There’s nothing quite like a generational shift to get a studios creative juices flowing. It’s a time when all players in the gaming industry, big and small come out in droves like a veritable gold rush, looking for that one sure-fire early hit. Square Enix have entered into the fray with one of the most unique titles of the new generation to date, Murdered: Soul Suspect, from Airtight Games. Being fresh, unique and innovative, it’s an experience unlike almost anything else available today, and well worth your time to play.
Beneath the inky darkness of a foggy Massachusetts, the player takes control of Salem Police Detective Ronan O’Connor, as he is shot and thrown from a fourth storey window. Brutally murdered by the Bell serial killer, Ronan finds himself trapped as a spirit in the mortal world. Before he may pass over to the other side and re-unite with his wife, he must complete his final task: Apprehend the Bell Killer, and bring them to justice.
As Ronan soon discovers, the ordinary world is littered with other spirits trapped in limbo, unable to move on. Unrequited lovers, suicide victims with guilty consciences, evil, unrelenting murderers; all find themselves trapped between worlds until their unfinished business is complete, or they go mad and become demons.
In the course of his investigation, Ronan discovers Joy, a teenage medium, one of only a few capable of communicating with spirits. Joy, full of teenage angst and rancour, has lost track of her mother and fears the Bell Killer is after her next. Realising they share a target, Ronan and Joy team together, aiming to prevent another murder from occurring.
When combined with his already impressive skills as a detective, Ronan’s new abilities as a spirit make him a sleuth-solving tour-de-force. The gameplay in Murdered is centred on investigating new locations and discovering clues to help progress the quest to find the Bell Killer. Each investigation tasks the player with discovering a number of clues, analysing them and then determining which are relevant to the cause. Clues are hidden throughout the environment, often attached to a small mini-game such as identifying which section of information on a document is most relevant. When all the clues have been gathered, the player arranges the two or three most important pieces in chronological order to learn more of the story and progress to the next investigation. Searching for the final missing clue can become a tad tedious in larger areas, and a hint system wouldn’t have gone astray within the more challenging areas. Still, there is a definite feeling of euphoria and reward when all the pieces of an individual puzzle fall into place.
Thanks to his new spiritual being, Ronan can directly possess and influence those still in ownership of their mortal bodies. While possessing somebody, Ronan can read their thoughts, or jog their memories of crimes to help discover clues. Possessing mechanical items, like a television or a telephone causes Ronan to “poltergeist” the object, distracting any nearby guards during certain infiltration puzzles. Animals can also be possessed for light platforming, which can lead to the discovery of new secrets. The possession tool is a neat trick, and something that hasn’t really been utilised will since 2005’s Geist.
Thanks to his lack of a physical body, Ronan possesses the ability to pass through things that would stop an ordinary man in his tracks. Though it takes a moment to get used to, passing through walls, dumpsters and barriers as though they weren’t there is extremely novel and makes exploring houses and alleyways far quicker. There are a few exceptions to what can be passed through, of course: an astoundingly contrived excuse regarding consecration prevents passing through the outer walls of a building; whilst “spirit objects”, walls and barricades invisible to ordinary human eyes and covered in pallid, blue fire act as ordinary impediments to progress. These minor caveats aside, however, the sensation of simply clipping through the world at large to get to where you want to be is something you are unlikely to experience in other titles without cheat codes, and is extremely satisfying.
Salem makes for an excellent, deeply disturbed locale for a game regarding spirits and serial slashers. The obvious historical connotations of the town are quickly embraced by the narrative, drawing stark attention to the bloody, fiery past of the town. The dark lighting and eerie mood create an overwhelming, palpable sense of dread constantly. Small things, like the flickering, ghostly images in the backgrounds of rooms that disappear upon sight, or the slow wails of the lost souls in a graveyard reinforces the dread and tension present, making the act of exploration and uncovering the dirty secrets of the town’s past a truly unpleasant experience. One small story relating to an inmate in a mental hospital is easily one of the most unpleasant narrative experiences I’ve ever sat through in any type of media, gaming or otherwise. Airtight Games have excelled at creating a well realised world that I never, ever want to set foot in.
The town of Salem itself acts as a sort of hub world, with key locales and larger investigations branching off in all directions. The town centre is littered with smaller, sub-investigations designed to help local spirits find their peace and move on. They are fleeting hits of deduction that tend to be a bit more fiendish than the main investigations. These tend to help break up the story a little and flesh out the true pains of being stuck in the mortal world without the ability to move on.
Not everything works though. There are some pretty severe cases of replaying dialogue and some less than stellar texture work in some locations. There is a positively overwhelming amount of collectibles, with nearly 300 different items and clues to find over a 10-15 hour long experience. The items themselves are always tied to the narrative, adding back-stories to characters and giving a further understanding of their motives as well as the dark past of Salem. Though you can take solace knowing how varied and interesting they are, the sheer crippling number of them is mind-boggling.
The worst aspect of the game takes the form of a demon-based game of Cat and Mouse that is consistently played over the last half of the story. Roaming spirits seek to destroy Ronan who can only fight back when he is undetected, forcing the player to sneak around and strike from behind. Murdered: Soul Suspect is a fairly passive title ordinarily so it makes sense that developer Airtight Games would try and spice things up with a few moments of action. Unfortunately, these sections are cumbersome, clumsy and unnecessarily punishing usually requiring a perfectionists approach to complete. They are maddeningly simple to error and unsatisfactory to finish. Though they succeed at adding an unwanted element of action, it is to the strong detriment of the rest of the game.
Happily however, despite a few minor quibbles, Murdered: Soul Suspect is a game easy to recommend. More important than any individual component of the title, it is a unique style of game rarely seen and rarely executed well. With an engaging plot and novel gameplay mechanics, Murdered never lets go of your interest once it digs its claws in. Just like any gumshoe detective story, the journey to the killer is more satisfying than the conclusion itself, which is slightly contrived and muddled; however it conforms well to the literary genre it tries so hard to emulate. It is likeable, engaging and unique, a true, stand-out original in a sea of mundane copy-cats. Murdered: Soul Suspect is game that should be checked out by anyone interested in seeing something a bit different.