Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon

You are Tex Murphy. A 30s private eye in an 80s cyberpunk novel. One day while searching for the next inventive excuse to keep the landlord at bay for another week, a dame walks into your office. That means trouble at the best of times, but this broad had the unholy trifecta – she was beautiful, she was rich, and she was a client…

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Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon was a much-needed breath of fresh air. At about 12 hours long and no RPG grinding in sight, it was the perfect game to follow the 80+ hours I spent in Divine Divinity. Bookmark this people – I am officially recommending a game with 90s FMV. Because what game doesn’t want to share a pedigree with Sewer Shark and Night Trap?

Under a Killing Moon is the third in the Tex Murphy series of games, I’ve already reviewed the first two – Mean Streets and Martian Memorandum a while back. Mean Streets was a point + click/adventure/action/car-sim hybrid, and while interesting, it didn’t really work. Martian Memorandum improved on the formula by markedly changing it – dropping the car-sim, dialing back the action and adding a neat conversation/interrogation angle. Under a Killing Moon is the best yet – dropping the action entirely and improving both the “point and click” and conversation angles. It’s potentially in the “top 20 of all time” of adventure games, though I’m normally wary of making such claims immediately after I’ve finished playing the game in question.

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The first two Tex Murphy games flirted with FMV, but with the third game, the prevalence of cheap CD’s allowed the creators to go the full-hog. Every conversation or interaction is done in FMV, and the gameplay itself switches to first-person perspective, making it the only “first person point+click” I’ve ever played.

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I’m aware that this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but there’s a few important steps that make it work:

  • The FMV sequences are really good. Now when I say “good” I do not mean “they are objectively high quality” – they are not. They are cheesy and over the top and silly, but that doesn’t matter if they work. The game makes them work by carefully threading a thin-line between investing in its own story and not taking itself too seriously. This is probably helped a great deal by its noir-cyberpunk setting, which is both a ridiculous genre mash-up but not a straight-up “played for laughs” comedy.
  • There is strict consistency of tone. Everything in this game, from the music, to the locations, to the personalities of the various characters you meet, support the twin genre-themes of ““corporations rule while ordinary people struggle” (80s cyberpunk) and “the world is cruel and highly sexualised” (noir). You’ll notice, for example, that while there is a lot of humour in the game it never runs contrary to these themes, no matter how funny it might be.

    For example, the sign on Murphy’s office door reads “private investigator”, but beneath that in older-style writing are the words “dancing lessons”. When you click on it, Murphy explains that this office used to be his father’s, who made it through the depression by giving cha cha lessons to wealthy old ladies who thought he was very handsome – then Murphy adds “took them years to figure out he was totally unqualified”.  It’s a simple joke, it’s funny because it’s so inconsistent with Murphy’s “tough PI” persona. But it’s totally in keeping with the world – ordinary people do whatever they have to do to get by (Cyberpunk), and sex sells (Noir).  They could have gone with a 4th-wall breaking joke like “well I have to do something between games!” but it would have undercut the world they were creating.

    The net result is a game that can have both stupid puns about a man with an elephant nose, and James Earl Jones reading Edgar Allen Poe.

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The game is both cool and silly
  • The first-person perspective creates an “immersed in the world” feeling, which works because that world is so meticulously created, and so feels like a place that (a) exists and (b) is worth investigating.

The game also gets the basics right – the puzzles are generally pretty logical, hitting the right difficulty level, and the conversations feel natural enough to navigate (which was a problem in Martian Memorandum).

Against all this however is two significant flaws:

  • The movement controls are quite bad. There are two gameplay modes – movement and “point and click”. The difficulty is movement – completely contrary to what you might expect, you use the keyboard to look around and the mouse to move. I spent an awful lot of time bumping into walls and furniture. Once you see something you want to interact with, you press space bar and you’ll stop dead still and switch to a normal “point and click” interface.

    To be fair this was 1994 so hadn’t created standards for 3D game control yet.

  • It’s prone to pixel hunting. I got stuck a few times in this game, and usually it was because I had failed to recognise that the slightly-different-shade-of-grey patch was an item I needed to pick up.
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See that slightly different coloured rock?  That’s an item.  It’s like playing “Where’s Wally” except he’s not hiding in every page.

There is an inbuilt hint system that helps with this a lot, but even using the hints, I still had to check the internet a few times to figure out where some items were.

But the end result here is definitely worth trying out, and possibly one of the best, if not the best, FMV games of all time. I am surprised that no-one else seems to have ever tried the first-person-point-and-click, it really adds to the immersion. I guess with both Lucasarts and Sierra dominating the market, no-one was going to try to challenge their way of doing things. No-one except, it seems, Access Software.

Release date:              1994
Purchase date:           19 September 2014
Complete date:          16 March 2019
Platform:                     PC
Time spent:                 Approx 12 hours
Director:                      David F Brown
Designers:                   Aaron Conners, Chris Jones
Programmer:             Bruce Ward
Developer:                   Access Software
Publisher:                    Access Software and US Gold

Recommended for:  Adventure game fans, anyone who wanted to see the FMV “interactive movie” craze without playing Sewer Shark.

Not recommended for:  People who hate adventure games, people who can’t can’t simultaneously embrace and enjoy the silliness of a cyberpunk/30s noir mashup.

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RANDOM FACT – Access Software changed its name twice after making Under a Killing Moon, the first time to “Salt Lake Games Studio” and the second time to “Indie Games”. It was then bounced around as a subsidiary to some major gaming studios before going defunct in 2006. According to wiki it appears to have pretty much only made Tex Murphy games and Golf games – an odd combination. Although much to my surprise it turns out that it made four other games that I quite liked – Beach Head II, Raid Over Moscow and Leaderboard (all for Apple II) and also Amazon: Guardians of Eden, another 2D adventure game much like Martian Memorandum. And I’ve never heard of this company before writing this review – go figure.

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5 thoughts on “Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon

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  2. I missed all of these in the 90s and have always been curious about them. I should really go back and try them at some point. Is it worth starting with the first one, or it doesn’t really matter?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It doesn’t matter much. There is some continuity between the 2nd and 3rd games: a few of the same characters and the odd callback. But only one callback rises above someone saying “remember that time we solved the last case? Good times.”

      Liked by 1 person

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