Mystery fiction is one of the most difficult genres to effectively translate to an interactive format. Aside from graphic adventures and visual novels, video games regularly struggle with them. When the audience is placed in the role of a detective, they need to be made to feel as if they’re actively working to solve a crime and investigate evidence. Most of the games that attempt this fail to give the cases players are presented with any real weight. Johnny Maloney, game critic for Nerd Vice and Channel Awesome, stated that the greatest problem is that these games don’t have loss states, only setback states that respawn you at an earlier point. “The story has to have the capability to move forward while the player hasn’t found a clue, or information that tips a scale. Most modern mystery games won’t let you leave the room, or let you interrogate several times, until you get it just right. …L.A. Noire, the Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games, they refuse to allow you to move ahead unless you get everything. There has to be a real mystery, which means relying on the player to attend to clues, deduction, conjecture and theory.”

There have been many titles that suffered because of the issues Maloney discussed, focused too heavily on delivering a linear story with a grand conclusion that the designers didn’t bother to consider what other narrative paths could open based on the player’s actions. Cole Phelps’ partners in L.A. Noire would eventually guide you onto the right line of investigation if you took too long deciphering clues or failed an interrogation so you’d be able to progress to the finale. Heavy Rain was so focused on pushing forced drama into your face that it gave little attention to the actual mystery, resulting in a story that was riddled with plot holes and even withheld and offered misleading information so that when the Origami Killer’s identity was revealed, it felt like a cop out rather than a dramatic twist. The infamous Ripper aimed for replay value by offering multiple endings with a different killer in each based on your actions, but poor implementation led to more plot holes and contradicting evidence, not to mention none of the endings were particularly satisfying. Murdered: Soul Suspect, developed by Airtight Games and published by Square Enix, is the most recent example of how the industry struggles to craft strong mysteries, even if there are impressive ideas present.

Salem, Massachusetts is being terrorized by a vicious serial killer who has brutally butchered several young women. The methods of murder vary, but in each case a crude image of a bell was drawn on the victim, leading police and press to dub the maniac responsible the “Bell Killer.” Ronan O’Connor, a detective working the case, follows a lead one night that brings him face to face with the murderer. Taking the psycho down single handedly would make him a hero. Unfortunately, Ronan never gets the chance as the madman overpowers him and throws him from a four story window. The impact leaves Ronan near death, forcing his soul from his body. Though he tries to revive his physical form his efforts are useless – the Bell Killer finishes the job by using Ronan’s own gun to put several bullets in his chest. Unable to return to the world of the living, Ronan is prepared to move on to the other side, but finds that he cannot. Visited by the spirit of his late wife Julie, he learns that he is bound to earth until he brings his murderer to justice. With the assistance of Joy Foster, a teenage medium capable of seeing and communicating with him, and several ghostly abilities that grant him some degree of influence over the mortal world, Ronan sets out to stop the Bell Killer before another innocent life is lost.

Murder mysteries where the ghost of a victim tries to discover who killed him or her for vengeance aren’t uncommon, even in video games. Deadman, The Crow, and Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective all use this concept as the core of their stories, so the premise alone isn’t enough to make a title noteworthy. All good mysteries, no matter how they play with the formula, need intrigue, suspense, action and drama to keep the audience engaged. Soul Suspect, regretfully, is lacking in each of these aspects. The murder investigation that drives the plot isn’t particularly interesting or well written. Despite having a relatively small cast of possible suspects, the identity of the Bell Killer turns out to be a character with very little screen time who’s barely even mentioned after being introduced. When the murderer is exposed at the end, I felt cheated. There were a few misleading clues, which aren’t necessarily bad if you’re able to deduce who has motive to pin their crimes on another person, but since the murderer drops out of the game so soon after first appearing, there’s no real opportunity to look for hints about why they’re committing these murders and why they’d seek particular people as scapegoats. All the evidence that points you in the killer’s direction is dumped on you near the end rather than gradually gathered over the course of the story, again showing how the focus is more about guiding players along a pre-determined path rather than letting them analyze and make conclusions at their own pace. Worse still is how so many of the clues blatantly spell out the correct answer rather than requiring you to think about their significance, which I will discuss when covering the gameplay. Finally, without spoiling too much, the grand revelation of who the Bell Killer truly is doesn’t make much sense when you consider how many other victims there have been, and if they can’t pass on until they resolve the details of their deaths, why the murderer hasn’t been stopped before. Ronan couldn’t have been the only one who actively decided to track down the Bell Killer after dying; there would have to be other angry spirits seeking justice.

I wasn’t drawn into the game because of  how artificial everything felt. You’re restricted to a small hub world and seven constrained, linear areas where the main investigations take place, all of which must be gone through in a set order. I know that Salem isn’t that large a town, but with so little to explore it reinforces the feeling that you have no real freedom; everything has been set up and is just waiting for you to go forward in the way the developers expected you to. Adding to the problem is the failure to flesh out the setting and the people through natural actions. Just about every piece of key information about a character comes from overhearing a conversation, collectibles that either offer a brief flashback to a moment in his or her life, or reading something written about them by another. Ronan’s entire life story is summed up in two minutes of expository recollections at the start or discussions about him between other characters, with no further exploration of his past struggles, his reasons for joining the police, or his inner demons. When you learn important information about the world through second hand accounts rather than direct engagement, there’s no way it can feel like anything more than a set piece.

Soul Suspect tries and fails to create a bleak noir atmosphere. There’s supposed to be an overbearing sense of tension created by the Bell Killer’s rampage, with Ronan even drawing a parallel between the panic caused by the killings and the witch trials of centuries ago, but it’s never fully realized when you see the people of Salem don’t appear to be living in terror. Many are walking the streets at night alone seemingly unconcerned with the threat in their city, even though reading their thoughts will have you learn that they are afraid, the admissions delivered without any hint of actual concern or fear for their safety. Much of the dialogue is excessively repeated by the NPCs, so hearing the same one or two lines from a dozen different people makes you feel even more disconnected from the world. Hardly any dramatic moments elicited a reaction: a crucial sub-plot about the fate of Joy’s mother is resolved anticlimactically with two sentences, we learn nothing about how Ronan’s wife Julie was murdered, the full impact it had on him, or whether her killer was even brought to justice. Even a twist at the end where Ronan learns he was more closely connected to the case than he initially thought, while subtly foreshadowed, didn’t surprise as much as it bemused, like the writers were grasping for straws for a dramatic revelation and didn’t concern themselves on whether it was coherent with the structure or tone, just on whether it was shocking enough.

While playing through Soul Suspect it felt like it was pieced together from two different ideas, like some members of the development team wanted to create a mystery, others wanted to make horror, and they compromised by putting elements from both into the final product. If this was the case though, then the ideas were not blended well as the supernatural aspects either don’t fit in naturally or simply don’t make sense. Any moments that were probably intended to be frightening come across like the developers were trying too hard to scare players, the most blatant example occurring in an asylum that’s described as a hellhole where patients are routinely tortured which, again, we never see happen. There are demented crayon drawings scrawled on cell walls, mentions made of past patient abuse, lightning even crackles outside when it obviously wasn’t raining when you entered. It’s all setup with no payoff. The only parts that could be considered truly scary are flashbacks that show the pain endured by the Bell Killer’s victims and the short ghost stories unlocked by gathering collectibles, but they’re more disturbing than genuinely terrifying.

Playing as a ghost and interacting with other spirits chould have been interesting, but Airtight squandered any potential the feature might have held. One problem is an inconsistency concerning their abilities and limitations. Some explanations make sense; we’re told that ghosts can’t pass through the outer walls of a consecrated building, instead they must enter and exit through an open door or window, but once inside they can phase through people and objects. Additionally, some ghostly objects and psychic remnants of the past are solid in the spirit world, yet because they exist in another plane of existence living beings (who are unaware these barriers exist) aren’t obstructed by them. These are the only rules that are adhered to throughout the game while the rest are flexible, altered simply because the plot calls for them to be altered. Shortly after Ronan dies he’s told by another ghost that his powers are unique based on his natural talents in life, which presumably would be his investigative skills. Yet he’s unable to see well in dim light and will often need Joy’s help to move objects around so he can have clearer vision. When he phases through a human in a cutscene the person is shown shivering, a reference to alleged cold spots that come from contact with the dead, but it never happens when you walk through NPCs in the game. Also, despite the implication that a ghost’s abilities grow the longer they remain bound to earth, Ronan gains the power to teleport after only a few hours for no other reason than you need to teleport to progress through the rest of the game. I’m not one to bring up the tired canard of ludonarrative dissonance, but when guidelines are established for characters capable of violating the laws of physics, some coherence would be appreciated. Also, while this is a minor nitpick, how is Ronan still able to smoke as a ghost?

The various other lost souls you encounter as you play don’t add much to the game. Some of them are in need of assistance resolving an issue that’s preventing them from crossing over, like discovering how they died or learning if a loved one was keeping a secret from them (the latter of which they should have been able to accomplish themselves if, like other spirits, they can possess and read the thoughts of others). It shows how Ronan is still dedicated to his job and helping others in need even after death, but the missions are abandoned halfway through the story before there’s a chance to explore any greater issues some of the specters may have. One spirit I helped who had been murdered passed over after I discovered what happened to her body, but it felt hollow since there was no opportunity to bring her killers to justice. If a ghost isn’t desperate for closure, he or she will either be unaware that they’re dead or surprisingly nonchalant, usually for a perverse reason. Again we see missed opportunities as you’re never given the chance to help a ghost ignorant of their fate learn what happened so they can move on or dispel those who are more malicious. I encountered three atrocious phantoms during my playthrough: one who was tormenting a girl he attempted to kidnap and hold for ransom before the job went sour, another gleeful that physical barriers could no longer keep him from the woman he stalked in life, and one harassing the mother of a child he murdered. I would have liked an opportunity to deal with these criminals and send them to hell, again to show that Ronan is still working to get rid of the scum that harm Salem. You’re able to defeat demons when they approach; why couldn’t the same be done for the spirits of heinous men?

None of the characters leave a lasting impression; they’re all one-note stock personalities that have been seen countless times before. Ronan is the stereotypical hardboiled detective, tough and no-nonsense but with a heart of gold underneath his gruff exterior. Before investigating a new location he’ll lapse into an internal monologue pertaining to the area, but it’s the standard noir faire about how he “can’t escape his past” or how he used the police force as a crutch for his personal problems. Joy is a rebellious teenager with no respect for authority, but her harsh exterior is a cover for her personal pain and self-doubt. Baxter is abrasive and potentially corrupt, behaving suspiciously to set himself up as a potential suspect. Rex treats the force as a surrogate family and sees Ronan’s killing as an attack on them all, urging lethal force as retribution for the death of one of their own. Nothing is inherently wrong about using these character archetypes as long as they’re given a new or interesting reinterpretation to prevent them from appearing clichéd; simply making them dead or able to communicate with the dead doesn’t automatically prevent them from being bland and unmemorable

Like L.A. Noire, gameplay primarily consists of travelling to designated areas to uncover more information about the case, such as where a key witness is or more insight into the killer’s motives. As mentioned earlier, though, there’s hardly any challenge present in these sections. Most of the evidence you gather blatantly gives you the lead you’re looking for so there’s no real investigative work required. You’re asked to figure out what connects the Bell Killer’s victims and a bulletin board covered with news articles reveals they were all practicing psychics or mediums. Symbols left at crime scenes seem familiar to those seen before, and when images of the clues you’ve gathered appear on the screen, the relevant icon is easy to see. Sometimes you have to put events in the right sequence, or determine an answer based on a sound emanating from an object, though these also have simple solutions. Even if you make the wrong conclusion there’s no penalty; you never lose a lead or follow a wrong trail, you just get a lower ranking.

I have to give Airtight Games some credit for trying to add additional mechanics tailored to Ronan’s powers as a ghost. You can possess other people to read or influence their memories, and for some investigations you have to determine what someone was doing and their emotional state based on the body position and facial expressions from psychic residue left behind at a crime scene, but again the correct deductions are too easy to figure out. With no true tests of logic and deductive skills these are really nothing more than gimmicks. Ghost barriers could have created some clever environmental puzzles, but all they forced you to do was take a slightly longer route to get around them or simply teleport. They also played a part in one of the most annoying segments in the museum, where you need to travel through a narrow corridor to reach the second floor. A spectral train that instantly kills you if it hits you travels down the hall every few seconds, so to proceed you need to teleport into small alcoves each time it passes. Apparently the hit detection for this part was not well programmed because the train can still kill you if you’re standing near the rail track but not on it, which led to several unfair deaths whenever I had to get a little closer to look for the next spot I could jump to.

The most unnecessary feature is the ability to manipulate electronics like a poltergeist. It’s used to distract NPCs for incredibly amateur stealth/puzzle segments to help guide Joy around without being detected, but again there’s no challenge. Most of the time the characters you need to get past never move from their positions, and those that are drawn away to investigate a malfunction usually stay in the new spot. Phantom Detective required you to figure out the right objects to manipulate at the right time to accomplish your goal. There was a lot of trial and error involved, but you had to think and learn from your mistakes. Soul Suspect never punishes you for mistakes. There was only one time when a character actually turned to go back to the original spot, with Joy clearly in his line of vision before she could find a new hiding space, and nothing happened. I didn’t fail the challenge or have to start it again, it just kept going as though she hadn’t been seen. This was most likely a bug, one of several that resulted in some incredibly odd moments. Other technical glitches I encountered were characters randomly changing speed in their walk cycles, humans and ghosts phasing through walls they shouldn’t have been able to, frequent lagging frame rates, and the most annoying instance was when I tried to leave an NPC I’d possessed but the controller wouldn’t respond, forcing me to keep tapping the button for nearly two minutes until it worked. Console versions have an option to make the controller vibrate when Ronan passes through physical objects, but even that doesn’t work every time it’s supposed to.

There’s hardly anything to do outside the central missions, at least anything worthwhile. A few side missions have a connection to the spiritual world, such as the small cases where you assist confused ghosts that I mentioned earlier, and finding partially hidden objects to learn about a deadly haunting connected to an area from the past. I went out of my way to reveal all the ancillary stories since they held my attention more than the main plot, and also because they helped to pad out the play time, though I still finished the game in about seven hours. Other collectibles include historical facts about Salem, messages left by other ghosts which I’m guessing were meant to sound philosophical and profound but achieved neither, and case notes left by Joy’s mother Cassandra which ultimately  have no impact in how the mystery is resolved.

Another aspect that leads me to suspect ideas from a horror title were pushed into Soul Suspectwere the threats posed by demons. Occasionally you’ll enter an area where horrid specters roam about in search of souls to consume. If you’re seen, they’ll instantly begin chasing you until they lose the trail, which is achieved by hiding in living people or the residue left by other ghosts. It adds a bit of tension, though that’s completely undermined since you’re able to destroy the demons if you sneak up on them from behind and execute a quicktime event. If they had been invulnerable entities that you had to avoid at all costs rather than wait for the right opportunity to defeat them, Soul Suspect would have been a bit more interesting and challenging. You can see their movements through walls to plan out how to approach and attack them, and this is one of the few instances where observing enemies through solid objects makes sense since Ronan has ghostly powers, but it makes me wonder again how if he can look through walls he can’t see in the dark.

Graphics are decent, standard for what’s been seen in most games over the last few years. It’s not trying to be realistic, though the character models look a bit too much like dolls with fixed hair and forced facial expressions. Ghosts and spiritual objects are surrounded by a bluish-grey aura which, while not the most visually interesting, stand out compared to the drab, simply-textured environment. There were a few visual touches I enjoyed, like how Ronan leaves a wavy ectoplasm outline of his body whenever he passes through a door or wall, and the ghosts displaying the wounds or grotesque disfigurements inflicted upon them as they died (bullet holes in Ronan’s chest, deep burns on a victim that the Bell Killer immolated, etc.). The design for the demons wasn’t very frightening; just horrid ghouls in black cloaks. I didn’t care much for the music, which tried too hard to be eerie with an excessive use of low, frantic violin trills. In all honesty I felt the overall sound direction was lackluster, most of it being either forgettable or, like the demons’ screeching and the train’s endless rattling down the tracks, incredibly annoying. While I can’t tell if this was a glitch or an oversight, there were many instances where I’d read a character’s thoughts as I possessed them delivered in a voice different from the one they used when speaking. Once I heard a woman’s thought spoken by a man, and I doubt the developers intended to include transgender NPCs.

Murdered: Soul Suspect shares the same problems as Airtight’s previous releases Dark Void and Quantum Conundrum – impressive ideas ruined by bad writing and unrefined mechanics. It doesn’t work as a mystery title or a horror game. I can’t even recommended it as a rental when there are much better games that offer detective stories with a supernatural slant. My best suggestion would be to check out Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, which I mentioned several times already. It’s far from perfect and becomes outright silly at several points, but it has four distinct advantages over Soul Suspect: it’s challenging, it has an intriguing story, the characters are memorable, and it’s fun.

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