating movement-based challenges such as navigating a mine maze and solving standalone brainteasers in the form of sliding block puzzles and such. The endgame, however, sadly deviates from the established puzzle formula by presenting a challenge requiring dexterity and speed instead of clever out-of-the-box thinking.
Though experienced adventure gamers will likely not find the puzzles to be incredibly difficult, the game does offer the option to play with a bit of assistance. A “Casual” mode enables an in-game hint system, which walks players through the needed steps to progress, though each time you take advantage of this guide a number of points are subtracted from your overall total. Additionally, this mode makes it easier to find interactive objects; activating a flashlight from your inventory and passing its beam over an item in the environment that can be picked up makes it sparkle in the light. Both of these help features can be disabled by playing in “Gamer” mode.
In the end, Tesla Effect doesn’t reinvent the wheel, nor does it aim to. What it does attempt – and successfully accomplishes – is to mark the comeback of a beloved adventure gaming icon, and to do so in a way familiar to legions of fans. Finally tying up story ends left loose for years, Tesla Effect offers up a full-length Tex Murphy adventure, comfortably taking between 12-15 hours to complete (leaning towards the lengthier end of the spectrum if one takes the time to soak in and investigate fully, as many fans will surely be eager to do). Best of all, it manages to do all this while staying true to the established formula that came before. Whether it’s a final farewell to cap off the franchise or a sign of more adventures to come is anybody’s guess, but Tesla Effect unequivocally proves that old dogs don’t necessarily need to learn new tricks.
Review copy provided courtesy of GOG.com.