History is a rich tapestry detailing the miseries of mankind since the conception of the written word. All the greatest triumphs and lowest ebbs recorded for posterity, to inspire and horrify in equal measure. A most regrettable period of human history, is in the late 1600s America, which saw the deaths of many at the hands of the Christian church, all under the dubious charge of witchcraft.
I am of course talking about the notorious Salem Witch Trials, and it’s the very same Salem that Airtight Games have chosen as the setting for Murdered: Soul Suspect. Mixing storytelling elements of noir, hardboiled mystery and horror and plonking the bloody cocktail astride one of history’s great messes, players are handed the reins to a detective story with a rather macabre twist. Ronan, our hard-nosed, perpetually smoking, fedora-topped detective is dead.
The sole witness to his own murder, the game opens with a frustrated, confused and vengeful Ronan steeling himself for his final case. The investigative work dominates gameplay, but if nothing else the player will find themselves perhaps a little more observant at the game’s conclusion than at the beginning.
There are so many nods to Rockstar’s LA Noire that Soul Suspect might well find itself in need of a neck brace. The portions of the game that feel distinct and purposeful are the investigation sections, where an area is indicated through the narrative as one of significance. There is, however, something missing from the formula. What should feel like a rewarding, stimulating challenge comes off as more of scouring the designated area’s surfaces for the appearance of a ‘press X’. Attempts to be clever or to think two steps ahead of the game rarely yield success, and thoroughness and lateral thinking in solving each problem go unrewarded; the sense that it really is the player solving the mystery remain elusive throughout.
What is laudable is the visual integration of the objectives and significant entities into the environment, with an ethereal blue scrawl fading in where attention is required. Also effective are the residual memories that are held in the environment, which when found can trigger snippets of video or audio giving clues to the puzzle. Whilst these are inventive routes of delivery for certain clues and undoubtedly bolster the cinematic credentials of Soul Suspect, the scarcity of any true detective work has even these more impressive features of the game falling somewhat flat.
Ronan’s undead status grants him certain talents that aid him in pursuit of the Bell Killer, the serial killer at the heart of the game’s main storyline. Passing through walls is, of course, not a problem, and possession of unwitting NPCs is a doddle from the start. Questioning fellow ghosts links in with investigating the environment to provide the main driving force for progression. Teleportation is made available a little way into the game, but the most intriguing ability of Ronan’s is how he can influence the actions of the living by manipulating them using information gleaned in his investigations. These moments are the closest that Soul Suspect comes to reaching its potential.
Hollow characters populate the streets of Salem, idiotically commenting on how they should stay indoors, or calmly observing what a tragedy it is that there’s been a murder committed a few hundred metres away. So lazy is the design of these, the game’s true zombies, that it’s common to see two together clothed identically.
The writing in general lacks sparkle, all except the relevant story characters sounding like they’ve taken too many knocks to the head. The police in general all seem to be undergoing different crises whilst remaining totally unable to confront them. Talking of the police, it’s no wonder that there’s been a spate of crime, as strangely all the police computers appear to be running copies of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It’s almost as if Soul Suspect is recommending something better to go and play after players inevitability tire of its own nondescript offering.
What’s bizarre about Soul Suspect is how it feels even more lifeless than its protagonist. The world is largely free of risk, aside from a few demons, given that Ronan is already dead. And what threats there are can be easily overcome. Beyond travelling from location to location to perform investigations pushing along a cumbersome, derivative plot, there are simply miniature side-investigations and an obscene amount of collecting.
Now let me set one thing straight: I’ve nothing against a little bit of a scavenger hunt. Most games are suitable for the inclusion of at least some form of collectible – they motivate the player to scour the levels and fully experience the world that has been created. Somewhere along the line, however, it seems Soul Suspect got overexcited, because the developers have tossed in seemingly endless swathes of collectibles, in all manner of shape and size. Each bears a snippet of backstory exposition or side-blurb, but given that the main hunk of story is so despondently unimaginative, it’s hard to see what motivation there would be to hunt everything down, beyond a blind obsession for completion or an unquenchable thirst for Gamerscore.
The visual representation of the ghostworld, overlaid atop present-day Salem, is well achieved. Smooth character models and textures abound, and the minimal lighting helps Soul Suspect in its masquerading as a ghost story. A functional soundtrack supports the environments, though it resolutely fails to conjure any profound sense of dread or apprehension.
Soul Suspect’s problem is that it makes itself out to be a Jack-of-All-Trades and proves the old saying to be entirely true, displaying mastery over absolutely nothing. As far as the mystery element goes, we’ve all seen it all before, including the supposed twist ending which is as surprising as catching a waft of vomit on a ride at a county fairground. The horror element goes nowhere at all, the mild unease that might rise up from the subject matter being swiftly killed off by the repetition and predictability of the gameplay.
There’s not all that much overtly wrong with Soul Suspect, rather its developers have continually made cock-ups that prevent it from truly shining. The basis, the bones, of a decent action-adventure/detective gaming experience is here ‘Its makers’ greatest failing comes from neglecting to breathe life into their creation, leaving it too vacant, too dormant, to offer a compelling experience.