What if you had to solve the most important homicide case of your career, but you’re the murder victim? Would you be able to bring your ruthless killer to justice and solve your own bizarre case, or would your own soul become lost in the depths of limbo? It’s exactly this sort of enticing proposition that rightfully left many armchair detectives salivating at the mouth in anticipation for Murdered: Soul Suspect when it was first announced. However, with anxiously awaited juggernauts like Wolfenstein: The New Order and Watchdogs finally arriving, and currently occupying almost every gamer’s time, does Airtight Games’ newest multiplatform crime thriller introduce players to the sort of compelling experience they’ve been craving for? Unfortunately, the answers are bound to leave you feeling far more disappointed than you could have imagined.
If there’s one saving grace that keeps Murdered: Soul Suspect carefully treading the thunderous waves of mediocrity – instead of drowning beneath its freezing waters, it’s the ghostly murder-mystery at the heart of the game’s story. With the narrative properly set within the history-rich town of Salem, Massachusetts, players assume the role of ex-criminal-turned-detective Ronan O’Connor, who suffers an untimely and remarkably brutal death at the hands of a sadistic serial murderer known as the Bell Killer. Consequently dumped within a purgatorial-like plane called the Dusk until his “unfinished business” is resolved, O’Connor begins his relentless pursuit for his masked killer, hoping that capturing him – with the help of a rebellious teenage medium named Joy – will end the poor detective’s surreal journey and finally transcend him to the sweet serenity of the afterlife. Ultimately, it’s what unravels during this otherworldly quest for justice that serves as the perfect basis for a thoroughly enticing detective tale, one thoughtfully created with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the game’s six-hour duration finally comes to a close.
Whereas numerous genre-defining action-adventure titles find comfort with the meat of their gameplay devoted heavily to intense combat-orientated sequences, the bulk of Murdered: Soul Suspect relies almost entirely on conducting investigations and piecing together evidence in order to solve the Bell Killer case. In order to do this, however, you’ll need to grow accustomed to a new set of clue-generating tactics. You see, as you’ve probably guessed, Ronan’s new transparent look noticeably lacks the ability to utilize traditional investigative skills – like accessing police records, interrogating witnesses, and inspecting physical evidence, thus forcing you to rely solely on his new-found supernatural abilities in order to successfully analyze crime scenes. With Ronan’s new skill repertoire including the ability to possess people and environment-traversing cats, read and influence the minds of witnesses, walk through walls, and teleport short distances; Murdered: Soul Suspect wastes no time diving you from crime scene to crime scene in hopes of finally ending the Bell Killer’s ruthless murdering spree in Salem once and for all.
Though slightly similar to the clue-searching sections exhibited in Rockstar Games’ well-crafted crime thriller L.A. Noire, Murdered: Soul Suspect’s crime scene investigations task players with selecting potentially useful evidence within the environment, and interviewing any and all witnesses present when the crime occurred. In order to generate even more potentially case-solving clues, you’ll also be able to obtain further information from possessing select individuals and reading their minds, for instance, or by revealing leftover memory residue and analyzing it, which presents you with a handful of word options to describe the current scenario with. Regardless of what your careful detective work turns up, Ronan can utilize the clues he’s gained when trying to influence information out of disorientated witnesses or even when piecing together clues into one coherent event, creating a detail-rich flashback moment that predictably concludes the investigation.
However, in the grand scheme of things, the solutions to even the most “complex” crime scene puzzles are unsatisfying and overly simplistic by design. The act of possessing witnesses to obtain clues or leads presents absolutely no challenge throughout the entire duration of the campaign, with the game opting instead to consistently highlight the necessary button input (peek, mind read, etc.) you need to select in order to progress without breaking a sweat. Sadly, analyzing memory residue isn’t much better either; demonstrating all the complexity of a morbid puzzle game designed for toddlers as your tasked with selecting words that best describe easy-to-evaluate pictures. Even stringing together the correct clues to experience a reveal-all flashback (what should be an otherwise level-concluding moment of triumph) usually amounts to nothing more than separating out the three or four useful clues you need from a range of useless filler, and can easily be finished by using mindless guesswork. Sure, it can be argued that there’s a three-badge system established in these investigations that help avert easy game exploitation (otherwise known as “click everything you can to progress”), but without any incentives – like skill upgrades, unlockable abilities, or even multiple story paths – to help back up excellent grades, there’s no real reason to play by the rules unless you’re a diehard completionist.
Threaded carefully in between clue-collecting detective work, Murdered: Soul Suspect also thrusts you into combat-lite stealth sequences against demons; frightening soul-devourers whose main purpose is to scour the shadows of limbo in search of unsuspecting ghosts to feed on. Since Ronan cannot attack these foul creatures directly, it becomes essential to not only become comfortable jumping between the “ghostly tears” that populate the purgatorial world of Dusk, but to also utilize supernatural powers – like walking through walls and teleportation – to either evade these vicious apparitions or sneak up and execute them while their backs are turned. Playing out more like flawed, but entertaining games of cat and mouse, these particular demon encounters didn’t necessarily elevate the gameplay to new heights, but there scarcity and intelligent level placement did help incorporate a noticeably thin layer of tension to the proceedings – even if we’d be hardpressed to actually consider them true-to-form stealth sequences.
Beyond Murdered: Soul Suspect’s linear story progression, concealed within Salem’s interesting mixture of ghostly and earthly environments, lies a pleasing assortment of collectibles and side-missions for you to pursue at your leisure as well. Acquiring objects of interest like information-filled plaques helps inform players of the history behind Salem and the infamous witch trials that once occurred there, while ghostly artifacts like hand saws and old boilers unlock intriguing audio-based ghost stories that could have easily been told around a marshmallow-roasting campfire. Even collectible journal entries and news articles contribute more to each character’s backstory, ranging from notebook pages describing the personal thoughts and feelings of Julia – Ronan’s beloved wife – to eerily news pieces fleshing out more grisly details about the Bell Killer and his numerous murders. Our personal favorite was the side-missions themselves, however, which tasked us to solve the unfinished business of a handful of limbo residents by using our otherworldly detective skills and conducting mini-investigations of the surrounding area. Helping a poor soul realize they died a hero or determining if a suicide victim’s ex-lover was cheating on them prior to their death were minor, but welcome distractions that felt more fulfilling than the main game at times, especially since we knew we were solely responsible for their peaceful transcendence into the afterlife.
From a graphical and technical point-of-view, Murdered: Soul Suspect is far from the polished, bug-free experience we were expecting. While relatively insignificant flaws like occasional texture pop-in and slow subtitles didn’t necessarily hinder too much enjoyment, progression-halting issues like button inputs not appearing on significant crime scene evidence or the absence of entire voiceover audio tracks certainly did. Worst yet, a game-breaking bug ended up leaving us frustratingly stranded in a church courtyard with roughly an hour of the story left to complete, patiently awaiting a cut-scene that never initiated. Due to the checkpoint system saving directly where that hair-pulling issue occurred, we were painfully forced to restart the entire campaign in order to witness the game’s concluding moments.
Sidestepping the predictable rush of annualized sequels, overhyped AAA titles, and overly stylized blockbuster shooters, Murdered: Soul Suspect’s intriguing L.A. Noire-turns-otherworldly concept seemed fully capable of providing bored gamers with a deliciously ambitious and thoroughly creative new experience to avoid the blistering summer heat with. Unfortunately, despite a foundation supported by a compelling and well-paced narrative, Airtight Games’ promising new intellectual property feels disappointingly hollow, especially in comparison to the multitude of other exceptional action-adventure titles currently on the market.