It’s always refreshing when a developer takes a chance on a game that isn’t one of those heartless, soulless, guaranteed-to-sell-six-million-copies games that come from focus groups and clinical market research.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is one such title: it flouts convention at almost every turn, and the end result is a game that’s different and interesting. Yet it’s also plagued with a few problems that, ironically, a few focus group sessions could have caught before it shipped.
That’s partly because Murdered: Soul Suspect is all about the story, and less about the gameplay. And a fantastic story it is, involving a recently-dead protagonist who, in ghost form but with the help of a young medium, must solve his own murder so that he can “move on” in the afterlife. The premise is certainly original, the lead character is a likeable scamp, the supporting characters are believably acted and the story twists and turns its way to a satisfying conclusion.
But all of that goodness is offset by a game that isn’t very, er, gamey. A lot of your time will be spent wandering the rather lifeless husk of modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, a place with a rather sinister history but a particularly uninteresting aesthetic, and conducting investigations that in a way that makes twisting objects in your hand as Cole Phelps from LA Noire look like a fast-paced first-person shooter in comparison. You literally walk around scenes doing a modern-day version of “hunt the live pixel” from 1990s adventure games, just in 3D, as you search for the relevant clues.
Even that, as dull as it is, is far preferable to the occasional stealth sections that have you avoiding “demons” by zipping between unexplained “hiding spots” that make you hard for the demons to detect until they’re right on top of you. You’re given the option to “kill” the demons by sneaking up on them and performing a ridiculous quick time event that sends them back to where they came from (presumably), but there are often too many to deal with so you’re forced to avoid rather than engage them.
Cat and mouse
And when they see you or you fail to kill them – which you will – a stupid game of cat and mouse kicks off where you must zip quickly to hiding spots and jump between them so the demons lose your scent and wander back to their pre-set paths, an annoying sequence of events made worse by the demons’ rather unsettling screaming and the occasionally-wonky controls that sometimes have you missing the next hiding spot. Should you not make it in time, the demons will suck your soul away and you’ll “die” – another rather silly notion because, well, you’re already dead. But this is a videogame after all, and some concessions must be made to convention.
It’s all very annoying, and adds nothing to the game but frustration. Adding insult to injury, the game’s graphics don’t do the Unreal Engine any justice – they’re just not that pretty. This definitely isn’t a good-looking game.
Not the Tom Clancy kind
As you’re playing as a ghost, a non-corporeal being to whom walls should offer no barrier, the game had to come up with a way to keep you from going anywhere you please. The solution was actually quite smart: since you’re a ghost, and you’re in a town with a very storied history involving trials, “witches” and human barbecues, the developers made bits of the old Salem shine through to today’s reality, arguing silently that it happens because of the psychic energy imparted there by violence done in the past. You, as a ghost, can see it, resulting in bits of Old Salem’s buildings and debris blocking your way in Modern Salem, directly limiting your movement and confining you to a very specific path.
Most houses are “sanctified”, meaning they’re blessed so they’re spirit-resistant, which sort of explains why you can move through some walls, but not others. It’s all very contrived, serving to funnel you down a very, very linear path. Since Murdered is all about the story, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I just felt rather closed-in the whole time. I don’t like to feel closed in.
Scattered throughout the game’s levels you’ll find random things to collect that provide a bit more of a back story than you’re given through cutscenes. Collecting them unlocks achievements and trophies, but of course missing them is all too easy. There’s no truly compelling reason to go after all of them, though, and so they end up feeling a little too “tacked on” for my liking. Your mileage my vary, of course.
Good news inbound
Fortunately, despite a few design niggles, Murdered: Soul Suspect is still very much worth playing. I loved how the designers were brave enough to tackle something as contentious as the idea of an afterlife, and tell a story from the perspective of a ghost. I liked how things like locked doors posed no challenge; as Ronan, the dead guy, I could just waltz right through them. I liked how he didn’t take his death lying down; instead of freaking out and holding on to stupid things from his life, something many of the ghosts he meets along the way to solving his own murder apparently did, he simply accepted his new un-life and set about the task of figuring out what happened to him so that he could “move on”. I guess that’s one of the benefits from having been a detective in life – the man ain’t no dummy.
Possession is nine tenths of what makes Ronan cool
In life, though, Ronan couldn’t possess strangers, read their minds and influence them to reveal clues. In death, it’s his number one party trick. Possessing the townsfolk of Salem reveals people’s thoughts about what’s going on, and is often used to probe witnesses and central characters in ways regular questioning just couldn’t do. Once Ronan has gathered the necessary clues, he can use them to prompt possessed witnesses to volunteer vital information. It’s simultaneously a clever game mechanic and a disturbing thought – should spirits who can possess people prove to be real – even if all they want to do is read minds – you have to wonder who is watching, and are all of the thoughts we have truly our own? Freaky stuff indeed.
I also enjoyed the story’s twists and turns and how it went about tackling the fairly sensitive subject of the Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600s, a fascinating time period beset by superstition and fear. While I won’t spoil anything, I will say that even if you go in expecting the unexpected, the game uses the subject matter to good effect but not in the way most people will expect.
All of these unique touches added up to a game that’s like nothing I’d played before, and in the end, Murdered: Soul Suspect turned out to be a pretty good time. The story clocks in at under ten hours so it’s not exactly very long, but as I’m finding it staying with me long after the credits rolled, I’m confident it will prove its worth to interactive fiction lovers willing to take a chance on it. Hardcore gamers, though, may want to give it a miss.
Murdered: Soul Suspect was reviewed on the PlayStation 4, but it’s also available for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PlayStation 3 from R499.