Creating a deep and meaningfully interactive mystery in a video game is somewhat difficult. Balancing “gameplay” elements that restrict the player sufficiently while offering a complicated and intriguing mystery for players to solve is a balancing act. The result is often too “gamey”, or too narratively unfocused. Airtight Games have taken the challenge of this on with their new game Murdered: Soul Suspect, hoping to deliver a tight, focused supernatural detective mystery with entertaining and engaging gameplay mechanics that make the player feel involved in the story. Set in Salem, Massachusetts’s haunted streets of pain and woe, Murdered: Soul Suspect is promising to immerse us in a deep and twisted mystery to solve the hardest murder of all – our own. And, by and large, it lives up to that lofty promise of intrigue.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is unapologetically a supernatural crime mystery. As such, it doesn’t stray far from traditional mystery clichés. There are of course red herrings, misunderstandings, clue trails, and the obligatory twist at the end – none of which come as much of a surprise. Soul Suspect’s story is almost completely conventional to what you’d expect from the genre. Luckily, it executes this traditional mystery structure and its requisite clichés with elegance and panache. There is little new here, but the story does draw you along well, giving you excitement and emotion where you’d expect and entertaining you throughout.
I don’t mean to sell the story short. Murdered: Soul Suspect’s plot is central to the game, and the familiar mystery tropes associated do not harm the experience. As a mystery, Murdered: Soul Suspect does a great job of keeping you involved, drawing you from place to place in search of answers. It hits its beats well, suspenseful in places, tense in others, and overall regretful and slightly sarcastic – like a good noire detective story ought to be. It’s not revolutionary, but what it does it does very well.
Murdered’s characters also conform to the typical mystery tropes. Ronan O’Connor is the hardboiled detective with a chequered past, put right by his wife. He sports a grimace, jaded cynicism, a fedora, and perpetually lit cigarette (no really, the guy can smoke for DAYS). Of course, Ronan’s wife died in his arms a few years ago, and Ronan subsequently threw himself headlong into his job to find the mysterious Bell Killer, a mysterious serial killer who leaves no clues and uses his almost supernatural strength to kill women in a range of gruesome ways. Supporting Ronan is his brother-in-law and police officer partner Rex. Of course not every police officer trusts the reformed criminal Ronan, with detective Baxter playing the role of insensitive antagonist – in life, anyway. Along the way we meet fifteen year old psychic Joy, who can see and hear Ronan’s ghost, linking him to the physical world. The sarcastic, tough teen is likeable and sympathetic, and Ronan’s treatment of her warms up as they get to know each other. The relationships are generally touching and realistic, in a detective-story way, and help develop the plot and motivations.
It is Ronan’s task as a detective to solve the Bell Killer murders – a task which gets personal (and more difficult) when he is decisively slain by the killer in question. As a ghost, Ronan has to find new ways to interact with a world that he can’t actually affect, solving the mystery along the way.
Intangible, Ronan is granted the ability to pass through unconsecrated walls and objects. A bin? Easy. Car? No problem. Interior walls? Simple. The problem arises with “ghost walls” – blue shining walls that represent either consecrated exterior house walls, or the remnants of walls from times past. This means that Ronan can’t enter a building without an open door or window, and that some areas that humans can pass through are blocked off by the walls of ruins that no longer exist. Once inside a consecrated building, however, Ronan is given free reign. You can walk pretty much wherever you want inside, passing effortlessly through interior walls, objects, and even people in your search for clues.
Passing through walls is surprisingly more disorienting than you’d first expect. Airtight have come up with quite an elegant and subtle solution to navigational befuddlement, though – every time Ronan passes through a wall, he leaves a ghostly outline. These outlines last quite a while, and help you get familiar with an interior layout. There is no map, however, of either interior areas or the town of Salem in general, so prepare to get at least a little lost. Luckily waypoint markers help a lot, especially when outside in the town.
The meat of gameplay is solving the mystery of the killings, though, and this is done through an interesting and engaging clue system. When reaching a designated crime scene, Ronan must explore the environment for interesting, out of place things. These are always identified by a button prompt, and only clues can be activated, meaning you can only find clues – nothing else. Most clues are in the environment – a smashed window, a book on the occult, a family photograph. Some clues, however, require Ronan’s ghostly abilities to collect.
Some clues are ghostly fragments of the past, which Ronan must “reveal” by holding R2. Once they are revealed, you can collect them as normal, sometimes triggering a memory. Other clues require Ronan to possess a human, so that he can read their thoughts, look through their eyes, or even manipulate them into remembering a fact. Other clues require Ronan to choose between a number of relevant options to find the most important fact – like a list of room numbers, or a certain person in a picture. There is even a simple dialogue system in place that can give Ronan insight into what other ghosts might have witnessed. The clue finding system is actually quite robust and comprehensive, feeling varied enough to be engaging but familiar enough to be accessible.
Once you have located clues, Ronan must come to a conclusion based on what he’s found. Putting clues together at the conclusion of an investigation is generally easy, but always satisfying. When you feel ready to solve the puzzle at hand, pressing the button prompt brings up a screen stating a question and spreading out a number of relevant clues. Some of the clues are red herrings, some point to other clues, and some are critical. You don’t need to find all available clues in an area to solve a mystery – just those necessary to come to the correct conclusion. Paying attention to contextual elements of when and where the clue was found, what Ronan or other characters say or do regarding the clue, and reading the clue’s text description in the clue revision screen points you in the correct direction.
Most of the time, the answer is relatively straight forward for those paying attention to what’s going on, and an observant player will never find themselves stuck on an investigation. That you cannot “fail” an investigation or come to the “wrong” conclusion is an issue some may have with the game, and I can empathise with that position. I would have liked a branching storyline or some kind of evolving plot based on mistakes made during investigation, but Murdered: Soul Suspect is unashamedly a linear game. I doubt having multiple story paths would have enhanced the strength or cohesion of the plot, and the clue-finding gameplay makes you always feel like the driving force of the story, but some actual narrative consequences for mistakes would have been welcome.
On top of investigating the Bell Killer case, Ronan faces a more supernatural and active threat – demons. These ugly black and orange creatures are ghostly forces that pursue the more ensouled dead. Demons chase and feed off ghosts, including Ronan. In some areas of the game, demons will stalk the halls looking for an easy meal in Ronan. In his ghostly state, Ronan is incapable of traditional combat – instead, fighting demons is a cat and mouse affair. Killing demons follows the pattern of hiding in the spiritual remnants of other ghosts, using walls to sneaking up behind a demon, then killing it with a button combination QTE. Holding R1 lets Ronan see demons and their cone of vision through walls, helping in the predator/prey dynamic. Using distractions and walls to your advantage helps, considering that demons are powerful and able to kill Ronan rather quickly.
Demon combat is rare, with Ronan only having to deal with between two and four enemies at a time. Thankfully, it’s used sparingly enough to not get repetitive, and offers something inoffensively different for players to do as they make their way through the world.
Another of Ronan’s ability is to disrupt electronics in the environment – a skill known as poltergeisting. Poltergeisting things is generally inconsequential – most of the time characters completely ignore a malfunctioning object, even when they’re right next to it. This changes in set sections, where your poltergeist powers are used to distract guards. It’s a somewhat glaring inconsistency, demonstrating some of the more obvious gamey parts and segments of world. Sometimes you must use your poltergeist abilities to affect electronic locks and surveillance cameras, necessary for opening paths for your human ally.
These “stealth” segments are actually surprisingly interesting, if not complex or sophisticated. Having an invisible, intangible, inaudible guide yelling out instructions to a hiding bodied friend starkly demonstrates just how unnatural Ronan’s condition and relationship with Joy is. Stealth segments are essentially a game of distraction and instruction, making guards look one way while you tell Joy to move. It is very simple, but thankfully brief, easy, and used sparsely enough to not get repetitive.
Another element to Murdered’s puzzle gameplay is the environment itself. On occasion, Ronan is forced to navigate his way around obstacles that he can’t pass through or reach. Sometimes this means possessing spirit remnants on the side of a gap. Other times it involves possessing a cat.
That’s right, you can possess a cat.
As a cat, you can climb through small holes, wriggle through vents, jump on top of things, and even climb vines and fences to reach areas you can’t normally get to. And, more importantly, you can meow.
As in, there is a button dedicated to meowing.
Meowing doesn’t do anything special, apart from making you melt from the cute.
Towards the end of the game, Ronan acquires a short range teleport skill, akin to Dishonored’s Blink. This teleport ability is unsurprisingly quite useful, allowing Ronan to pass through gaps in normally unpassable ghost walls to get to hidden collectables. Teleport can be used at will, and unlimitedly, but to prevent it becoming too overpowered in demon hunting sections, it takes a second to charge up.
Aside from the main story crimes you must solve to progress, there are a handful of additional, optional puzzles you can take on. Talking to some of the lost spirits mournfully hanging around town will give you the option to help them pass on, generally by solving the means of their death. These puzzles take the same format as the main story – you find the scene, find the clues, and solve the mystery. None of the side missions are particularly taxing, but they do offer more chances to test your skills at connecting clues. Other spirits simply hang around to offer their tragic stories, which can be accessed via a rudimentary dialogue tree system.
Also scattered around the place are a number of collectable items. From clues about the Bell Killer, to the personal musings of your dead wife Julie and retellings of Ronan’s relationship with her, to hidden objects that reveal eerie ghost stories, the collectibles add another thing to do in Salem. Much of this side content is relatively easily found, but the notes – especially Julie’s notes – add an extra element of depth to the world. My favourite were the ghost story collectibles. Each story area has its own hidden objects that you must reveal and collect. When you find all the parts – usually between ten and fifteen in each “level” – you are rewarded with a creepy story about that particular place. For example, the first apartment building has some hidden boilers that, when all are found, trigger a story that will make you not want to shower ever again. Each of these horror stories is entertaining, and well worth the digression it takes to find all the pieces.
I would have liked a little more side content, though. Salem feels a little too empty and small. While it isn’t an open world game, and the main town hub is generally a transitional place between story settings which you are mostly free to explore with a few extra things to find, Salem’s rich supernatural history (or at least the game’s imagining of it) is underrepresented in the main hub of the town itself. Each plot area does a lot more to evoke the feeling of a deeply haunted tragic place than the town itself, which feels disappointing considering how much effort has gone to construct a genuinely rich and engaging place.
A lot of work has gone into visually creating the mood and look of a ghost-addled town. Salem looks like the typical image of a haunted American town, steeped in bloody Quaker history and tragedy. Murdered: Soul Suspect has a distinctly noire atmosphere, weighing heavy like the night-time fog. Technically, it looks good on the PS4, but not outstanding. The creaking edges of Unreal Engine 3 are beginning to show, with visuals not quite matching up to next-gen expectations. I also noticed a number of framerate dips – nothing too serious, but below what I’d expect from the look of the game. Most of the main characters are modelled and animated exceptionally, especially facial animation, which helps emphasise the emotions of characters. Unfortunately, animation quality is a little inconsistent when it comes to randomly generated NPCs found on the streets – they all walk very strangely.
Sound-wise, Murdered: Soul Suspect is rather good. Voice actors give nuanced and believable performances, with Ronan’s unexpected intelligence subtly present beneath his bad-boy cynicism, and Joy’s naiveté hidden behind her aggressive get-them-first attitude. All major cast members perform well, although some of the dialogue and the thoughts of NPCs repeating in the background. Murdered’s soundtrack is subtle and eerie. I found I hardly noticed there was music at all, which, in this case, is a good thing, as it obviously enhanced the mood without becoming obvious or obtrusive.
Murdered: Soul Suspect has no pretensions. It is a linear mystery story, told well. You might not find much replayability here, but the six or so hours it takes to wander through the plot plus a few extra hours to find all the collectables is plenty entrancing. That a game can deliver a strongly directed mystery narrative, engaging clue-finding gameplay that actually makes you feel involved in the discovery process, and never feel padded or old is rather special. While some more additional content and a tiny bit more polish would not have gone astray, Murdered: Soul Suspect elegantly delivers on its promise of telling a strong mystery story through an interactive format.