Under A Killing Moon

Under a Killing Moon DOS Front Cover

Publisher: Access Software
Developer: Access Software
Year: 1994
Platform: Windows; DOS; Mac; Linux

It took a few years after Martian Memorandum for Chris Jones to release another sequel in the Tex Murphy series, but considering he had to figure out how to utilize that new-fangled CD-ROM thingy, it is no surprise. The series has championed, or at least further developed, new software to enhance the gaming experience, and things are no different in this incarnation. Being released on four CD’s, Under A Killing Moon was the largest computer game in history at the time, while also sidestepping pitfalls seen in future FMV games (e.g. Phantasmagoria). Sadly, however, the innovations weren’t enough to elevate the game quality above the previous offerings.

Tex’s wife Sylvia (whom he solved a case for in Mean Streets and subsequently married) has left him, leaving Tex virtually penniless in his bare apartment in Old San Francisco.  He continues to live amongst the mutants, who remain segregated from those humans who were immune to the radiation following World War III, and is desperate for work. His first job this week is investigating a simple burglary, which naturally snowballs into something more sinister.

Under a Killing Moon DOS An office in the GRS building,

Chris Jones moves in front of the blue screen to play the title character, and does an adequate, if not impressive, job emulating the film noir genre. He’s no Bogart (either in the acting or the looks department), but he’s got the style and the dialogue down. In first-person perspective, you move Tex through pre-rendered scenes using the mouse and keyboard and can adjust your height and point of view; surprisingly, this turns out to be fairly smooth. Switching to interactive mode (simply by using the space bar) allows you to pick up objects, manipulate them, and speak with characters. Again, this is all very simple and a welcome relief.

The game begins with flare, as the introduction and several early cut scenes provide enough atmosphere for gamers to coast all the way to the end. The title screens are impressive, and the sound borders on provocative. You get to meet half of the game’s characters (mostly mutants), who have pretty decent makeup and distinctive personalities. Tex makes several snarky comments and funny puns to lighten the mood. And the burglary you solve has a nice and easy learning curve, allowing the player to get accustomed to the game world without needing to worry about danger.

But starting with chapter two, the game slowly begins to grow tedious. Most of the characters have nothing new to say, and gameplay revolves heavily around hunting for inventory items. The graphics are fine, but some objects are just tucked away in ridiculously hard to find places (creating the only real difficulty in the game).  Worse yet, several puzzles are contrived to the point of absurdity (e.g. stealing an exotic pet for no apparent reason, only to find the perfect use for it two days later). Also, moving around starts to become a chore when seemingly none of the puzzles actually require movement (which is finally remedied in chapters four and five with Dreamfall-type stealth missions).

The acting also doesn’t help matters. Brian Keith (Family Affair) and Margot Kidder (Spiderman) are pretty good in their limited roles as a competing P.I. and a bartender, but the rest of the cast is simply dreadful.  Film noir requires melodrama, but it also requires good acting. Russell Means (The Last of the Mohicans) is especially laughable. What results are suspenseful situations that are all but, as you spend more time shaking your head than being engrossed in the plot. James Earl Jones offered his narrating services and is excellent as usual; however, his role was limited and seemed rather pointless considering the amount of narrating Tex Murphy does himself.

Under a Killing Moon DOS Questioning the bartender (Margot Kidder)

That said, the plot is interesting and develops well, culminating in an intriguing end game and an appropriate ending. The humor is less prevalent and less sharp in the later chapters, but I still laughed at times. And there are a few decent puzzles. Props must also be given to the designers for allowing those with multiple CD-ROM drives to assign discs to different drives to reduce time spent disk swapping. Finally, there is an in-game hint system that can help you bypass those silly inventory puzzles.

I became hooked on the series with Mean Streets as it was layered with suspense and intrigue, in addition to being innovative. Meanwhile, I was hoping improved technology and experience would only help make the story and character become more alive. Unfortunately, to this point, it looks like the franchise has taken a step back.

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