A Case Gone Cold
A good murder mystery keeps its audience engaged, on edge, and guessing incorrectly until the killer is revealed. As the puzzle pieces come together and the list of suspects narrows, our vested interest in the mystery almost always turns into a competition of trying to be one step ahead of the detectives in the story, or the first friend in a group to say “I know who the killer is!” Our sleuthing skills determine whether we wear the proverbial deerstalker well or look foolish in it – that’s part of the fun.
Airtight Games’ Murdered: Soul Suspect delivers a hell of a mystery for armchair detectives to crack, starting and ending with the surreal concept of tracking down your own killer. The opening sequence shows protagonist Ronan O’Connor gunned down by the Bell Killer, a serial killer who has brought fear and death to the dreary streets of Salem, Massachusetts.
Ronan’s death isn’t told in a flash-forward sequence, a dream, or an event that can be undone. You play as his spirit, trapped in a purgatorial plane of existence. Before Ronan can move on to heaven, he must take care of an unresolved issue that is haunting him.
Ronan believes that his ticket to the cloud kingdom can be obtained if he brings the Bell Killer to justice. With Salem's body bags piling up, and the police finding no leads, he must use his newly gifted ghost powers to uncover clues living eyes could never see.
Many of the murder-mystery genre’s classic tropes are used as a narrative backbone for this tale, but Ronan's story is anything but rote. Paranormal concepts are woven into it to establish a unique arc that clings to dark themes and unexpected developments. Airtight's scribes penned an engaging story that bounces between detective pulp and ghost story – a strange mishmash that ends up working well, and is carried by a great cast of characters and a plot that ramps up and gets creepier as it unravels. Many of the horror elements found in Peter Jackson’s brilliant The Frighteners film are present, and are tapped at the right times to keep the experience strong and unpredictable. One of those pieces is the interaction Ronan has with fellow ghosts. Many of these lost souls have sad stories to tell, and are in desperate need of help if they ever hope to ascend.
The thrills tied to the plot points almost always fizzle out when you are asked to become an active participant in them. Although Ronan is technically a detective, the gameplay Airtight delivers assumes that the player has the deductive skills and intelligence of a toddler.
All of the murder investigations are designed in a way to give Ronan freedom to study the crime scene how he sees fit. His goal is to uncover clues that will hopefully create some kind of lead pointing to the whereabouts or identity of the Bell Killer. Just analyzing the environment can be incredibly frustrating, as interactive items don’t always highlight when Ronan approaches them. All too often I would be forced to circle the item of desire ad nauseam until a prompt would appear on it. Once all of the required elements of a murder are studied and catalogued, Ronan is tasked to select the pieces that matter most and point to some kind of answer. You hear him say things along the lines of “Where did I see that stake again?” When that question is proposed, a dozen different images flash onto the screen. One of these images leads to an answer. Here’s the kicker: The stake is only displayed on one image. How could you not pick it? These clues are as easy to piece together as a children's puzzle. And no, the difficulty tied to them never elevates over the course of the entire game.
If you somehow answer one of these riddles incorrectly, the only penalty delivered is a lower detective rating. You can’t fail a crime scene, no matter how hard you try. Some of these investigations ask you to study apparitions that reveal horrific events that occurred hundreds of years ago in Salem's past. Most of the time, this means pointing out the obvious, such as selecting a word that best describes the expression seen on a teenage girl’s face. She’s clearly not happy, so she must be terrified. Would you look at that...I solved the puzzle. In the end, the murder investigations push the player into pointless busywork just to deliver some kind of illusion of interactivity, if it can even be called that.
Like Telltale Games’ latest batch of adventure games, Murdered: Soul Suspect is a better story than it is a game, which is a shame as Airtight implemented interesting ghost-inspired gameplay that exists outside of the central investigations.
Since Ronan is a ghost, he cannot interact with most objects in his environment. He can run directly through cars, lampposts, and walls, but cannot pass through any item that has been consecrated, a rule that Airtight uses well to establish gameplay boundaries and progression paths.
The most physical interaction Ronan is allowed is the ability to possess small electronics. Turning on a fan can blow paperwork off a desk, revealing a series of photographs and a hidden clue. Possessing an object like a television set may draw someone’s attention – a light puzzle element that is tapped effectively in a variety of ways.
Ronan can also leap into the body of a living being. He cannot force his host to move, but he can listen to their thoughts, and force them to focus on a specific topic that he may need an answer for. These gameplay interactions are fun and used sparingly enough that they remain fresh throughout the entire experience. Unfortunately, they all lead down the same path: to more horribly executed investigations.
Ronan doesn't engage in any forms of gunplay or melee combat, but is still pushed to dispatch enemies from time to time. Demons roam the spectral plane, looking for ghosts to feed on. These terrifying beasts move slowly, and can only be taken down by sneaking up behind them and performing an execution move. The demon encounters bring an odd element of stealth to the mix, and add a little intensity to exploration, but they never deliver a serious threat. The demons can be dispatched with little effort, and you only have to deal with a few of them at any given time. Since their field of vision is focused on what is directly in front of them, alerting them is almost more challenging than taking them down.
When Murdered: Soul Suspect is at its best, the player has no hand in it. Its biggest strength is the seed planted within the first few seconds of play: the quest to track down the Bell Killer. That narrative thread gets better as it goes, thanks in large part to a great budding relationship between Ronan and a living teenage girl named Joy, who we learn is a medium – a person who can interact with both the living and dead. Ronan and Joy have secrets to tell, and end up being just as interesting of narrative focal points as the Bell Killer.
This is one of those games that I find myself raving about one second, and dragging through the mud the next. Is it worth your time? I think so. Despite its numerous shortcomings, I was entertained to the point of not wanting to put it down. It’s a satisfying murder mystery and a sub-par game all rolled in one. The story won out in the end for me. If you can tolerate the shoddy investigation gameplay, there’s plenty of fun (and wrong guessing) to be had.