The landscape of today’s games industry is hardly one packed to the brim with original IPs or ideas, but rather one that showcases the desires of developers and publishers to play it safe. While the indie scene is happy to try new things, elsewhere there’s a distinct lack of willingness to attempt anything new – and, from a business standpoint, who could argue? Games like Call of Duty regularly smash sales records when their traditional October/November release date rolls around, regardless of any perceived lack of innovation, while even new IPs like Ubisoft Montreal’s Watch Dogs tread more familiar ground than not. In short, we’re far more conservative than we give ourselves credit for.
Which is precisely why we’ve been looking forward to Murdered: Soul Suspect so much.
On paper, it all sounds a little off the wall; a third person adventure meets whodunit murder mystery focusing on a dead cop (Ronan O’Connor) and a medium (Joy) who’s convinced to work alongside him to get to the bottom of a string of murders by the Bell Killer. With her mother missing and feared to be in grave danger, most likely in the clutches of the serial killer, Joy serves as Ronan’s conduit to the living world, and the result is a genuinely refreshing title that dares to be a little different.
Very early on, Murdered: Souls Suspect pins its flag to the mast and makes a point of informing players that, despite the fact that Ronan was a cop while living, guns are of no use to him on the other side. Perhaps it’s a sly kick at the abundance of shooter-oriented titles on the market right now, or maybe it’s just a genuine attempt to say “hey, look, this is actually something different”, but either way it’s a decision that works incredibly well.
The game starts with Ronan’s death and a little exposition to set the scene. We learn that he was a cop, killed while trying to apprehend a suspect that turns out to be the Bell Killer, who has been tormenting the city of Salem with his reign of terror. Bewildered and disoriented, Ronan gradually starts to figure out his limitations in this new world (while also introducing players to some clever caveats that prevent things being too easy) with the help of a mysterious young ghost.
The setting of Salem comes in particularly handy here, given its dark history during the witch trials of the 1600s, as the game explains away the fact that players are unable to use their ghostly forms to enter any building they choose due to the consecration of most of the buildings in the city – meaning that only an open door or window can allow entry. It might be seen by some as a little too convenient, but for our money it’s a perfectly good way of ensuring that the game is as manageable as possible.
As the introductory stages draw to a close, players are given the chance to try out some of Ronan’s new abilities, from passing through objects to possessing NPCs to read their minds or influence them, while another of the game’s central mechanics is slowly unravelled, as players need to gather evidence and piece it together to figure out where they need to go next.
At first, searching for clues can be a little awkward, but as soon as you learn to treat these sections like a more traditional point and click adventure, things start to come together nicely. It’s worth noting, however, that both the game’s controls and camera can be a little finicky at times, often meaning you’ll need a couple of attempts to line yourself up just right before being able to examine an object for potential clues. There’s nothing there that comes close to breaking the game, but it’s worth keeping in mind nonetheless.
With Ronan now a little more familiar to players, and his back story starting to come together in fits and starts (he’s a former criminal turned cop who lost the love of his life before going borderline renegade, with little or no concern for his own well being), the game’s narrative starts to take shape as Salem begins to open up.
The open world sections of Soul Suspect serve as the main playground for completionists, with a huge range of collectibles, back story information and items available throughout, with many of the key items highlighted by a glowing gold dot, making them easy to spot with a little time spent exploring. And it’s a world that’s well worth exploring, too, with plenty of NPCs to garner information from and fellow ghosts to help out along the way, typically by helping them get closure on whatever is keeping them stranded between the worlds of the living and the dead.
It’s fortunate that there’s a reasonable number of side missions on offer here, too, because without them, the Soul Suspect experience would be all too brief. Although a thoroughly enjoyable experience, players who opt to rush through the campaign will find that it’s all over a little too soon – although they’ll be missing out on the reams of content and information that serves to build the game’s truly unique character.
As you progress through each section of the game, solving puzzles and finding clues, you’ll edge ever closer to uncovering the identity of the Bell Killer and, unlike most games that attempt to dabble in the murder mystery genre, there are some nice twists here to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout (if the undead masses aren’t enough to do that already).
To keep players from getting too complacent and careless in their exploration, Soul Suspect throws up an interesting antagonist, populating crime scenes with demons that prowl, early on the lookout for lost souls to reap. It’s here that players will encounter the game’s only real combat element, and it’s a little hit and miss at times.
Should you choose to take on these demons, you’ll need to sneak up behind them and launch into your attack, before being faced with a quick time event to finish them off. Fail the QTE and you’ll need to hot foot it out of there to escape the clutches of a pissed off ghoul. Where the combat element feels needlessly clunky, the evasion mechanic works brilliantly, with players able to take shelter in the numerous pockets of ghostly energy littered throughout each environment. While these are certainly plentiful, these demons are no fools, and they’ll make a beeline for the nearest ones, sequentially checking them for your presence, so repeated movements in and out of pockets will be needed to keep Ronan out of their clutches.
While it doesn’t work quite as well as one would hope every time, it’s a very clever mechanic from Airtight Games that at least attempts to try something different, and those of you who enjoy stealthy play will find plenty to enjoy here.
The same can be said for the game’s evidence gathering sections. They work fantastically well overall, but the fact that you can simply fumble around until you find the necessary clues takes the shine off somewhat. Similarly, when it comes to piecing everything together before moving on to the next section, the game employs a unique “no-fail” system, where it’s impossible to actually screw things up and halt your progress. Given the narrative-driven approach taken to the game, this is understandable, but it’s not exactly ideal when it comes to providing an adequate challenge – essentially you can’t NOT finish Soul Suspect if you’re persistent enough.
These issues, however, are minor, and they certainly aren’t enough to cause too much damage to what is one of the surprise hits of the year so far. The industry is in desperate need of developers (and publishers… cheers Square Enix!) that are willing to step outside the norm and do things a little differently.
When taking each of Soul Suspect’s main gameplay mechanics in isolation, there’s not a huge amount here that hasn’t been seen before, but by combining them in such an imaginative way, and wrapping it all up with an engaging narrative and adding some genuinely interesting twists along the way Airtight Games have far surpassed expectations and served up a title that’s at once engaging, clever and, most importantly, a breath of fresh air.
This is a title that deserves your attention, and given the fact that we’re sitting on the cusp of the traditional summer game drought, it’s an ideal time to try something a little different.