Murdered: Soul Suspect makes a bold choice right from the start by favoring information over action. It's unusual to play as a street-smart detective and not have to worry about aiming, reloading, or even how to throw a punch, instead focusing your efforts on stepping back and thinking about your environment. Solving the game's many mysteries will require patience, thoroughness, observation, and thought - a mixture that works well in service of Murdered's excellent story, but one that finds itself at odds with the final chapter of the tale. A few understandable – though regretful – design choices, combined with technical snafus all but destroy Murdered's emotional impact as it thunders towards its dramatic conclusion.
An entertaining curiosity, Murdered ends up being a ghost of its own potential.
As recently deceased Detective Ronan O'Connor, your goal is to figure out who shoved you out a window and filled you full of bullets. Not that you wouldn't want to know who took you out anyway, but your killer also appears to be the Bell Killer, who's been leaving a trail of bodies all over Salem, Massachusetts, a town with a rich history of gruesome death. If you can wrap everything up, you'll have settled the unfinished business keeping you tied to the mortal realm and be able to join your beloved wife Julia on the other side.
One small problem with fulfilling that goal is the fact that you're dead, and while you can see all sorts of ghostly points of interest – trapped souls, memories, even objects from Salem's past – interacting with the world requires a level of corporeality that you severely lack. Recognizing your limitations, you team up with Joy, a teenage medium whose interests happen to align with your own. Though at times she brushes up against the cookie-cutter trope of a smart-aleck teen with a quick wit and sharp tongue, she's far more relatable than that, expressing genuine fear and concern about the bizarre things happening around her. Her snarky comments feel real and as much a method to bull her way through scary events as they are the assumed world-weariness that has long been the personal identity of intelligent teenagers. She's a good counterpoint to Ronan, who is Blandy McBlandercop, despite his many tattoos, felonious history and questionable choice in hats.
Murdered plays out almost like a particularly robust visual novel, with your role being to facilitate the presentation of the narrative. As Ronan investigates first his own murder and then several others, he travels from location to location, searching for clues and trying to piece together what they might mean. Although Ronan can't touch anything, he can glean some information by possessing people, which lets him eavesdrop on conversations, see through their eyes, and sometimes even influence their actions. He can also reveal the remnants of strong memories, restoring them to their full form and learning more about the event that created the thought. It's also worth chatting up the local spirit population for potential leads, though they're usually more interested in their own problems.
Once you've collected enough clues to conclude a particular investigation, you'll be asked a question, such as which piece of evidence indicates the killer's next location, or which items are most relevant to the crime that took place. These mini quizzes require a small amount of thought and consideration, elevating your actions slightly above a simple collect-a-thon. The overarching story of the Bell Killer is a well told, satisfying mystery that doesn't hoard its secrets or throw too many ridiculous red herrings at you. Murdered is a short game – you can handily complete it in less than 10 hours – but its length serves the narrative perfectly, letting it play out in a way that makes sense before spinning up into its thrilling conclusion.
You'll find more than just clues to the Bell Killer case as you prowl around Salem, though. Each location has its own specific set of collectibles connected to a ghost story. Find every last ghostly water heater hidden in the apartment building, for example, and you'll hear about a man who wished he'd never tried to track down where those stains on the carpet were coming from. The items are exceptionally well hidden, and the ghost stories are delightfully creepy, so tracking them down always feels worthwhile and fun.
If only the same could be said of every other trinket littering Salem's streets. You'll stumble over all manner of collectibles as you traverse the city: details about your killer, your life, your wife, the history of Salem, the history of witchcraft, your co-workers, even spectral graffiti, all there waiting to be collected and totaled. As much as I enjoy giving into gaming OCD and finding every last trackable item, I burned out on locating all this extra junk about halfway through the game. It adds to Murdered in the most minor of ways, providing a bit of history there, some backstory there. None of it is necessary to complete the game, so you can safely pick up stuff or not, depending on how much delight you derive from completionism.
With so much to find, it's good that Murdered lets you take as long as you like to poke around, even letting you revisit the locations of completed investigations should you want to track down those last few hidden goodies. The languid pace also helps lessen the frustration that might otherwise be caused by the game's finicky controls, which frequently demand that you stand in exactly the right spot (with exactly the right camera angle) before letting you interact with an object. Of course, sometimes that object doesn't bother showing up at all, remaining stubbornly invisible, perhaps in an attempt to steal the spotlight from the ghost getting top billing. An object being visible and easily accessible is no guarantee that interacting with it will work, however; I ran into more than a few ghosts who supposedly had something to tell me, yet stalwartly ignored me when I selected the "Talk" prompt.
None of the technical flubs hampered my investigation (at least not for too long), but they certainly made battling demons more difficult than it had to be. Occasionally, Ronan will encounter demons which he must dispatch by sneaking up on them and executing them from behind. You can "hide" in one of the many wispy ghosts floating around by possessing them, letting a demon pass on by until you can approach it safely, but sometimes the ghosts don't show up and even when they do, the controls to possess them don't always work.
Every encounter with demons is a chore. They're not clever enough to require much strategy, they're not scary enough to add atmosphere, and they're not varied enough to be creative. They're roadblocks to the story, a threat created solely because, hey, what the hell else can you do to stymie a dead guy? For most of the game, encounters with demons are mercifully brief, but they ramp up at the end, just as the plot is reaching its genuinely exciting climax. Any excitement I had for finally confronting the killer was all but gone by the time I'd worked my way through several increasingly aggravating demon-killing sequences.
Murdered:Soul Suspect very nearly works, but its disparate elements can't pull together at the moment they most desperately need to. The fights with demons feel utterly at odds with the rest of the game, and their thick inclusion at the end, when the story is its most thrilling, is a huge frustration. Furthermore, the technical gaffes will more than likely lead to you being forced to replay the denouement of the game – thus completely robbing it of any emotional weight. When Ronan's life is on the line, these technical issues graduate from mere annoyance to controller-throwing rage. Acquired taste though its investigative gameplay may be, Murdered gets everything nearly exactly right until its final act, at which point it seems determined to wreck everything it's achieved.
That said, the mystery at the heart of Murdered really is excellent, and putting the pieces together crime scene by crime scene should satisfy many an armchair sleuth. The hidden ghost stories are well worth finding, and though Ronan is a bit of a dull fish, the people who surround him are worth getting to know, however briefly. With some truly great ideas and some unfortunate choices, Murdered: Soul Suspect and its ghostly hero is neither heaven nor hell, but something in between.
This review is based on a pre-release PSN download of the PlayStation 4 version of Murdered: Soul Suspect, provided by Square-Enix. Images: Square-Enix.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.