I have mixed emotions walking away from my first hands-on session with Square Enix and Airtight Games’ Murdered: Soul Suspect on the PlayStation 4, and it’s not because of some internal conflict about being killed in the opening cut-scene of the game; that’s what hooked me and everyone else who has heard anything about the sleeper title. The premise of embodying a police detective in Ronan O’Connor and having to investigate your own death, all set against the backdrop of the infamous town of Salem, Massachusetts is very interesting and a fresh conceptual spin in a genre that is rarely explored in video games as it is. Unfortunately, I fear the execution (pun unintended) of Airtight Games’ many ideas may end up lacking, potentially leaving the game in a limbo not dissimilar to the one its lead character finds himself in. I hope I’m wrong, but read on as I justify my concerns and give my overall impressions of the first hour of the game.
Since the E3 reveal, and subsequent gameplay trailers showcasing the introductory level of Murdered: Soul Suspect, things have changed quite significantly, mostly for the purpose of adding in tutorial elements and fleshing out Ronan’s background from the get-go. Now, before we witness Ronan’s fatal fall, a montage plays as the man himself narrates the events of his life that shaped and defined who he became. Not all of them were positive experiences, exposing just how deep Ronan’s criminal past was. Every milestone moment is represented by its own tattoo on Ronan’s body, acting as eternal, moral reminders. Most pertinent amongst the memories is the passing of Ronan’s wife Julia, flashing before his eyes as he plummets from a fourth story window to the concrete street below. He awakes, however, as the player gains control, urged to engage in contextual actions such as simply pushing a thumbstick towards a door handle and pressing “Square”. You wouldn’t be blamed for interpreting the nature of its implementation – repeated and basic – as an insult to your intelligence.
The game continues in its needless attempts to teach us how to use thumbsticks, as Ronan looks back to discover his physical body on the ground before we are prompted to press the left thumbstick upwards and touch his face with “Square”. Doing so jolts the muscles in his face and reveals that he is still breathing. Ronan then prescribes to the brilliantly self-aware notion that he may indeed rejoin his consciousness with his body by aligning himself with it. He lays down, leading to – you guessed it – another somewhat veiled tutorial in using thumbsticks, this time asking the player to rotate Ronan’s limbs in order to match up with his body’s lifeless position. Thankfully, learning the clearly difficult navigational controls is less contrived from this point on, although frequent cinematics interrupting the gameplay persists for the remainder of the introductory sequence. Unsuccessful, the killer then reappears, picking up Ronan’s gun and finishing the job, so to speak, with seven gunshots to the torso, bringing our protagonist fully into the afterlife.
Immediately, Ronan is drawn to the proverbial white light, where Julia is waiting to greet him “at the other end of the bridge”, which he cannot cross until all loose ends from his existence are tied up, namely securing peace by solving his own murder. The light fades and Ronan sees another lost soul, a girl, whom we follow into an alley. What proceeds is our first interaction using Murdered: Soul Suspect‘s lite dialogue tree, which in this instance presents consists of multiple options with no follow-through on any. The conversation is very one-way, with the player given the chance to ask all four possible questions. It is clear, however, that this will not always be the case, as speaking to a stalking spirit with malevolent intent against a frightened, little girl later on presents only two lines of dialogue, and selecting either choice blocks out the other one. Returning to the street, the police have finally arrived. Nosey civilians and supposed witnesses are interacting with policemen, all of whom – pivotal or not – can be possessed and their minds read. Officially starting the investigation, pieces of evidence are numbered where they lay, able to be inspected. Doing so adds the related clue to your journal, accessible with the touch pad on the Dualshock 4 controller.
As aforementioned, Ronan can possess any living being, but will have limited options once controlling them depending on their purpose; for example, a policemen who is making notes about the crime can be possessed to peek at the notebook through his eyes, and the chat occurring between another two can be eavesdropped. Once in the apartment building Ronan was brutally thrown out of (from 4A’s window), the player comes across another policemen, this one being prone to “influence” as we compel him to shuffle photos around for a clear view. As the game progresses, new powers will be unlocked – these are just the most primitive. Having the ability to listen to the thoughts of every single person in the game world is neat and allows for some quirky moments, such as learning a cameraman is infatuated by his female field journalist, but the writing is quite uninspired. The writing, across the board in fact, can be quite platitudinous. Ronan in particular is often written to seem either too inexplicably calm and enlightened, or entirely imperceptive at other times.
When the player decides they have enough information to make a deduction, they must press “Triangle” and pick a series of clues that hold the key to answering the given inquest. Doing so successfully in your first effort rewards a 3-badge rating, although the function and importance of this rating system is not truly explained in this beginning section of the game. Once an answer is deducted, the next step in the investigation can commence. Before gaining entry into the apartment after learning the rest of the ropes through dialogue – objects can not be physically handled and the exterior of any consecrated building cannot be phased through – I attempted to walk away from the location – just to see how Airtight manage the boundaries of the space – and was met with a fade-in black screen that faded back out, Ronan having been forced to face his objective. I’m not sure if that’s better than an invisible boundary, but in regards to this initial chapter at least, it adds yet another start-stop aspect to the already heavily interrupted gameplay. But on that note, you’ll be pleased to know that, by the end of the hour, the game becomes much more fluid and unbroken.
Exploring the four levels of the apartment building, side missions, collectibles and all manner of expository information can be discovered. A young woman who had died in the boiler room requested our help in finding her body, and upon scanning the apartment and reading the minds of her next-door neighbours, an elderly couple, well… let’s just say that being on drugs and playing obnoxiously loud music can apparently awaken the killer in anyone who’s been deprived of sleep for long enough. The final releases promises hundreds of cases, facts and side quests to encounter. Making our way to the site of the struggle with our murderer, demons make their presence felt. Sneaking up on them grants the opportunity to destroy them, but if they spot you first, the only chance of survival (relative, I know… they suck out your souls) is to hide within the lingering remnants of past residents. This mechanic replaces the old one shown at E3 where the player instead had to hop between bodies of patrolling humans.
Finally arriving at apartment 4A, we slowly piece together the series of events. Notably, Airtight Games listened as the memory showing the killer bending the bar Ronan originally used to defend himself (a detail not illustrated in the establishing cut-scene) has been excised. Noting all 14 points of interest, we have our lead in the girl who witnessed the fight and fled via the fire escape, ending our preview. Keep an eye on Capsule Computers as Murdered: Soul Suspect will have another chance to impress next month; I hope to delve further into the game with a new build, prior to its full release on June 5 in Australia and New Zealand. Until then, with all the criticisms aired, I am purely hopeful that they are, for the most part, a by-product of a brand new, creative IP needing to establish itself before eventually settling into its writing and gameplay.