Murdered: Soul Suspect review
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a game with an identity crisis. Throughout its 6-8 hour experience, the game is never entirely sure what it wants to be. It’s the story of a ghost detective who must solve his own murder, and the journey through a fog-shrouded town with horrors in the shadows often reminded me of the Silent Hill series, while at other times the quest to uncover the modern day mystery of a serial killer was heavily reminiscent of Heavy Rain. Investigating clues at a crime scene to piece together conclusions felt eerily derivative of LA Noire, though the main character’s hardcore edge, ex-con past, and devil-may-care attitude was evocative of characters from the Grand Theft Autos.
The problem, of course, is that while juggling these disparate game styles, Murdered never really succeeds at any of them. The game does introduce a number of intriguing ideas, but they are never fully realized, and while it certainly does a have its moments – especially in building a tense, dark, and foreboding game world – in the end this supernatural thriller is mostly just a hot mess.
To be perfectly honest, I did enjoy playing through the game. For one thing, it was the first game I’ve played on my new PS4, and despite not being at the cutting edge of next-gen graphic capability, it looks terrific. PC mileage may vary based on your set-up, but it looks equally impressive on decent systems. Second, the game does have a certain narrative charm, mostly because of its unique premise, but don’t get me wrong – just like the gameplay, the story is unfocused and rambling.
The game begins with the death of the character whose spectral shoes you’re about to jump into. You play as Ronan O’Connor, an Irish police detective in Salem, Massachusetts, who has just moments before been pushed out of a third story window and then pumped full of lead. Shortly after the opening cinematic, his ghostly form rises from his still body, and the hunt to find out the identify of his shadowy, hooded killer (known cryptically as The Bell Killer) begins, a resolution necessary for Ronan to move on to the next world.
Ronan comes off a bit comical – despite being a policeman, he’s covered in tattoos, wears a chain hanging from his jeans, and chain smokes cigarettes throughout the entire game. In many ways, he’s the anti-Cole Phelps, a non-conformist cop who isn’t a fan of playing things by the book (although, like LA Noire’s Cole, he’s trying to move on from a past he doesn’t necessarily want to think too much about).
As a ghost, Ronan finds he has a number of new abilities to help him on his way. He’s invisible to (most of) the living, of course, but he now has the ability to possess and influence people as well as being able to access powerful moments in time, either as memories or as spectral shadows. He also gains a few additional talents throughout the game, including the ability to teleport short distances and to disrupt electrical devices as a poltergeist.
As exciting as the proposition of poking around in other people’s heads is, the execution is terribly underwhelming. Nearly every person only has two trivial short lines of dialogue, which at best provide a little color into Ronan’s world, but usually just disappoint. In addition, Ronan’s ability to influence people while possessing them is inexplicably limited to a few people, and even then, the most Ronan can do is get them to move a piece of paper or open a computer file. In addition, although he can’t enter buildings without someone opening a door, Ronan can move through many walls at will, which can be somewhat disconcerting without traditional boundaries to follow. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy being incorporeal, but it ended up being a novelty that wore off faster than I would have expected.
The gameplay in Murdered takes a very uneven approach to utilizing Ronan’s phantom traits. You control him in the third-person, guiding him either with the keyboard/mouse or analog stick, and the challenges come in three flavors: investigation and environment navigation puzzles, which aren’t uncommon to the adventure genre, and stealth sequences, which are not. You don’t have an inventory (you’re a ghost) and generally won’t need to manipulate any items (ghost again).
The investigation puzzles are extremely easy, and their only challenge is locating the proper clues to discover the solution. Just like in LA Noire, you have to bumble around until you find the correct hotspot to examine a new clue – basically a new kind of pixel-hunting which I found as welcome as the old kind. Such puzzles can include piecing together the Bell Killer’s trail, or discovering what items in a room could be helpful when possessing and influencing a character.
Once you’ve uncovered all the necessary clues, you’ll need to select the ones most relevant to the current quandary. These can be completed through trial and error – which I did too many times to count, because many of the clues are rather obtuse – but you’ll be docked points. In Murdered, each challenge offers a top score of three badges, and each incorrect guess loses you a badge. However, there’s no permanent penalty for guessing incorrectly (the game will advance when you finally get it) except perhaps losing trophies or achievements for a perfect score.
Murdered definitely seems to be designed with the completionist in mind. Another notable gameplay element in Murdered is locating random items along the way. Hidden throughout the world are a number of collectable items. Some are historical notes that provide information on Salem, others provide exposition into Ronan’s troubled past or news items about the killer, and a third type – if you collect the complete set (they might be ghostly rifles or cans of gasoline) – results in a narrated ghost story.
At any point, you can pause the game to take a look at your collection. As a gamer who is much more interested in developing narrative, I never really bothered. I did collect the first series of ghost items about the discovery of corpses in an apartment building, but the payoff wasn’t compelling enough to make me search the nooks and crannies of each location to discover the remaining seven. The other collectibles that offer clues about Ronan’s journey from a criminal past to meeting his wife provide intriguing color, but aren’t essential to the story or solving any challenge.
Ronan has a few opportunities to help other ghosts with their own particular difficulties in reaching the glowing white warmth of the afterlife. This usually involves hunting down additional clues to uncover a side mystery. These side quests include assisting a suicidal ghost come to terms with her living ex-lover, and helping a young victim learn why she was killed. I only ran into three side quests; I’m sure there are more, but like collecting the myriad clues hidden around the world, I didn’t find the side quests nearly as compelling as the main story.
The other most common puzzle is figuring out how to reach inaccessible locations, and for the most part, these are intuitive and modestly enjoyable. Despite being able to move through walls and furniture, there are still some obstacles (including consecrated walls) which block Ronan’s way. There are also a number of sequences where he has to assist someone out of a building, or past armed police, and this provides an enjoyable, if not particularly taxing, challenge.
While investigation and location puzzles are mostly child’s play, the other major gameplay element in Murdered is not. There are a number of demons – which incidentally look nearly identical to dementors in the Harry Potter movies – who wander the Earth, looking for ghosts such as Ronan to hungrily devour. They move much quicker than dementors, and once they’ve spotted Ronan, even if he finds a reasonable hiding location or creates a distraction, he doesn’t have much hope. There is an option to sneak up behind them and kill them by correctly following a brief button prompt, but it’s just as difficult as hiding.
Once you’re caught by a demon, you’re forced to re-load your game. This can happen over and over again in one location if the demons are clustered together. I got so sick of seeing that loading screen, I found myself debating quitting the game altogether. The inclusion of a challenge this difficult is hard to understand. I might be more forgiving if they were fun, but I kept dreading running into another one, and they kept interrupting the game’s interesting (if uneven) storyline. You don’t have the option to skip them either. Sadly, like many of the other gameplay elements, these stealth sequences felt like a tacked-on feature added simply to extend the game’s length. In that they succeeded, but to me they were a total waste of time.
One thing that isn’t a waste of time is exploring the second most important character of Murdered: its location, Salem. While the game map is rather small for a AAA release, the use of the town’s infamous history plays major narrative, thematic, and aesthetic roles during the experience.
The Salem Witch Trials are a pivotal element of the story. The town itself reflects the darkness of its past – the game seems to only take place over the course of one very long evening, but storms come and go with lightning on the horizon, shadowed clouds roll over the breaking waters of the town’s harbor, and the sparse population of Salem plod through the concrete streets, having isolated, whispered conversations about mysterious killers in the dark.
While the game is never entirely sure if it wants to commit itself as a “true” adventure game or a survival-stealth horror game, it does a good job of presenting a world whose past is troublingly encroaching on its present, and the lives of those living within it. The locations are somewhat clichéd for a title that wants to create such a creepy atmosphere – prepare yourself for a cemetery and (yet another) mental institution – but each is relatively compelling.
While Ronan’s journey through Salem is mostly solo, he does team up with a young juvenile delinquent (with a piercing to balance Ronan’s ink) named Joy. Joy has the power so see and talk to the dead, and for a portion of the game she provides Ronan with an opportunity to interact with the living and even open a door or two. She’s a fun, if a bit stereotypical, teenager who provides additional emotional anchors as she searches for her missing mother – the next target of the Bell Killer.
There’s also a pair of policemen from Ronan’s district who feature notably in Murdered, but like Joy, they aren’t really characters so much as caricatures, fulfilling their roles dutifully but without much imagination. Beyond that, Ronan’s story is mostly a solitary one, which serves to provide insight into his motivation to reunite with his dead wife in the great beyond.
I was very impressed with the game’s visual style and technical graphic fidelity, which combine to create an environment that truly bleeds dread. The designers also provided a number of details that are welcome and creepy. In the distance, there are often apparitions of the distant past, which vanish as Ronan approaches. They don’t have any effect on the game, but for the player it reinforces the amount of “living” past in Salem, as well as a reminder of all the dark secrets that are buried there.
However, despite the many hints of a darker underworld, the actual story is disappointing. The quest to discover The Bell Killer’s identity has none of the same nuance, tension, or real urgency as Heavy Rain’s search for The Origami Killer. The promise of discovering the murderer’s dark purpose, and the source of his power, is nicely integrated within Salem’s lore, but handled rather clumsily during a surprise twist which feels forced. In addition, player agency for identifying the actual killer is trivial – the final denouement goes by so fast, and ties up all the loose ends so quickly, that there’s barely any room for emotional resonance or opportunity for the player to feel invested. There are some moments of brilliance – meeting the ghost of a woman who was buried alive gave me shivers – but they’re so few and far between that they only augment the sense of what could have been for Murdered.
Adventure games have begun to push the boundaries of how to provide players with new ways to explore locations, solve riddles, and uncover fascinating, developing stories. These new canvasses for experimentation have yielded a number of inspiring successes, which is what makes Murdered: Soul Suspect such a disappointment. It feels like a Dr. Frankenstein’s monster of other games, pulling in gameplay or character elements from each, but completely neglecting to build its own soul that is so essential to making a game feel alive. From limited locations and lackluster narrative to an uninspired cast of characters and the frustrating, monotonous stealth sequences, this is a game that is much more interesting as an experiment than as an experience.
Murdered: Soul Suspect isn’t entirely without charm – you may enjoy slowly revealing Salem’s dark secrets and getting to know Ronan and Joy, but be prepared for an experience that is never really sure exactly what it wants to be. It starts out full of vibrancy and life, but like Ronan himself, meets an untimely demise under the weight of its own ambitions.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is the newest addition to the small field of triple AAA adventure titles and offers some pleasant new surprises but an uneven storyline, poorly developed characters and unfocused gameplay keeps this game from rising above mediocrity.