In the early to mid-1990s, full motion video games introduced actual filmed actors, not computer rendered characters. Tons of titles were released during that fad, some of which are now considered classic, but perhaps predictably, the majority of studios used cheap sets, B-movie (or completely unknown) actors, embarrassing dialogue, and obvious green screen backgrounds, all of which was compounded by the low quality of FMV in general at the time. As a result, this era of gaming is usually looked back on with derision now. For the longest time, live-action titles became quite rare, but recently they’ve been making something of a comeback.
D'Avekki Studios, a UK-based developer that designs murder mystery parties and decided to delve into the gaming world, launched their first adventure in 2017, and The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker turned out to be one of my favorite games of the year. Now they’re back with The Shapeshifting Detective, another FMV thriller that follows the same "cast good actors, write good dialogue, use real sets" formula that really should have been obvious to more game companies decades ago. Although more ambitious than its predecessor, this game didn't quite reach the same level of enjoyment for me, but the high production values, replayability, and original premise still make for a very fun, if occasionally confusing, time.
The Shapeshifting Detective begins with you being assigned to a murder case by a very stern and mysterious man whom the credits refer to as "Agent X". A young cellist named Dorota Shaw has been strangled in her bed in a quaint town called August, and it’s your job to investigate. Agent X gives you your new identity, "Sam", raising the question of who you were before the game even began. You don't get a description of what Sam looks like, and the game very cleverly never reveals if Sam is male or female. The police chief in August is pretty sure that one of a group of three tarot card readers visiting the town is guilty, which is a reasonable guess as they predicted Dorota would be killed before the murder took place. You are booked into a room at the local inn, known as "The Guesthouse", where these suspects conveniently are staying. Of course, in this game not all is as it seems, and you’ll soon discover that there are a lot of weird things going on.
Actually, one of those weird things is you. As the unseen first-person protagonist, you have been endowed with the ability to shapeshift into anyone you've met (besides children for some reason). How or why you have this power is never explained, at least not in either of my two playthroughs, but it sure comes in handy. If one of the tarot readers is not telling you, as Sam, about what happened before they came to August, try morphing into one of their friends and encourage them to tell this Sam person all about it, before trying again in your own identity. Someone refusing to talk to you because you acted a little too dodgy when you first met them? Turn into the police chief and order them to cooperate with you. It's an interesting mechanic that puts a whole new strategic spin on information gathering.
Other than whose skin you’ll wear, your other decisions come in the form of dialogue options. When talking to someone, choices of what to say or ask appear in the bottom-right corner of the screen. You'll often get the chance to go through all of them one at a time, but sometimes they will lead to a dialogue branch where you only get to pick one answer, and there is no rewinding or save options in this game; one chance per playthrough is all you get. Some dialogue options that may be riskier to try have a small trash can icon beside them. Hold the mouse button down over this icon and you can essentially choose not to ask that particular question or make that accusation, which is sometimes essential to your progress.
The rest of the interface is just as straightforward. In between interviews, you can select the next suspect you'd like to talk to or head to your room for a little privacy while you slip into something a little less you. Fortunately, you aren’t likely to forget who you are at any given time, as the different dialogue choices are read in the current actor's voice when you mouse over them, which it obviously never does for the mysterious Sam. In case you do lose track, there is a portrait of your present form that appears on-screen whenever you need to make a decision (again with the exception of an indiscernible Sam).
Some of my choices didn't seem to change anything, dialogue or otherwise, but others clearly led to different outcomes. In addition to playing through the entire game twice, I finally watched the trailer after the fact, and was very surprised to see that almost half the footage in the video wasn't seen in either of my sessions. Apparently it's even possible for some of the suspects to catch onto the fact that you're a shapeshifter, which astounded me because my second time through I was trying to be as obvious about it as I possibly could. The game claims to have over 1600 film clips, which sounds about right when I think about how much I obviously missed. The variety is especially noticeable in that the murderer is randomly assigned at the beginning every time, meaning the killer in your first game may well be innocent if you play through again.Continued on the next page...