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Tesla Effect Review – The Game Was Loaded

Platform: Windows PC
Developer: Big Finish Games
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: May 7, 2014

 

I’ve known for some time now that this would be the hardest review I’ve ever had to write. I’ve waited sixteen years to play Tesla Effect, and I desperately wanted it to be great, because the fear was always that it would be terrible, and I would be forced to rip it apart in my review to maintain my journalistic integrity.

Three days ago, I had the rare opportunity to attend the Tesla Effect premiere party, and I got my review copy of the game in person. I booted it up with just about the most anxious trepidation I’ve ever felt. Twenty minutes later, my fears had been destroyed more thoroughly than the Moon Child – Tesla Effect is excellent, a fantastic return-to-form for FMV games, and a glorious adventure filled with twists, turns, and surprises.

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For the uninitiated, here’s a quick rundown. Tex Murphy is an old-school film-noir-style private detective who just happens to live in the future, New San Francisco in the year 2050 to be exact. Tex has a bad habit of stumbling into cases that seem simple at first, but eventually require him to save the world (see Under a Killing Moon, Overseer, or the exemplary The Pandora Directive). Those games utilized a combination of live actors in full-motion video, or FMV as it was known, and 3D environments players needed to explore to find clues and solve puzzles.

Sadly, Tex Murphy games were great FMV adventure games at a time when adventure games were heading into a decline, and by the time Overseer came out, the general gaming public looked upon FMV games with the same enthusiasm as exploratory rectal surgery. Worse yet, Overseer ended on a cliffhanger, so fans were left wondering if the rest of Tex’s story would get told. But after a wonderfully successful Kickstarter, Tex fans knew their long wait would finally come to an end with Tesla Effect.

And now it’s finally here. The longest resolved cliffhanger in gaming has now played out. I waited sixteen long years for this. Is it everything I hoped for? To be honest, not quite, but it is damn close.

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The Kinda Big Sleep

The narrative is superbly engaging. Tex wakes up on the fire escape outside his office with a bump on his head, injection marks in his arm, and the last seven years missing from his memory. To track down what’s happened to him, he’ll need to discover the link between himself, a neurologist who’s gone missing, and the inventions of Nikola Tesla. You’ll meet and interrogate a wide variety of interesting and unique characters from the lovable and dependable mutant Louie to the sassy transvestite Saffyre to an artificial intelligence crusading for holograms’ rights, appropriately named Holly Graham.

The writing is probably my favorite thing about Tesla Effect – this is the funniest game I’ve played since Portal 2. Many of Tex’s traditionally witty observations are highly amusing, and a lot of them had me laughing out loud. But like its predecessors The Pandora Directive and Overseer, Tesla Effect has a strong serious side as well. Danger lurks around every corner, and tragedy is usually not far behind. And talk about moving – I’m not ashamed to admit this, but without spoiling anything, the ending on the “A” path between Tex and Chelsee made me cry. Tesla Effect is the first game to do that to me in a very long time.

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The Man Who Knew Too Little

Speaking of, the acting is mostly excellent. Todd Bridges gives an intense and captivating performance, but he looks like he’s reading off of cue cards during his longer monologues. And Larry Thomas seems oddly lethargic, with neither his voice nor his body language asserting the authority that his character demands. Everyone in the supporting cast is great, but my favorite this time around is Doug Vandegrift (who pulls double duty as Tesla Effect’s Lead Animator) playing series mainstay Rook Garner. Rook is shown to care for someone else for the first time in the series’ history, and Doug handles it with the nuance and grace of a highly-skilled veteran. But it’s Steve Valentine as a man caught in the throes of religious ecstasy and June Lockhart as a scientist in a sad situation who steal the show here. At least until the ending of path “A”, which is when Chris Jones and Suzanne Barnes steal it right back, and cover my face in salty tears.

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It’s not the most visually impressive game ever. Nobody’s going to be comparing this game to Crysis anytime soon, but for what the game needs, the in-game graphics serve their purpose admirably. Still, if it came down to having two-dimensional vines or having no vines at all, I would have gone with the latter option. The cutscenes are all incredibly polished – it’s mind-blowing to me how good the videos look even though this game was done on a modest budget with a small team. I like the design of the levels for the most part, some of which are HUGE compared to the older games. The destroyed (and dangerous) Tesla facility was a highlight. Though a couple of design decisions didn’t make a ton of sense to me, like the monastery which has an Egyptian theme even though their religion is devoted to Nikola Tesla.

I’m completely in love with the soundtrack. Bobby James has composed an amazing set of orchestral music for Tesla Effect, and it fits the tone of the game and the on-screen action like a glove. The sound design is also awesome, with neat little touches like the above-mentioned monastery, where opening a door in the huge altar chamber results in a deep echo, while opening a similar door in a small office just down the hall does not. Fine details like that really keep the immersion strong.

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