I’m something of a pacifist. I like to avoid conflict, even in video games. If I’m playing an RPG and there’s a dialogue option to take instead of getting into a fight, then I’ll take that option. If in an action-adventure there’s a stealth option to take over a firefight, then I’ll take that route. So when I heard Square Enix were publishing a supernatural investigative adventure from Airtight Games which has basically no combat, I was sold almost immediately.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is set in Salem, Massachusetts, a town whose cultural identity revolves around the bloody witch trials of 1692 which saw the executions of 20 people for witchcraft, the majority of them women. You take the role of a detective named Ronan O’Connor. Or rather, you take the role of Ronan O’Connor’s spirit, as the game opens with Ronan being thrown from a third story window and then shot seven times, resulting in his untimely demise. He’s met by the spirit of his deceased wife, and is informed that to be able to pass into the afterlife and gain eternal rest, he must settle the unfinished business that is not allowing his spirit to rest. Because, y’know, if you’re a ghost then you’ve got to have unfinished business. After being greeted by another trapped soul, a young puritan-era child named Abigail who informs Ronan of his situation and shows him a few of the ghostly abilities at his disposal, Ronan begins the investigation into his very own murder.
Murdered, as I’ll refer to it from now on, is an adventure game at it’s (unbeating) heart. You investigate various areas searching for clues to solve that piece of the puzzle, and then you use these clues to form a conclusion to that stage of the investigation. It’s not complex stuff, but there are a variety of different ways in which you collect clues. Naturally, you can simply search the area, which works for the majority of clues. But as a ghost you’ll need to utilise your supernatural abilities from time to time, which Ronan develops naturally – or supernaturally – as the story progresses. These include possessing people which allow you to read their thoughts, influence their decisions or view what they’re looking at through their eyes – although these options aren’t always available – which allows you to gain access to information and clues you wouldn’t be able to through conventional methods. You can possess every single person you come across as well, although not all of them will necessarily help you in your investigation.
Besides possession, Ronan can also teleport, reveal ghostly residual memoryies imprinted on the environment, poltergeist objects to distract or attract people’s attention, and remove certain supernatural barriers since the world Ronan inhabits is a mixture of the living and dead worlds, and he interacts differently with each part. While Ronan can pass through most objects in the living world, due to salem’s history with the supernatural, there are a lot of residual spirtual environments imprinted on the world that Ronan cannot past through. Nor can he enter through the walls of houses at will due them being consecrated, so he has to enter through a open door or window like anyone else. It’s a rather convenient mechanic, but an understandable one since making the entire town of Salem accessible via entry through the walls would require a hell of a lot of work.
If I’m honest, the investigations, while the main focus of the game, could’ve done with even more attention because as you get further into the game things start to get a little repetitive and the investigations get rather easy. This is a little disappointing since I love both a good puzzle and mystery, LA Noire was one of my gaming highlights of the last couple of years, but I don’t think I’ve played a game with a really satisfying murder/mystery mechanic since Cruise for a Corpse back in 1991.
Despite being deceased, Ronan’s investigation isn’t a completely solitary affair. A short while into his investigation, he encounters someone who won’t just look straight through him. His investigations lead him to a moody teenager who is ironically named Joy, and she also happens to be a medium – that’s someone who is a psychic intermediary between the living and the dead, not someone who is somewhere between small and large in size. Joy is searching for her mother who has disappeared around the same time as Ronan’s murder, so they decide it’s mutually beneficial that they team up and Joy aids and aggravates Ronan in equal measure. Joy is a refreshing character as she’s determined, stubborn, fiery but vulnerable as well. She marks yet another strong female character to be introduced in video games, which can only be welcomed and encouraged, and she doesn’t feel like she’s getting in the way, even when there are segments you have to guide Joy through areas inhabited by people searching for her.
Unfortunately, the spectral world isn’t entirely free of hazards for Ronan either. There are pits filled with trapped souls all over Salem all too eager to drag Ronan down into the abyss with them, but these can be avoided using the teleport ability once Ronan gains it. It is possible to escape them as well should you find yourself in the clutches of the trapped souls, but you literally have a moment to hit a button combination to free yourself or find yourself cast back to the last autosave in your investigation – since there is no saving at will in Murdered.
As well as the soul pits, there are demons that show up in various areas of Salem, searching for Ronan and looking to feast on his undead spirit. The eerily Nazgul-like demons stalk hallways of buildings, and if Ronan gets into their field of vision they’ll chase him down and attempt to absorb Ronan’s supernatural energies. In order to avoid this grizzly fate, Ronan can hide with in the residues of spirits imprinted on the supernatural world, and he can dart from one to the other to avoid detection and allow him to sneak up behind the demons and exorcise them from the spirit world, which is done via a randomly determined button combination. This is the extent and what can be considered combat, and it works fairly well as it lends an element of suspense as you attempt to avoid their gaze, and there is a genuine sense of panic when they spot you. But fans of heavy combat or hardcore stealth games may well find these elements rather basic and unsatisfying, but they were plenty for me.
Besides the main investigation itself, there are various side investigations and collectibles for Ronan to discover. There are other trapped souls around Salem just like Ronan, so he can use his investigative abilities to discover the cause of their death or the source of their unfinished business causing them to stay trapped between worlds. These make for an entertaining distraction from the main storyline and I’d like to have seen more of them rather than so many collectibles which range from hidden supernatural “graffiti” to notes left by Ronan’s deceased wife. Finding these elements do open up backgrounds of various characters in the game, but some of them can be rather frustrating to find, and as there’s no map it can be a bit of a chore trying to hunt some of them out, but most of them you will come across naturally.
Technically, Murdered isn’t going to be held up as a shining example of next-gen presentation. While Salem and the characters within are very well put together, on the PS4 it only looks slightly better than previous generation game, and sometimes some of the mechanics can feel a little bit clunky. But the mixture of living and spirit world environents do work very well. There are a few annoying bugs I encountered, though not game-breaking. For example the objective that displays int he corner told me to “Exit the Attic” for the better part of the second half of the game, even though that was something I’d completed hours earlier, although this didn’t adversely affect my gaming experience since it’s clearly marked where you need to go next thanks to a waypoint that shows up on the screen, it just seems like a careless bug to slip through since it was also reported in Eurogamer.
If the game had been given a bit of extra time to iron out the roughness of it all, and to develop the investigative sides of things so it doesn’t feel quite so repetitive the further you get into the game, then Murdered may well have been hailed right now as a shining beacon and a new dawn for games. As it is, Murdered feels like a game where resources ran out and the ambition had to be reeled in a bit. Having said that, it’s still got a lot of charm, interesting characters, and an intriguing story that you’ll want to see through to the end, even if it doesn’t last very long. If you’re looking for something that is a change from the normal churn of carbon-copy FPS, action-adventures and GTA-wannabes, then you could do a lot worse than give Murdered a try. If you do, then it’ll be a game that you’ll remember more fondly than most and if enough people feel inclined to give it a chance, then we’ll receive a follow-up that is grander in scope and allowed that little bit more time to make it a masterpiece rather than an unpolished gem.
+ Strong characters
+ Compelling plot
+ Salem is atmospheric and interesting to explore
+ Investigations are enjoyable
+ Demons actually feel scary and threatening
+ Investigation over combat a welcome change of pace
+ Something genuinely different and a breath of fresh air
- Game feels unpolished
- Investigations could’ve been developed even further
- Could’ve cut back on the collectibles
- No map or fast travel
- Can’t explore the Salem after the game ends
- Feels rather short