Murdered: Soul Suspect review: dead simple
As a rule, adventure games live and die by their story. Whatever gimmicks might fuel the moment-to-moment gameplay, we have to be invested in the characters in a way that more action-oriented games don't require, in order to make us interested in spending so much time with them. Murdered: Soul Suspect is a by-the-numbers adventure game through and through. Despite a pulpy presentation, it created a compelling enough world to pull me some extremely rough edges.
Those rough edges are plentiful. The framerate would often drop considerably, and sometimes loads would make a too-noticeable seam between gameplay and cutscenes. The main character looked good, but much of the game wasn't a visual upgrade over the last generation. Most egregiously, at one point I hit a bug that very nearly halted my progress altogether. I simply couldn't continue, and I regard it as sheer luck that I found some random combination of factors that course-corrected and let me continue on my way.
But despite my myriad problems with the execution, I enjoyed my time with Soul Suspect. This is an adventure game at its heart, and I'm willing to accept a handful of hassle if the story is compelling enough.
If the punny name didn't give it away, Murdered: Soul Suspect follows the life and times of a dead man: Ronan O'Connor, recently deceased detective hot on the trail of a serial killer in the otherwise sleepy city of Salem, Massachusetts. It was that murderer, the Bell Killer as he's called for the emblems he leaves on his victims, that killed Ronan himself during a confrontation. But instead of transcending to paradise with his deceased wife, he's bound to earth for some unfinished business. Namely, discovering the identity of the one who killed him.
As such, we spend a lot of time with Ronan, along with a psychic sidekick. His cop swagger is a bit affected, but the performance is the kind of heightened reality that this world deserves. Most importantly, he's a likable, flawed protagonist. He carries himself with all the charm of a dime-store detective novel, but it never feels too on-the-nose. His sidekick is also outrageously over-designed, but her performance is light and fun with just the right edge of seriousness.
His plight gives him room to explore a new environment, and to learn along with the player the strange rules that govern the afterlife. Airtight Games has crafted a unique and even somewhat thought-provoking take on the spiritual realm. Just as ghosts can pass through the real plane, the ghostly world has remnants of its own history scattered about that townspeople pass through without ever noticing. This makes for an interesting duality that carries itself through the story as well.
Ronan's investigation presents itself with some bare-bone mechanics. After searching the environment for clues--an act sometimes akin to pixel-hunting in older games of this genre--he has to piece together a series of relevant information, often in the correct order. It's simplistic, but putting together a cause-and-effect chain of events felt like just enough light detective work to keep me invested in the journey.
His powers as a ghost are fairly limited to very contextual necessities, but you can hop into just about any townsperson you see to get a little glimpse of their thoughts. These are randomly mixed, and can get old, but a few are cute in-jokes or references to other Square Enix games. I have to say, though, it's bizarre how many people are thinking about how boring their town is, what with a serial killer on the loose and all.
The investigations aren't limited only to the hunt for a serial killer, however. Salem is a town with a lot of history, so while exploring Ronan runs into more than a few ghosts who have less of a handle on the situation than he does. Usually they need some help figuring out how they died or coming to terms with some form of guilt that they feel. These rely on the same basic mechanical structure, but they're entirely optional. You'll also find quite a few random objects scattered around, and your reward for collecting each set is a spooky, self-contained ghost story delivered in radio drama form.
Those dramas were probably the scariest part of the entire game. For a game about ghosts, this isn't the type to startle. The ghosts could be creepy or unsettling, but more often they were just sad, mundane, or introspective. If Murdered has a thesis statement, it seems to be that the afterlife isn't nearly as scary as the things that living people do to each other.
That's not to say that the story is flawless. One of the major twists was telegraphed so clearly that I predicted it within the first hour, making it frustrating to see so many cops--Ronan and his former coworkers--scratching their heads over it. (I did appreciate another twist that genuinely surprised me.) Being an informed director of somewhat dense actors raised the tension at points, and it wasn't enough to lessen my interest in seeing them piece it together. The ultimate conclusion is also somewhat unsatisfying, though I may have missed an extra ending since I didn't snag all of the collectibles.
Unfortunately, it seems too self-conscious about its adventure chops, and throws in occasional action sequences. Sometimes an environment will suddenly, inexplicably become infested by "demons"--ghosts who have remained too long and become feral. In these segments, you need to hide in wisps of ghost-smoke and dash out quickly to execute them with a button prompt. It's not particularly difficult, but it's not fun either. It's just dull filler that ends up feeling completely disconnected from the rest of the game.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is definitely a qualified success. The richness of the atmosphere and charismatic lead performances pulled me through the story. That paired with a solid, no-frills investigation mechanic helped mitigate some of the technical problems and the sadly tacked-on demon hunting sequences. It's a distinctly average experience, but it has enough going for it that I'm glad I was able to conquer the bugs and see it through.
Final Score: 6 out of 10.
A boring, boring demon
This review is based on a digital PlayStation 4 copy provided by the publisher. Murdered: Soul Suspect is available now for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 for $49.99, or for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One for $59.99. The game is rated M.