You’re a hard-nosed, gravel-voiced, ne'er-do-well-turned-detective with a cigarette and a fedora. And your name is Ronan.
Oh, and you’re dead.
Welcome to Murdered: Soul Suspect, and welcome to Salem, Massachusetts, a place infamous for– and I’m no expert –a lot of macabre, witchy shit. Things kick off with you investigating a lead in the ‘Bell Killer’ case, and subsequently writing the latest chapter in the town’s grizzly history by being thrown out of a top floor window, taking a few bullets for good measure, and winding up as the newest resident of the place between living and dead. ‘A bridge or a prison’ is how it’s described by the menacing, pigtailed schoolgirl who acts as your tutor and your first encounter with your ghostly new acquaintances. How you cross that bridge, it transpires, is by finishing any unresolved business in order to ‘move on’, and in your case, that means figuring out the identity of your killer.
Sounds easy right? Well, yes actually, but it wouldn’t be a good ‘whodunnit’ story without a generous handful of twists, hooks and baleful looks, and Murdered doesn’t disappoint in this respect. Once it becomes clear that the answer to your, uh, spiritual problem lies in catching the ‘Bell Killer’, you’re forced to work parallel with the police, aided only by a vibrant (bitchy) teenage medium called Joy. As you make your way across town tugging at threads of the case it unravels elaborately, and while some of the supporting cast and a semi-redundant sub-plot surrounding Ronan’s wife are weak links, with a little patience it’ll keep you entertained right up until the eerie finale. Alas, there are just enough flaws in other areas that I can see many players never making it that far.
Beneath the story, Murdered is a good 10-12 hours of–mostly–wandering around searching for clues and piecing together (sometimes offensively simple) puzzles, and while a broad but shallow arsenal of abilities certainly makes Ronan’s afterlife interesting, ultimately the gather-em-up undercurrent never subsides and the game sadly fails to deliver on early promises of supernatural heroics. Cases almost solve themselves if you search a scene thoroughly enough, and the premise of selecting the ‘most relevant’ clue to uncover an answer is basic and underwhelming. Even your freedom to explore–which you would naturally expect to be pretty broad considering the whole ghost thing– is artificially limited by ‘consecrated’ buildings and sporadic, spectral pieces of 17th-century Salem architecture which create authentic-looking, but no less frustrating, boundaries for you to operate within. Within that boundary the town looks pretty good, albeit with liberal application of fog that’s almost Silent Hill-esque: no doubt hiding a multitude of sins but enhancing the atmosphere enough that you forgive it. The game really struggles in larger open spaces though, severe frame rate drops are common, and are probably not something we should be letting slip by unmentioned nowadays.
Salem is littered with NPCs who mostly seem to just be hanging around outside, at night, unmoved by the presence of an exceptionally violent and effective serial killer. Their presence genuinely does more harm than good, and you get the feeling that without their aimless wandering and asinine thoughts (a strict maximum of two per person are unfortunately accessible via the ‘Mind Read’ ability), the eeriness of the town would’ve been a lot more convincing. I wanted to get to know these people, I wanted to care, but in truth even the richer characters with their two or three lines of rigid back-and-forth still felt more like a collectible than any sort of real, valuable addition to the game world. Bizarrely, probably the best pieces of writing are found in the game’s ‘ghost stories’, told from the point-of-view of the affected after you uncover the clues relating to their story in a particular location, but these are just too few and far-between.
The gameplay maintains a fairly sedate pace for the most part, but things all go a bit balls-to-the-wall when you begin to encounter ‘demons’, and the variation is most welcome. Patently modelled on Harry Potter’s Dementors but arguably even more chilling, they’re unfortunately all too easy to dispatch once you get the hang of the old ‘sneak-up button-combo’ exorcism technique. Moreover, considering that–as the only enemy you come up against and the catalyst for the only genuine “brown-pants moments” in the game–the fact that you actually see about 15 of them in total is another example of Murdered’s unfulfilled potential.
Probably my main grievance with Murdered would’ve been an easy one to fix: its difficulty. I can honestly say there wasn’t a single moment where I felt like I could possibly suffer consequences of my bumbling detective work, lose, fail, or have to take an alternative, sub-optimal route to a goal. There’s no feeling of reward in the acquisition of skills either, a perfect example being teleportation, which miraculously (and hilariously) becomes available after Ronan suggests–aloud to himself–that he should really figure out how to do that. Make me work for it, guys!
Playing Murdered made me angry. Not because I wanted to avenge murder victims, not because I felt excessively challenged, not even because it was bad, but because the entire time I couldn’t help but think that it was only a few small steps away from greatness. The main plot is rich and clever, but arbitrarily diluted by a load of other rubbish filler. The enemies are fantastic, while the combat itself is weak and one-dimensional. The characters vary in appeal and interest massively; Joy is sassy and likeable, Ronan is a dick. It’s a shame, because with such an array of flaws there is likely to be something to turn off pretty much every type of gamer, and when it does they’ll be missing out on what is genuinely a rough diamond.