Murdered: Soul Suspect - Brutal Backlog

February 4, 2019
Also on: PC, Xbox One
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Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.

For a long time I’ve been a sucker for a detective story and a bad pun — I can’t state that enough. I vaguely remember following the trailers for Airtight Games’ Murdered: Soul Suspect before it was released back in 2014, but as it got a bit of a kicking when it came out, I decided not to bother with it. Fast-forward a couple years and it popped up on my PSN store homepage, presumably cursed to wander the earth for all eternity at a discounted price. It’s still a detective story. It’s still got a terrible pun in the title. I’m still a sucker for those things.

We are gathered here today in memory of Murdered: Soul Suspect.

Not even as a ghost could Ronan be freed from the fedora’s icy grip.

Ten Minutes In

Salem, MA. Detective Ronan O’Connor is not having a good night. We meet him being thrown from a second storey window by a mystery assailant, before being shot multiple times as he’s dying on the ground outside. After this stylish, high-energy opening gambit, Ronan’s life flashes before your eyes in a montage — each significant moment in his life commemorated with a tattoo on his body, which the camera dives into to reveal the backstory, The Illustrated Man-style. Wretched childhood? Got a tattoo for that. First time in prison? Got a tattoo for that. Second time in prison, turning your life around, getting married, joining the police, your wife’s death… and so on. Tattoos, all of them. It’s a surprisingly good way to introduce the character, as after this short cutscene I know a lot about Ronan’s life (but also that he’s a grade A cornball).

After scraping his ghost up off the floor and leaving his body behind, Ronan has been informed by a ghostly Wednesday Addams look-alike that he needs to solve his own murder before he can join his wife in the afterlife. Without even stopping to get a tattoo to mark his demise, Ronan is investigating his own murder scene.

Just stick your hand out, Ronan. It’s not rocket surgery.

Twenty Minutes In

There are a couple of David Cage-influenced scenes early on, making you wrestle with the joysticks to accomplish little movements, like reaching for a door handle or realigning your spirit with your dead body. And what better way to incorporate this style of gameplay, than by turning a simple motion into a task which forces you to work harder than a cat burying shit on concrete?

That aside, the core game is promising so far. I’m piecing together clues and looking for witnesses who might have witnessed Ronan’s murder, which seems to have come at the hands of the ‘Bell Killer’ — a serial murderer who has been piling the bodies up across Salem in recent weeks, and Ronan was just a bit too hot on his trail. You can possess people and read their thoughts, or even help a police interview along by selecting pertinent information to jog witnesses’ memories. These little bubble prompts are built up by clues you have already gathered, although it’s not always clear what you’re meant to be nudging the conversation towards. You get three chances to work out what the game wants you to pick each time, so it’s not too much trouble — a little trial and error never hurt anybody, but more intuitive design and phrasing would have helped with casting yourself as a passable sleuth.

Gather evidence to influence the person you’ve possessed.

Forty Minutes In

I’m tracking down a runaway witness who might hold the key to the Bell Killer’s identity, and this trek through Salem gives me my first real look at the world — and how interesting it can be to see the ghostly plane superimposed on the living world. Although not all walls can be walked through (attributed in-game as being consecrated, due to the religious history of the city), other fences, vehicles and people can be strolled straight through by your spirit body. It looks great, complemented by the ectoplasm splashes you leave behind as you pass through. Spectral objects — glowing buildings and relics of the past — force you to find alternative paths. This in itself isn’t too interesting, but the visualisation of what your ghost form can and can’t interact with is neat, and reminds you of the different eras of the city still being felt. You aren’t the only thing in Salem which hasn’t yet joined the next life, and other lost souls can be found wandering the streets searching for meaning in their former lives.

I encountered the first of these ghosts down by the sea: an amnesiac lady dressed in 1900s attire. Acting as a psychopomp, your side-quest is to piece together her last days and the cause of her death to help her pass on. It’s relentlessly straightforward — just checking out the surrounding areas for items of interest (an old newspaper clipping, a memorial), but not much more than a point-and-click puzzle to collect the pieces (albeit one with really picky detection: I circled a significant looking bouquet of flowers for a good minute before it would let me examine it for clues).

The sidequests are simple but sentimental as you help others to accept their fate.

One Hour In

I’ve possessed a cat in order to leave a building through some cramped ventilation shafts (press triangle to miaow). It’s a cutesy little sequence, but trying to make the cat do anything more than walk in a straight line is an issue — jumping onto tables requires a lot of shuffling back and forth to get the cat in right position, like you’re playing a PS1 Tomb Raider game.

There’s also a number of demons roaming this area — I encountered one or two earlier: ghastly robed Dementors, ready to suck the energy from your spirit should they notice you. There’s more of them now, but these scenarios don’t give you the tense stealth action I think the developers were going for. You can conceal yourself in little pockets of ‘ghost residue’ until the demons pass, or mash a button where there are several of these hiding places grouped together, to travel across a room. Popping out behind a demon means you initiate a two-button quick time event to tear it apart, but there’s no difficulty involved here.

As you can see demons through walls by activating your ‘detective vision’ (Rocksteady should really have tried to patent the use of this, when they popularised the mechanic in their Batman games), I’ve taken to just legging it across a room when I can see their models are facing the opposite direction.

File photo of Airtight Games being jumped by J. K. Rowling’s copyright lawyers.

Four Hours In

The game has just been continuing the last couple of events I’ve described, really. Look for clues, eavesdrop on some police officers, possess the odd cat, avoid some demons, help some old souls move on. The plot is a bit more robust, if generic, as you follow the Bell Killer investigation up and down Salem. The murderer is tracking down mediums for an as yet unknown reason, and visiting the resting places of several of the victims treats you to some ghoulish flashbacks to their deaths as Ronan pieces more parts of the puzzle together.

I could really do with a mini-map though, as when you leave one area to head to another the signposting isn’t always there, and relies on you to remember where you’ve been before when revisiting old haunts (and don’t rely on the pause menu for an objective reminder — my game has been telling me to “Exit the attic” since my first hour of gameplay).

The gameworld is nice to look at, and contains incredibly detailed building interiors, but being set at night with a largely desaturated colour palette means the outdoors avenues and alleyways don’t manage to differentiate themselves or allow you to gain much familiarity with the place.

DLC suggestion: Press circle to push a glass off a table, press X to gip up a hairball.

Six Hours In

After connecting a Bell Killer clue to Salem’s bloody history of witch hunts, I’m investigating a local museum for clues. Here the demons and cat bits are (mostly) left aside, and I get to just explore the grounds and examine old artefacts and torture devices. It’s clear a lot of research has gone into making this section of the game, with discoverable articles and accounts of the witch hunts packed with considerable detail and real world facts.

Everything I’ve seen so far starts to fall into place with how it’s connected, and even the Wednesday Addams girl I met at the start of the game is revealed to be Abigail Williams, one of the accusers who led to the trials in the first place (I’ll admit that I only knew she was a real person because of the metal band named after her). For all its gameplay issues, Murdered: Soul Suspect manages to tie its plot and setting together — playing as a ghost proves to be more than just a twist on the familiar detective story, as your investigation is underpinned by your ability to interact with the past.

I finished the game around the six-hour mark, and the storyline saved the best for last in the final few chapters. Red herrings are cast aside and a few final shock twists round off the story in an unexpectedly satisfying way.

This is not the case history of someone yet to exit the attic, I assure you.

Final Verdict

Murdered: Soul Suspect is a game of many things, most of which are broken or don’t add anything. There isn’t a way to fail any objectives, as you just pick up clues until the game tells you what to do next. The demons waste your time more than invigorate you. You can possess anyone you see and listen to their thoughts, but outside of set characters they’ll be repeating the same non-committal lines of dialogue. There aren’t any branching paths or wrong decisions to make, as the game will snap to a cutscene for any real moment of realisation regarding the Bell Killer case. Despite all this, the plot was enjoyable to follow, and the quantity and quality of the evidence that I’d dug up along the way meant by the end of the game I had a case file hefty enough to stun a burglar.

Outside of Guardians of the Galaxy, there aren’t a huge number of well-known Ronans. Ronan Keating, praise be, taught the world that life is a rollercoaster. In Murdered: Soul Suspect, our Ronan O’Connor doesn’t have as much to offer — for him, and you as the player, life is more like a slowly moving conveyor belt, chaperoning you safely along to the ending. While I think it’s worth a pop once the story gets going, if it’s gameplay you’re after, you’re digging up the wrong grave.

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Worth playing? MAYBE - if there's nothing better on your shelf.
Matt Jordan

I first met all three generations of the Blazkowicz family in the 1990s, and we stay in touch to this day. A fan of trippy comics, genre-heavy storytelling, and the IMDB trivia pages. I’ve never beaten that level where you ride an ostrich in Sega’s The Lion King game.