Dead on Arrival
Two things happened with the release of Murdered: Soul Suspect that don’t typically happen to me anymore nowadays, or rarely if they do at all: 1) I actually got excited about a game pre-launch, based on nothing more than a general idea of its concept and some faith in its publisher, Square Enix; and 2) I made it a point to head down to the store on launch day to pick up a copy of the game for myself, having previously decided not to place a pre-order ahead of time. As it turns out, I had my dates wrong, and I had to settle for purchasing the game two days after it released. So, was it worth it?
In a word – meh…
I really liked (and still do) the concept behind Murdered: Soul Suspect. Playing as the spirit of a detective who’s just been killed by the very man he was tracking down, and having to solve his murder from beyond the grave is, in my estimation, a thrilling and intriguing setup for a game. Murdered is one of the few console games that is designed pretty much as a classic adventure game, minus – of course – all the pointing and clicking. But you walk around town (and, since you’re a ghost, often walk right through town), look for clues, investigate crime scenes, and engage in dialog with other spirits still clinging onto this mortal coil, all in the true…ahem…spirit of adventure games. There is no combat, and though a few half-hearted stealth sections are peppered in, this is very much a story-driven game.
The setting for the game is great! The developers, Airtight Games, would have been hard-pressed to pick a better location than Salem, Massachusetts to host their ghostly story. It offers up just the right amount of gothic Americana that makes the game’s mausoleum-filled cemeteries, wood-slatted houses, and shanty-lined harbor so believable. In fact, though Murdered is set in the present, I constantly felt transported back to the city’s infamous Witch Trial period, which seems appropriate both for the plot and the nature of the game’s psychotic serial killer. Even protagonist Ronan O’Connor is dressed as though he has jumped squarely out of the 1940s and into this world.
But while the game certainly looks the part and the notion of having to track down the nefarious Bell Killer as one of his previous victims is interesting, I wish a bit more attention had been paid to the actual gameplay side of things. Nobody has ever accused any successful adventure game of being overly varied in execution, but the simple straightforward manner in which Murdered: Soul Suspect plays out is, to put it bluntly, a bit much. Though you’re given a sizable piece of Salem to explore, there is really no impetus to do so. Instead, I found myself regularly making a beeline for my next destination, following an on-screen direction and distance indicator. The pattern of “get to the next area – locate clues” quickly became an all too familiar mantra.
As a ghost, Ronan has the powers you’d expect a spirit to have: he can pass through walls and solid objects (except where the developers have put arbitrary boundaries to the maps; for example, Ronan can’t enter any house unless he passes through an open doorway), he can possess TVs, read people’s minds, and even control small animals. But, with the exception of passing through walls, none of these powers are really put to any good use in the game. Once or twice I was had to possess a cat to fit into an otherwise too-small space (what kind of useless ghost can’t fit through an air vent?!?), and I had to eavesdrop on one or two conversations to move the gameplay further along. But in a game in which I have to chase a deranged killer through a graveyard at night, I would have expected my paranormal powers to play a bigger role in the game…or at least open up some fun gameplay choices, if nothing else. Instead, the Salem mostly goes to waste as a creepy playground, and my imagination is stifled under the weight of Murdered‘s too-linear gameplay.
Linear, that is, except for the handful of sections in which Ronan has to stealthily evade – or sneak up on – demons that are patrolling for any lost souls, like Ronan, they can snatch up. I’ve really got to question why these sections were even in the game? I suppose it’s for a bit of variety, but surely less variety is preferable to painful variety, non? These sections really just needlessly slowed down the pacing while failing to add any substantial value, apart from the fact that the demons, with their moaning wails and bony claws, are probably the only truly creepy element in this haunted house ride.
The biggest letdown was how useless my powers of telepathy were. I guess in my mind I was imagining possessing humans, making them do my bidding and just generally being a terror, but in reality I gave up even reading the minds of harmless passersby after my first two or three attempts and getting nothing but stock dialog and useless drivel. I think it’s possible to delve into the mind of each and every citizen of Salem in the game, but I got fed up hearing people’s worries over whether they had turned their stoves off long before I got that far.
The various crime scenes Ronan has to “investigate” aren’t much of a point in the plus column, either. I was hoping for an improvement on, or at least something akin to, the investigative sections of the last-gen Condemned games. Instead, it was a lot closer to the more recent L.A. Noire, which also can’t really count crime scene investigation as a strength. The game informs you that you have to find a certain number of items within the crime scene area, and you set off looking for ghostly glowing areas or objects to interact with. Once you’ve reached 8/8 (or whatever number you needed), the investigation is done. Simple, no frills, kinda boring.
So are there any redeeming features in Murdered: Soul Suspect? I suppose that’s relative to how much money one invested in the purchase. The story, though far from novel or groundbreaking, is interesting enough, I suppose. The game has a nicely dark and moody vibe to it, and looks good. But the low difficulty, out-of-place stealth set-pieces, and throwaway design has definitely made me regret springing for the hefty launch day admission of $50. (Despite all this, I’m currently planning a second playthrough, this time while recording gameplay, to put together a comprehensive video guide to the game’s hidden collectibles!)