Murdered: Soul Suspect sets an intriguing and unique tableau: Its gloomy world feels like a cross between the supernatural story-driven adventure of Alan Wake, the crime-solving mechanics of L.A. Noire and the character-building story of Heavy Rain or Beyond Two Souls. The game straddles the line between intrigue and monotony, but fails to ever really come to life despite its promising premise. Ronan O’Connor, the recently deceased hard-boiled detective and star of Murdered, ends up being an apt metaphor for the game: As a recently risen ghost, he’s neither alive nor dead.
Players are charged with solving Ronan’s violent murder in the opening moments of the game at the hands of the Bell Killer, a masked man possessed of preternatural strength who tosses him out of a fourth-floor window.
Upon waking on the pavement below, Ronan learns there are some things he must set right before he can shuffle from this Earthly coil. The only problem is, he’s a ghost. Not being able to touch anything makes it a little tricky to investigate crime scenes, at least in the traditional manner. Fortunately, some new ghostly powers help make up for that small inconvenience.
Chief among them is the ability to possess people and read their thoughts, which reveals clues and new leads. Ronan can also influence the people he possesses to reveal further information by reminding them of other clues they’ve seen – a flash of the masked killer can, for example, cause a witness to recall where she saw him heading.
Ronan can also see the ghost world that exists analogously to the real world. And given that the tale takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, where the infamous 17th century witch trials took place, there’s an awful lot of ghost world hovering around.
Salem is full of roaming spirits, many of whom need help resolving their own lingering situations before they can rest in peace. Aside from solving his own murder, Ronan has numerous optional side missions to choose from, ranging from helping a girl find her killers to deciphering whether another’s boyfriend cheated on her or not.
Deductions aside, Murdered isn’t entirely bereft of action. There be demons here – ghosts who have lingered too long under unresolved circumstances, who are now ravenous monsters looking to feed on, er, healthy ghosts.
These horrific spirits need to be avoided at all costs, since Ronan stands little chance if detected. To get away from them, he needs to slip into clouds of spirit residue, then sneak up from behind to suck them into oblivion in true Ghostbusters fashion.
Yet, while Ronan’s story and the characters he meets along the way – including the young medium Joy, who is one of the few Salem residents who can actually see and communicate with him – are interesting enough, Murdered doesn’t really work as a game thanks to a linear set-up that isn’t challenging in the least.
In a typical crime scene, Ronan pieces together what happened by looking at clues strewn about – say, a gun lying on the floor – and checking out reports through the eyes of police officers, or by deciphering audio impressions attached to certain objects. The player must then guess the correct order of events, or pick the right clues to suggest to witnesses, so that they can point to further leads.
Unfortunately, there’s no downside to guessing incorrectly. If you mess up the order of clues while lining up the events of a crime, you just start over until you get it right. With no penalties for being wrong. This system means you can’t help but eventually get it right, which takes all the pleasure out of actually deducing things correctly in the first place.
Similarly, the game often contradicts its own “ghost power” rules. Ronan, we learn early on, is able to pass through real-world walls thanks to his ghostliness, but not the shimmering walls of the ghost world. With that sort of logic, he should be able to go wherever he wants, but that’s not the case. The story is confined to a very narrow and defined section – you can only go where the story wants you to, and when it wants you to.
The demon action scenes, which are relatively few and far between, also seem to be tacked on to bring some level of excitement to the game. Getting around the monsters and dispatching them, however, never proves to be all that difficult. With the danger never amping up and the monsters never incorporated into the story, they feel out of place.
Ronan, a former criminal himself, has an interesting backstory but it also never figures into the plot, other than through collectible journal entries by his wife that are hidden around Salem. There are many such collectibles, with some unlocking new ghost stories, but there’s little reason to go back and replay the game in order to find them. The protagonist, meanwhile, ends up as a semi-formed generic gumshoe who we’d like to know more about, but never get the chance to.
The developers at Airtight Games and Square Enix Japan should be commended for trying something different amid a sea of console action titles, but this effort doesn’t feel fully formed on any front. The good news: Murdered is a short game, with the main mystery taking around seven or eight hours to solve. The bad news: This flawed and short game is on sale for the usual full price ($69.99 on PS4 at Best Buy).