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Let me run a plot by you.
In order to solve his own murder, deceased Salem police officer Ronan O’Connor must team up with a psychic teenage delinquent. The two unlikely allies will investigate crimes by gathering clues, reading glimpses of the past, and interviewing witnesses both living and dead. Can they stop the fearsome Bell Killer before he claims more victims?
No, it’s not a new show coming to television this fall — although if it were, I hope it would be called “Spirit of the Law.” It’s actually the setup for the latest project from developer Airtight Games (Dark Void), Murdered: Soul Suspect. The supernatural mystery game is out June 3 for PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 (which is the version I played).
And while Murdered’s admittedly wacky premise might scare some people off, it quickly establishes itself as a unique and ambitious title that’s worth playing if only to see how well it all works.
What you’ll like
The plot and characters
When you’re dealing with a game about a ghost solving his own murder, it’s easy to expect things to get ridiculous really quickly. And they surely do in Murdered, but you don’t really notice because it’s all handled so maturely.
Murdered feels like what would happen if 2010’s cult classic Deadly Premonition were more interested in telling a detective story than being an over-the-top homage to Twin Peaks. Murdered takes a chance on handling its silly subject matter with a straight face, and it pays off with a story that is intriguing, suspenseful, and ultimately human.
It works because the characters are grounded. Ronan’s “hard-nosed cop with a troubled past” is one of the biggest clichés in the detective genre, and also he’s a ghost, but I liked him almost immediately. And the more I learned about him, the more dimensional he became. It also helps that his motivation comes from sympathy and love rather than revenge, which would have been an easy and less satisfying choice for the developers to make.
Joy, Ronan’s ghost-whispering sidekick, is also surprisingly dimensional. I assumed she’d be the standard know-it-all wise-ass type, and to a certain extent she is, but she’s also a reluctant medium trying to avoid the hassle of taking the dead’s regrets and lack of closure upon herself. She’s a cool character, and she and Ronan play well off of each other.
Actually, it kind of occurs to me now that Murdered’s plot is basically the same as the Patrick Swayze/Whoopi Goldberg film Ghost, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s good.
Solving crimes with mad ghost skills
Ronan learns early on that death amplifies existing human skills into powerful ghostly abilities. And since he was a detective, this means that he can do all kinds of weird things to solve mysteries.
Each section of Murdered contains one or more crime scenes for Ronan to investigate, and some of this follows the standard “look at this bit of evidence on the ground.” But as a ghost detective, our hero can also glean information from sensing vague energies, possessing people to read their thoughts, and re-creating past events by studying psychic residue.
What that last bit means to you, the player, is that you’ll see ghostly shapes of things that happened during the crime and have to glean their significance. Once you’ve gathered enough clues, the game will prompt you to put the events in proper order so that you can figure out exactly what happened. While some investigations are more complicated than others, it’s always satisfying to piece things together and come to conclusions along with Ronan.
Occasionally, you’ll do some side quests for other ghosts who need help piecing together how they died, and these quick little one-off stories are all really cool, if a little disturbing sometimes. And more than that, they reinforce Ronan’s larger quest to get closure on his own death.
Do you know what I’m tired of in games? Locked doors.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of levels I’ve had to scour for ridiculously named keys or gems that open arbitrarily locked doors. It reeks of padding and needless frustration.
Murdered has exactly zero of these. Why? Because you’re a goddamned ghost, and you can just walk through that stuff. It’s awesome.
While a few rules govern what Ronan can and cannot ghost on through, they at least make sense. Outside doors and walls are off-limits unless they’re open, and that’s fine because otherwise the entire game world would have to be one unbroken map, and we couldn’t even begin to conceive of the load times there. The phantom detective also can’t go through other phantom things, and that makes sense because they’re made of the same ghost stuff that he is.
It all still amounts to map boundaries, but at least it feels like the developers put some thought into making it at least sound logical. Other than that, though, you can just go through everything, and this means that the game has some fun with established formulas.
For example, every once in a while you’ll have some light stealth when you try to take out some demons that want to swallow Ronan’s soul (think Dementors from Harry Potter).
To exorcise them, you have to sneak up undetected. But since you can see them through the walls that you can also walk through, this means that you don’t have to worry about corners or making a slow and deliberate approach; you can literally just sit on one side of a wall and step through when they float by. It’s not actually as easy as it sounds, however, since you have to do this out of the sight of any other demons in the area or they’ll gang up on you, but it sure beats having to crawl around every flipping pew in a church to get to the monster that’s five feet away.
Murdered also contains escort missions, but your ghosthood also helps out there. Instead of having to sneak around and also make sure your partner remains invisible, Ronan can just walk around willy-nilly and make phones ring to distract guards and clear a path for his escortee. It’s the least stress I’ve ever felt during one of those stupid things, and I appreciate it.
Ronan’s intangibility is a revelation for level design. It changes what the developer can do (no need to close off areas with arbitrary velvet ropes or chest-high walls) and lets players move around the map in new ways. Far from being a game-breaker, ghosting around permits you to truly go where you want and explore in whichever way you choose.
What you won’t like
The ridiculous amount of collectibles
Soul Suspect has a lot of collectibles, and you’ll either love them or hate them. I thought that they interfered with any sense of urgency the game manages to build since Ronan would say something like, “I have to get there now,” but I would add on, “just as soon as I make one more sweep of this building to make sure I didn’t miss anything.”
Every building you enter has a ghost story that you unlock by collecting a dozen or so artifacts around the level. You also have bits of backstory to read, information about various side characters, town history, world history, and Ronan’s own memories. It all amounts to almost 175 things to pick up, and it’s a bit of a drag.
The ghost stories are cool and creepy, and the historical information is often fascinating, but Murdered handles all of these fairly awkwardly. The hero’s dead wife’s memories are just pages scattered around the world, and while the personal lore is nice to know, the presentation is inelegant and distracting.
I was even ghosting around town and heard one random passerby comment on how nobody would bother to go looking for some of the collectibles. And if the game criticizes its own side stuff, why should I care?
The missing pieces
For all its cool gameplay and navigation, Soul Suspect has a few startling omissions. For starters, it has no map.
Those who buy the game’s special edition gain access to an online “Interactive strategy map” that give you the layout of every area and the locations of every collectible, but I see no reason to bring a second screen into this when a tab on the Pause menu would work just as well. I got lost more often than I should have, and it was really weird not to see such a standard game element.
The game could also use a look cursor. All I wanted was one tiny dot in the middle of the screen that would help me focus on things I want to examine or pick up. It has nothing now, and while I could usually get the prompts to appear with no problems, every once in a while, I found myself playing a “Nudge the Stick” minigame while I tried to find the exact camera angle that would let me hit the button to do the thing.
Neither of these break Murdered, but they’re unfortunate hiccups in an otherwise great presentation.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is one of the most surprisingly good games I’ve played in a long time. It manages to sell its bizarre premise and builds a solid, moving story out of it, and the plot-propelling investigations add immensely to the detective feel. Walking around as a ghost is clever and entertaining, and it even manages to inject variety into some of gaming’s most overused elements.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is out June 3 for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. The developer provided GamesBeat with a free PlayStation 4 download code for this review.