Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon
For the most part, full-motion video (FMV) adventure games were like a plague upon gamers in the mid-1990s, assailing retail shelves with high-profile actors and low-quality gameplay as developers struggled with how best to make use of the technology. The first game to really make truly effective use of FMV was arguably Under a Killing Moon, a title which also marked the point which futuristic, downtrodden private investigator Tex Murphy had truly arrived. While Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum had introduced some good ideas and solid detective-themed adventure gameplay, it wasn’t really until Under a Killing Moon that the character really found his footing as a genre icon.
Murphy returns to the streets of an irradiated 2042 San Francisco, this time being tasked with finding a rare crystal bird which has been stolen from a wealthy heiress. This seemingly simple task finds Murphy unwittingly falling into another conspiracy with global implications, and once again it’s up to our down-on-his-luck reluctant hero to protect the planet. The plot is certainly a cliché, but it’s one that works surprisingly well in Murphy’s world, which is itself built on a foundation of endearing and effective clichés.
As a resident of mutant neighbourhood, Murphy’s immediate environment lends him to regular conversations with crusty pawn brokers, dangerously dopey mental midgets, and elderly but fiery pizza place owners, among others. Given that each so thoroughly embodies their respective stereotypes, they could have each easily proven to be dull and uninteresting. Amazingly, the cheesy acting by each actually makes them more interesting. Combine this with the strongly tongue-in-cheek sense of humor which characterizes the entire game, and you’ve actually got a cast of characters that are worth talking to.
This is made much more entertaining with the new dialogue system, which borrows lightly from Martian Memorandum with branching conversation options, but changes things up by instead offering you vague ideas of what Tex will say in a given situation. So while you’ll still have to do a lot of trial-and-error save-load-load-load efforts to suss out the right clues to a given puzzle, it’s now much more entertaining to do so – in fact, intentionally failing by urging Tex to be outright arrogant and loutish can sometimes prove the most entertaining options of all. And, thankfully, the game will now force you full-stop to retrace your steps when you’ve ruined your chance in a given conversation, meaning that you’ll at least be fully aware when you’ve screwed up irrevocably.
What really sells the game and elevates it beyond its roots, however, is Tex himself. Stepping into the white sneakers and fedora of Tex Murphy’s FMV persona is Chris Jones, no less than the lead designer. This is no developer nepotism, mind you, as Jones perfectly embodies Murphy in all his casual indifference, silliness, and gumshoe gumption. It’s tough to strike a chord that manages to portray a weathered, world-weary PI with a wacky sense of humor without really going over the top, but Jones nails it and, by extension, acts as the game’s heart and soul.
It’s also no coincidence that Under a Killing Moon also represents some of the first truly effective use of 3D environments. Tex Murphy had been a strong figure in adventure gaming prior to Under a Killing Moon, but it wasn’t really until this third iteration of the series that the game was finally able to move beyond its point-and-click roots into the third dimension. For many games, this shift hadn’t always worked, but it’s one that worked marvellously for Murphy. While it’s true that the game looks pretty dated by today’s standards, it’s still reasonably effective if you’re willing to overlook its shortcomings. It’s still fairly easy to tell what’s what, and although the interface leaves much to be desired, it’s still strangely gratifying to be able stand tall or duck down to look under desks and ledges for hidden clues. The only issues that really stand out as a problem, aside from the glaring age of the graphics, is the fact that the game will still chug on numerous occasions as you attempt to move about the various alleyways, offices and warehouses throughout your investigations. It’s likely a function of the necessary use of DOSBox, itself a wonderful and fantastic program which powers most of Good Old Games’ titles, but which appears to be incapable of completely reviving Tex without some technical issues. If you can look past the occasional slideshow-style view, you’ll likely be able to live with the dated graphics.
The puzzles which make up the core of Murphy’s gameplay are, by and large, pretty straightforward. If you’re sure to scour every environment for items to move, open or pick up, you should be able to rather easily deduce the solutions to most of the problems without too many issues. Whether you’re devising a disguise, disarming a trap or sniffing out evidence of a philandering husband, most puzzles are at least somewhat logical and won’t require too much use of the built-in hint system, which eats up some of your assigned points in exchange for answers. The only stumbling blocks most people will encounter is something endemic to even point-and-click adventures, which is to say pixel-hunting. It’s easy to miss the one useful crate among a handful of generic ones, or slightly off-color collectible stone among countless useless ones, which in turn may stall your progress if you don’t even know you’re looking for these things. That said, such incidents are not overly prevalent, leaving you to figure out most of the solutions without too much frustration.
In all, Tex Murphy is fine form in Under a Killing Moon, which despite its age remains one of the touchstones of adventure gaming. It has its share of minor technical issues and dated graphics, but the core of the game remains surprisingly appealing even today. The truly effective combination of FMV and 3D environments with deliciously hokey acting and a tongue firmly planted in cheek, the game manages to achieve a delicate balance between a serious plot and its own goofy sense of humor. Chris Jones as Tex Murphy is particularly excellent, and arguably elevates Under a Killing Moon from what would have been a good game to a great one. This is truly one of the classics of the genre, and with Good Old Games having it on tap, you’ve no excuse to miss out.
Title provided by Good Old Games (GOG.com).