Game Review

by Dave Riley, Jun 8th 2014

Murdered: Soul Suspect

PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360 PC

Description:
Murdered: Soul Suspect
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a co-production between Square-Enix Japan and Airtight Games, the story of the recently-ghosted detective Ronan, who must solve his own murder before heading to the great beyond.
Review:

Based on its concept, and its Japanese/American co-pro heritage, Murdered: Soul Suspect conjures hopes of Ghost Trick-meets-La Noire-meets Phoenix Wright. Like in Phoenix Wright, much of the game is pixel hunting for hidden clues, but Murdered feels more like Heavy Rain than an investigative, puzzle-solving adventure. You're playing a detective, sure, but mostly you're just pressing buttons that forward the plot without failure states.

Here, at least, there are actual clues to uncover and places to explore. Murdered solves one of Heavy Rain's biggest problems simply by letting you move through a (very tiny) open world. Purposefully going to a location instead of letting the game teleport you there gives everything a sense of place, and prevents the frustration of feeling like you're playing through a series of movie scenes with very little context. You are Ronan, hotshot detective who doesn't take orders from nobody. Ronan is closing in on the trail of the notorious Bell Killer, but tragedy strikes when the killer claims Ronan as his next victim during the opening cutscene. Your first action is the game is an attempt at inserting your spirit back into your rapidly-cooling body. When that fails, what else is there to do but find Ronan's killer and mete out some spiritual street justice?

Ronan dresses like a noir protagonist, anachronistic hat and gun holster and everything, but he doesn't really act like one. He's a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, and that positions him to perfectly understand another struggling kid, Joy, a willingly homeless, ne'er-do-well fifteen year-old. That he's a spirit and she's a psychic is just icing on the ghost cake. They go through their buddy cop "I don't like you, you don't like me," motions, and there's the usual red herrings sprinkled throughout the plot. Ronan and Joy are the only ones who can solve the case even though it seems like, given the setting of Salem, the police would've put the occult connections together already; all the hints you pick up have to do with the murder victims lighting candles and playing with Ouija boards.

Maybe these are specifically ghost clues, and they specifically needed a ghost detective to grab them up. While investigating Ronan gets to do ghostly stuff like teleport around, read people's minds (but they're never thinking anything beyond two really banal phrases, even in the middle of a heated argument), and insert himself into a cat for air duct explorations. The cat parts are some of the best parts. There's a dedicated "Meow" button that does nothing except what it says, and never has a purpose outside of practicing your freestyle cat hiss timing.

Despite being a game solely about occult puzzles, Murdered doesn't aspire to head-scratching word and logic riddles of the early Silent Hills. Even those with more moderate expectations, like the straight-forward solutions of Phoenix Wright, will come away disappointed. Ronan scours hunt-and-peck crime scenes and finds evidence, but most evidence is bogus and the rest is literal. Sifting through menus to find an answer to the current conundrum is redundant, because the answers are identical to the questions, just with different punctuation. If Ronan asks "what clue to do I have to tell me it's the historical society?" the correct clue is the one that says "the historical society." If he asks "what was the killer looking for?" there is a clue that with a title like "the object of the killer's search."

The only thing that will trip you up is abstraction, thinking that there might be some methodology beyond picking from an answer key to the simplest test imaginable. Murdered lacks even LA Noire's interrogation dialogues. Arbitrary and schizophrenic as they could be, at least there felt like there was some variance there, some ability to fail. Here, the game grades you for no apparent purpose, not even achievements. In the menu clues have three police badges next to them which empty as you select the wrong answers, a grading system with no effect on anything, even achievement unlocks, a grading system that will progressively fill with 3 Badge clues, because it seems impossible to flub more than a few. Some are literally impossible to get wrong, and yet are still graded. Top marks all around.

Sometimes the game tasks you with identifying the psychic residue at a crime scene. It's never more in-depth than having to choose the world "bells" while the game makes a bunch of bell sounds. Sometimes you have to possess someone and influence them to perform a task Ronan's ghostly body is incapable of. If you want a police officer to move a bunch of folders so you can see a picture underneath them, the "clue" you use to influence them is "a bunch of folders." If you don't have "a bunch of folders" in your clue inventory, it's because you didn't click "interact" on the bunch of folders the police officer is standing in front of.

What's left is a beeline through every area (spooky graveyard, spooky sanitarium, not-so-spooky apartment building) with hardly even a multiple choice test to prove your proficiency--proficiency only extending as far as "awake and able to read." It makes the whole thing feel a little silly, or, maybe more accurately, it feels like there was more there before they stripped it all out. It feels like at some point there was a game where you'd actually have to do some detective work, but they got rid of it for fear of it being too hard. Now what's left is the skeleton of a more interesting system, a framework where the pieces of difficult puzzles could fit. In their place is a flowchart with a single straight line.

The skeleton is good enough to keep you going, and the game is short enough that its lack of depth is more disappointing than exasperating. It's cool to see a big-budget title with very little combat. There's a few stealth sections where you use ghost crows to distract hunting demons, otherwise you're strictly focused on the case. It's cool that the game doesn't feel obligated to include ghostly gunfights to keep your interest. It is, for the most part, confident in its plot and its mechanics. Its confidence keeps you hoping the game will give you something. There's always a slight spark when it wants you to do something different, like draw meaning out of scribbled crayon drawings. But the meaning of two girls standing next to each other is "sisters" and the meaning of someone hiding in a closet is "hiding." By the halfway point you stop being disappointed and accept Murdered for what it is. It's an okay way to kill time, but it won't challenge you. It won't even try.

It does something with history. It wants you to get absorbed into its world. The game's set in Salem, so witches are a foregone conclusion, and it gates your progress with spectral manifestations of 17th century buildings that obstruct ghosts, but not people. The game says these places are consecrated, which is a fine way to explain why the apparition of a Revolutionary War fortress blocks you from the gas station across the street, but it feels a bit contrived when a sanctified hay cart or pile of barrels bar your path.

Contrived or not, having to purposefully move from place to place gives cohesion to the world, even though the only thing to do while trotting through the world is pick up collectables, and hundreds of them. Grabbing them all up feels more compulsory than in other open world games, because you're begging the game for a little more flavor. But the supplemental writing, never more than two or three sentences at a time, mostly reads like it's been cribbed from Wikipedia. Gone Home and other similar games get away with the same style of world building through artifice. There, when you pick up a mother's note it's rendered in 3D, a hi-res artifact you can turn and flip and examine. Here, when you pick up a police report it's filed under a heading "Information about my killer." It's not something that exists in the world, it's a menu item, displayed with the same font as Ronan's dead wife's musings or a psychiatrist's thoughts on the case. There's very little art to any of the supplemental materials outside of the ghost stories, which at least come with audio narration of their Goosebumps-level urban legends. Still, there's something satisfying about grabbing up these trinkets and seeing "Info about My Killer 23/39" splash across the screen, even though you probably won't even read most of them. At least it's something to do.

The whole thing is serviceable. Nestled in a game with some actual meat to it, Murdered's routine mystery would be fine. Attached to this game, it's only enough to keep you going. The climax and denouement are issued at a rapid pace, the time between confronting the killer and watching the credits roll being about five minutes. Without any substantial gameplay to wrap things up, the whole experience feels a little emptier than it actually was. You'll question how much you actually did while you were playing it. The answer: not a lot. And for "not a lot" it was okay, but it wasn't anything more.

The letdown stings because they make so few games like this. So many of these games are just okay, and "okay" is a letdown because it seems like it should cost less money to hire a decent puzzle writer than to hire someone capable of making sure the flaming ghost cottage looks like the best flaming ghost cottage possible. And if this game is simple because of fears that complexity would stymie and frustrate the player, then who is it for? Who is the audience that wants puzzle games, but not challenging ones, or ones that require even basic logic?

This game fills a niche, but only functionally. Murdered: Soul Suspect is good for a slow weekend, but it fails to deliver on its concept, turning out something that's good enough just because games like it are so thin on the ground we'll take anything that doesn't fall flat on its face.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : C+
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : C
Gameplay : C
Presentation : C+

+ Serviceable mystery stuff, a comparatively rare genre in games
Everything is routine and simple, only barely interesting enough to hold attention

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