Who killed Detective Ronan O’Connor? What motive did they have? How will he complete “unfinished business” to escape purgatory? And why does he carry around a ghostly pack of cigerrettes? Did the smokes die too? Can ciggies die at all?
These are the questions I asked myself, among many more, while attending a preview event for Airtight Games’ upcoming Murdered: Soul Suspect. Having too many questions can be a troubling sign, but in this case it’s a good thing. Murdered is, after all, a noir detective thriller with a supernatural twist. It’s reliant on mysteries and twists and questions to sell much of the premise and atmosphere. So no, I don’t know who killed our grizzled detective protagonist. And no, I don’t fully understand why he’s trapped in a purgatory and what he needs to do to escape. But I am very interested to learn the answers, even if I’m fairly certain I’ll never know what the deal is behind the ghostly smokes.
Murdered: Soul Suspect takes place in the historically spooky though now fairly modern town of Salem, our protagonist (anti-hero might be more appropriate) a grizzled noir cliche with a damaged past, now falling from a damaged window to the cold, concrete ground below. Murdered starts with a bang, literally and figuratively, killing off the hero within the first few minutes.
Luckily for O’Connor death holds more secrets than the killer him/her/itself, releasing him from his fleshy, mortal shell in favour of ghostly appendages. O’Connor is surprisingly less disturbed by this turn of events than I think I would be, but I’ll put down to a thick skin from a life of hardened crime fighting. Regardless, O’Connor quickly finds himself coming face-to-face with other ghastly inhabitants of this world-between-worlds, and tasked with wrapping up “unfinished business” to exit purgatory and go wherever it is souls go.
I’m a pretty big fan of story driven, detective-like thrillers, and I think the concept behind Murdered is super neat. It reminds me quite a bit of the excellent Ghost Trick, emphasising mystery and investigation but having you do so from the perspective of an supernatural character. We’re not just trying to find the killer, we’re doing so knowing there’s probably some spooky twist and deeper meaning to the whole thing. For example, I for one don’t buy O’Connor’s belief that “unfinished business” means finding his killers identity and bringing them to justice. There’s more to it. I feel it in my bones.
The Ghost Trick similarities aren’t limited to the themes and setting, but play too, which also straddles some of the ideas often seen in Quantic Dream’s interactive stories. From what I can gather Murdered as a whole is generally structured around two sequences: investigation and exploration/stealth. The former is where we find the strong similarities to Ghost Trick and Quantic Dream’s work. These sequences seem to give O’Connor an area of playable space, usually a crime scene, with the objective of finding and analysing evidence in order to come to the most logical conclusion of what went down.
Finding evidence seems fairly straight forward, early on at least. Walk around, look for anything interesting in the environment, and inspect it to see if it’s contextually collectable “evidence”. A hole in the wall as a sign of struggle. Ammunition cases littering the ground. That kind of stuff. More interesting is collecting evidence from people, which usually requires possessing them and manipulating their thoughts to your advantage. Early on we had a hysterical murder witness calmed down to provide police with information that helped expand our search, and had a cop move his hands from covering a photo album then looked from his perspective to see what it showed. This kind of NPC interaction seems to be the key to uncovering a lot of the meaty details in crime scenes, manipulating thoughts, listening to their subconscious, seeing from their perspective, and so on.
Once you’ve accumulated enough evidence you can “finish” a crime scene by going through your collection and working out for yourself which pieces of evidence are most relevant and thus form a picture of what happened. It’s a neat system that could make for some really interesting adventure-like puzzling, since the game doesn’t really spell out solutions or what you’re supposed to do. That is to say when you’re going through your evidence you still have to think about the evidence yourself, not just collect it all and have the game automatically solve the crime scene for you. I only saw early game stuff, which did seem fairly easy, but I’m keen to see how it all plays out. The crime scene sequences have a lot of potential if the puzzles remain clever and balanced, and the writing as a whole holds up. I’m also really interested to see if there’s any long term consequences to some of the NPC manipulation. Make a witness think something of your choice seems like it could bite you on the arse later, but I’m not sure how much of that choice/consequence narrative design Murdered embodies.
When you’re not combing over crime scenes you’ll be exploring environments in ghost form avoiding malicious supernatural entities and looking for more friendly ghosts to converse with. The layout is pretty neat: it’s clearly structured and semi-linear I guess, able to walk through some walls but not others due to ghostly logistics that excuse game design. But there’s enough freedom to find optional areas, sometimes with NPCs allowing for a voyeuristic insight into the their lives, that grants at the very least a successful illusion of freedom and control. The aforementioned malicious entities are spirits who’ve lingered too long in limbo, becoming trapped there, feeding off other lost souls. A very simple “hide in the energy thing” stealth system has you moving out of their sight and if you can get up behind them destroying them with take downs. At first I thought the concept was a bit silly, but it seems to work well enough, striking a balance between simplicity and agency. It’s not like the sequences play themselves or become too convoluted for their own good.
Additionally, and though we didn’t see much of it, ghostly figures from various historical eras can be seen and spoken to, sometimes providing information on the limbo you’re trapped in, other times sending you on optional side quests. The latter strikes me as a particularly interesting point, perhaps making good use of the semi-open level design and expanding the lore and story. Kind of like you’ve taken the role of ghost detective for all these wayward souls whether you like it or not.
I don’t think I took away any glaring negatives from my time with Murdered: Soul Suspect, so much as a little bit of scepticism for how the adventure as a whole will play out. Really, this is the roughest thing to judge, because so much of what Murdered is dependant on long term investment. It’s not like a shooter where you can feel very confident about the controls, hit feedback, encounter balance, and level design fairly early on and make a safe (if still unsure) assumption that the rest of the game will follow through. Murdered is so narrative and story driven that if those pieces don’t come together as a whole much of the game will fall apart.
I really love the investigation systems, but again quality will depend on the writing and design for other cases later in the game. Murdered needs to avoid falling into the trappings of investigations that are too convoluted and nonsensical in their solutions, or so easy they borderline play themselves. Being able to explore the environment, speak to NPCs, and undertake optional objectives could go a very long way in making the game world more immersive and expansive than a strictly linear design would be, but since we have no examples of these quests we’ve no way to tell how it works. Similarly, Murdered‘s tone and themes are also under scrutiny. This is a game with a dark story and cool ideas but nonetheless naturally and in my opinion unavoidably goofy premise. O’Connor is a walking cliche. The ghost smokes are hilarious. Yet both of these things have their own charm, adding to his character. Murdered will need to tread carefully along the line of taking itself seriously enough that it delivers on its premise and sometimes disturbing thmes, but not so seriously that the text book noir comes across more like misguided parody than just a bit of fun.
Still, I’m more optimistic coming from playing Murdered: Soul Suspect than I was going in having not. The idea is original enough, the game design properly emphasising puzzles and narrative over generic shootbang that we’ve become so attuned to. Even the stealth is fairly minimalist and nonintrusive. The writing is fine so far, but again I can’t judge until I play the final game for myself and see how all the narrative hooks tie together in the end. Murdered: Soul Suspect does have potential to be something really interesting and a lot of fun, as well as a properly original addition to Square-Enix’s portfolio. Lets hope it delivers.
Murdered: Soul Suspect will be out 5th of June for Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC.