Murdered: Soul Suspect review
Well class, a girl solved a math problem. You know what that means. WITCH!
Murdered: Soul Suspect is basically CSI with loads of supernatural stuff. It's sort of like the Dean Brothers from Supernatural teaming up with the NCIS team to solve a case involving a bizarre series of murders. The difference is that one of the Dean Brothers is dead and only the other brother and that brunette chick from NCIS can see his spirit. Now, in a perfect world, there would be more of the Bones type of stuff than all of the Charmed shit, but what we got was cool in its own way. It's the kind of game that you play through and fall in love with despite its flaws and promise yourself to play it at least once every year, but not a moment sooner. It's a game that, despite being about solving a murder mystery, doesn't jack itself off to its plot twist. No, it has a stiffy for its excellent assortment of HBO-esque storytelling (particularly the beginning and end scenes – hot damn), decent supporting cast and a neat setting. The gameplay is as obligatory is all get out besides the stealth segments, but unlike LA Noire where it was just the biggest piece of the crap cake, it's just the part of the cake that isn't so delicious because that Master Chef contestant didn't put in enough butter and overmixed that layer.
I have a thing where idiotic plot twists actually piss me off because it's like wasted potential. Whether it's got all the shock value of "BOO, RELIGION IS A LIE" with *bleep* all build up or it just plain makes no sense, it brings the story down and takes me and probably you out of it. Not that I'd go as far with it as any of the contributors on That Guy With The Glasses, but – I better get on with it. Yeah, some games that take themselves too seriously have them. LA Noire had one. Bionic Commando 2010 had one. Final Fantasy X had two. Final Fantasy IV nearly had one but it was mitigated by its likeable characters and follow through. Murdered: Soul Suspect doesn't, which is a relief. On a scale of 1 to Who Shot Mr Burns, I'd give it an 8 since it had such tremendous buildup and yet it hardly makes it all that obvious who the Bell Killer is either. The killer uses methods that were used in the Salem witch executions even though this game takes place in modern times. All that's going to stop him is the spirit of a cop he's killed. Ronan, the dead cop in question, suspects fellow officer Baxter since they weren't on friendly terms, plus the killer had his eye color and physical build (the killer wears a hood and mask that covers all but his eyes – replace the hood with a cap and for all you know, it could be Aiden Pierce from Watch Dogs), not to mention that he had been taken off the case. The climax was also quite well done as it delves deep into the killer's motives before everything's all said and done. So it not only has good build up, but great follow through. Take notes, future writers, because doing plot twists like these make everybody happy. Yeah, you'll have to put in some effort, but shit, it'll be so worth it.
Of course, being dead isn't easy as nobody can see him, nor can he interact with objects in the real world. Thankfully, there's a teenage girl by the name of Joy who happens to be a medium and can see spirits. Oh and her mom was involved with the case before going missing because she's a medium too. Ronan believes that her mom's book that's in the police station can ascertain why she's a target for the killer, where her mom may be and maybe, just maybe, some clues as to where the killer's hideout may be. But ohoho, these two just can't get along – he wants to get the job done, but he worries about her safety; she's a rebellious, headstrong teenager who wants what she wants and *bleep* you very much for helping, but she has a vulnerable side to her that he tries to pry into to bring out a softer side. Don't worry; since Ronan's about as dead as thrash metal, there's no love interest sub plot in there. She really is just a teenager. You know what they're like, right? No? Well, they're rebellious, stubborn little shits who think they're invincible! This is a problem for Ronan since she's the only one he knows who can see him, and with his newfound powers to gather information from ghostly projections within the spirit world, he's got the best chance to solve the mystery and catch the killer. Bit of a shame he can't touch physical objects – he'd need to do a good amount of that in order to progress, which is where Joy comes in.
Let's stop dancing around it though – the supporting cast, as I mentioned before, is decent at best. Really, there isn't all that much to Joy besides her being a typical teenager who just so happens to be able to see dead people. The other officers don't offer much to the table either. Same goes for the other spirits you meet. They offer dialogue and motivations that help to progress the story and have... some personality, but on the whole, they don't offer much else. I suppose, though, this comes with the territory of writing a story that takes place within the span of a night. With that being said, Joy works brilliantly with Ronan because of the personality she has and how it clashes with his more sensible approach and caring personality. Carrying on from that, you really need a strong plot backed up by cool concepts, great follow through and a compelling lead in order to make these kinds of stories work, which is exactly where Murdered: Soul Suspect almost hits a home run. Ronan's love for his wife is more than enough to want to finish the case so that he can truly pass on and join her (oh, did I forget to mention that's he's in a state of limbo and he can only pass on when he's met the requirements to pass on over to the other side). He's also occasionally witty but also very caring of those who he grows to like such as his wife and Joy. Put the two together and you got yourself a compelling main character. He could stand to be a bit wittier, but other than that, I'm down with the guy. Then there's the killer who kills his victims the same way the Salem witch trials were carried out, and he's got this Jason Voorhees thing to him where he's silent but *bleep*ing deadly if you cross his path. He quickly becomes the kind of guy that you'll love to hate and want to stop, especially since he spares nobody in his pursuit for victims – shit, look at Ronan! That bastard must pay!!
As the game progresses, it becomes a roller coaster ride that you just can't put down! Bit by bit, the case unfolds into something bigger and it only gets bigger from there, especially towards the end when shit gets *bleep*ing real and you find out the identity of the killer. It doesn't shovel everything in your face – it gives you what you need there and then, and only gives you more as you progress through the game. Delectable pacing combined with great writing can make something as simple as "a killer is bringing the Salem Witch Trials to a modern era, it's up to a ghost and a medium to stop him" innately *bleep*ing interesting. Add on the townsfolk who give you snippets of information in a realistic fashion, and you got yourself something that really feels alive. Then there's all the optional stuff where you can learn more about Ronan, his life with his wife, Baxter, Rex (another police guy), the killer and Salem itself among other things. We're not quite reaching Thief: The Dark Project or even Dark Souls levels of mindblowing lore here, but it's still got some interesting little facts about their history and all that stuff. All in all, Airtight Games really put their all into this game's story and while it's got some rough edges, they're just millimeters of roughness versus the smooth surface.
Speaking of smooth surface, this game looks great! I'd love to see how this runs on the PS4 because it's one of the best looking PS3 games you and I will be playing. Each of the human models look pretty close to real life ones and the way that they portray Ronan's ghostliness looks quite effective. He has a few tints of rustic blue while being a bit transparent, managing to convincingly portray him as a spirit. Same thing goes for the other ghosts, although they're even more transparent. The demons that'll sometimes appear to feast on Ronan's soul are, erm, kind of menacing? I mean, they got that red glow and when they spot you, they'll screech and then you know you're in trouble, and I guess it's cool that you can at least see their teeth (being completely faceless has been played out to death and back), but that's about it. Their teleporting effect is pretty cool, though. One model that stands out in particular, though, is the killer. He's big and he's got that cold stare. It really gives him that silent but deadly look which works really effectively. But what really stands out about this game is the lighting. Good sweet Jesus, the lighting is beautiful! Not since Alan Wake has a seventh generation console shown off such ace *bleep*ing lighting – and again, I'd love to see how this works on a PS4 (nevermind a high end PC) because I have to assume that it gets even better from here on a more powerful console! Rich, dynamic, atmospheric – it's the kind of lighting that makes the game just pop out of your screen and there's no silly 3D glasses and overly expensive TVs required. The only concession is that there's some lag and framerate stuttering, but given all the exquisite detail in the visuals, I can't really blame the PS3 version for having some slight performance issues.
On top of all that is the sound design. Honestly, this game has some of the best in this generation. The music has a dark, somber mood to it, especially the pieces that service as light background material to exploration or less intense cutscenes. Then there are the more intense songs – though they have that bite to them that make them dramatic and very action-y, they still have that dark feel to them. It goes well with the town's less vibrant color scheme and more serious writing, but it especially goes well with the fact that you're looking for a rather evil killer. Not to mention the voice acting – you know what, these people deserve a *bleep*ing medal for absolutely nailing it! Each syllable that permeates from their mouths manage to sound just right. It's got just the right tone for a rather grimm murder mystery and they still manage to sound as natural as the writing – which, if you aren't aware, is pretty damn natural – meaning that their performances can really suck you into the experience. Very few games these days can actually live up to that claim. It's one thing to have professional voice acting and it's another to have voice acting that's just right.
But we have to remember that this is a video game, not a movie, and as such, the gameplay has to be able to keep up with all of that. It's a shame that it doesn't even come close. It's all tolerable and it even has its moments of being good, but on the whole, it just feels like they added it because they forgot they were designing a game. I get it – having most of it be about exploring Salem and the buildings where they may be clues is a great way to lay out a detective game, but a lot of the detective stuff boils down to press X to investigate. There are times where you'll need to piece the clues together, though there's no real penalty to getting them wrong. You just have to interact with the object or press triangle again to get another shot at getting the right answer(s). What it involves is you needing to link the clues you've gotten in that investigation with the ones you got in other investigations. There are also times where you and Joy will team up – you'll use your otherworldly powers to screw around with technology to either temporarily disable security cameras or distract people so Joy can get past. She's never actually in any danger as it's scripted so she'll get past the guards no matter what, but it's still cool from the story perspective. Now, I've gotten on LA Noire's case for having no fail state, but that's because it progresses regardless of whether you bugger up or not; Murdered: Soul Suspect at least forces you to get the correct answers and it doesn't have heaps of these action segments you can just skip after dying three times. It's a hell of a lot better about it than LA Noire was. Not to mention that getting the right answers gives you more story than getting the wrong answers. Guess it also helps that there's no fail state because some of the clues just don't add up to much until you select what to link it to, leading to some lame ass trial and error crap. Granted, what I'm doing here is putting a band aid on a boo boo, but like I said in the intro, the gameplay is pretty much obligatory.
Though that doesn't explain why this game has more collectibles than Donkey Kong 64. Nah, what I said about there being quite a bit of backstory does that, instead. See, each of the buildings you explore as well as the town of Salem have a zillion and one collectibles that relate to the backstory and even some other neat sidestories. Just walk around and interact with something that could be construed as a collectible, and then there you go – another bit of lore! It's usually on the way, but there's some that are in little nooks and crannies to the side. You just have to look around, which should be expected in games that go out of their way to absorb you into their world. I mean I don't think I'd care as much about a town I've barely explored as I would for a town that I've gone through a couple of times to find those collectibles. Some are in hard to find places and having no in-game map meant that they'll remain hard to find, but what really gets at my tits is that at the end of the game, one of the places is left inaccessible and you can't simply warp your save file back to a time before that bit. So if you haven't gotten everything from there, well, you're going back to square one!
Square one... wait, did I mention that there are no fail states? Sorry, I was lying – there is one for when Ronan's soul gets eaten by the demons. See, every now and again, you'll find yourself in a stealth segment where you need to take down the demons before they find you and make you their dinner. If you get caught, you can take refuge in some soul residue, but the demons aren't dumb *bleep*s like the AI from the new Thief game. No, they'll check the residue in the area nearby and they can keep at it for a while. You'll be manically teleporting between residues to get away from them, hoping that sooner or later, they'll leave you alone and you can go back to taking them down. These moments can be fairly tense as one false move could lead you to disaster and having to start that section again... but it also brings to light another issue with this game. It's awfully *bleep*ing fussy with how you get to lock onto stuff. It's like you have to get the camera to this magic angle before it lets you interact, and in some cases, that moment might be too late. Too often, I've died because I couldn't initiate the takedown sequence. It's a bit frustrating to die because of a technical imperfection rather than because you suck – go figure, the one thing with a fail state happens to fall victim to a finicky system. Shit.
But you know what – while the gameplay is mediocre and obligatory at best, it didn't hurt the game because the story and presentation was amazing. The gameplay itself was tolerable and never really felt like a hindrance. In fact, there were times where it actually helped to move the story along, which is what games should try to do. Not to mention that it hardly strayed away from what worked, which was creating a living, breathing world with a story that enthrals the senses. Salem was a town that demanded little more than your attention, which gets easily snatched by the premise, the relationship between Ronan and Joy, Ronan himself and the escalating plot. This is a story driven game done right and I wish more games would follow in its footsteps. Granted, the side characters could've been a bit more interesting and interacting with things didn't require such a precise camera angle, and there are a few other things that could be done to make this perfect, but on the whole, this is a game that I'd happily recommend to everyone else – professional reviews be damned.
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