NOTE: This review contains no spoilers.
The rise of achievements and trophies in games has given a pretty reliable way to tell when a game is either shovelware or was rushed out. Their design is almost always done at the end of development. If a project was rushed, they’ll often be for easily programmed triggers like completing story levels or grabbing all the collectibles. There will be little creativity or challenge involved, sometimes comically so. These are required for your game to ship on consoles though so they have to be done and you can see when they’ve been hastily created out of obligation. Such is very much the case with Murdered: Soul Suspect. This was a bummer for me as I was looking forward to this game but as I progressed through it, what I saw was something that was clearly rushed but also obviously had incredible ambitions and still ended up being something special to me somehow.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is an extremely flawed product to put it mildly but it’s also just super weird in many ways. Airtight Games is listed as the developer in most places. They had been around for a decade before going out of business right after this shipped, after stripping down to a skeleton crew to get it finished. They also had never released what I would consider a good game. They made Dark Void, another good idea with bad execution, Quantum Conundrum, a first-person puzzle game that tried way too hard to have personality and just came out boring, a couple of mobile titles and an perplexing Ouya exclusive that no one cared about. Surviving for a decade in spite of this track record is impressive on its own. However, when you check the credits of Murdered: Soul Suspect, you’ll see it listed as co-developed by Airtight and Square Enix Japan, with most of the project’s creative leads being Japanese. Co-development with console games is very rare now, co-development between a Japanese in-house team and an American external team basically never happens. There’s some narrative under the surface of this I hope we get to see some day. Was Square Enix unable to finish this themselves and just outsourced the rest? Was this Airtight’s idea that Square Enix decided to finish in-house as that studio slowly crumbled? Given Airtight’s past quality, was it their fault this clearly shipped before it was ready or like most new IP these days, did Square Enix just decide not to back it properly? There’s something fascinating there for industry observers like myself to chew on, I’m sure of it.
From the very beginning of Murdered: Soul Suspect, you can see signs of a rushed project. The game’s title screen is just a short, looping logo animation with no sound. The load times are abysmal for a dated looking Unreal Engine 3 game on a new console. The many CG cutscenes just look like heavily compressed captures of in-engine footage. Some of the flavour text from collectibles is very detailed, other stuff is only a sentence or two (more on that later.) I ran into numerous scripted events that wouldn’t trigger, requiring a checkpoint restart at best and a console reboot at worst.
And we haven’t even gotten to the game play yet.
At its heart, Murdered: Soul Suspect is trying to be an adventure game. Your character is a detective in Salem, Massachusetts who is a former hardened criminal who has reformed into a streetwise homicide detective. There is more backstory you can fill out in text from collectibles but to say that your character’s past isn’t well fleshed out is an understatement.
You start off being shoved out a window by a serial killer and dying as a result. You become a ghost, something you seem to adapt to and become pretty cool with jarringly fast and aim to solve your own murder while also catching the serial killer in the process. Since you’re a ghost, you can walk through walls within your current environment, to go into a new building requires an open door or window for reasons largely unexplained. You can also possess people to hear their thoughts, though they never have more than two which are always useless filler and many people in Salem are just mental carbon copies of each other. At certain story points, you can also influence a person’s thoughts and see key objects through their eyes. You also possess a cat once in a while for some dull platforming sections. Ghosts can possess cats and yes, that’s just something everyone knows and accepts from the get go in ghost world. You also get teleport capability and the means to remove certain, specific ghost walls that block your path sometimes because why not? Along the way, you cross paths with a young girl whose mother has gone missing. This girl is a Medium, a person with a special ability that lets her see, hear and interact with ghosts. What’s the reason for this? Look, stop asking questions and just roll with it OK? Through mutual need, you end up working together to solve this case, though your character ends up doing most of the heavy lifting.
The core game play of Murdered: Soul Suspect involves investigations and a ton of collecting stuff. You will enter an environment and proceed through some rudimentary challenges to reach your investigation point. If you’re by yourself, you’ll sometimes have to take out demons, which appear at set times in the story. These are forced stealth sections where you have to sneak up behind a demon and perform a one-step QTE to take them out. If they see you or you fail said QTE, you have to run away and hide until they get bored. It’s frustrating and has no real narrative justification. If you’re with your sidekick, you’ll often have to distract guards and cameras to guide her through the environment to where you need to go. These sequences are trivially easy and are clearly there to just pad out the game’s already short length.
Once you reach an investigation, you search for clues in the environment and choose from them to determine either the killer’s motives and/or what they’re going to do next to stay on their trail. The UI tells you how many clues there are to collect (plus you don’t always need them all), when you leave the zone where they are (which is always a small area) and if you try to solve the case early, it will even tell you if you’re missing the right clue. On top of this, you get three chances to screw up choosing the right clues, a mechanic that exists for no other reason than because someone said “There has to be a fail state here!” I’d love to tell you what happens when you use all your chances but the choices are usually so easy, I never actually failed more than twice. Some of the puzzles go so far as only having three options to choose from and since you still get three chances, you literally can’t fail. In some environments, there are also optional side investigations to provide peace to some troubled spirits but these work the same way and are even easier. All you really get for them is a small, unrelated side story and a trophy/achievement for each one. This game has almost Gone Home levels of formal elements at times and if you know what I thought of Gone Home, that’s not a compliment.
The other main element is collecting and boy howdy, there is a boatload of that to do. This is something that feels to me like it was always intended to be in the game but probably not to this degree. Throughout the environments, there are papers to pick up, plaques to look at and hidden object sets to reveal. All of these are clearly marked and many are in plain sight but a number are cleverly hidden away as well. They reveal back story about your character, other people in the story, the killer you’re pursuing and even the history of Salem. Some of this is interesting and better fleshes out the world and characters but some of it is very sparse, like there wasn’t time to finish writing it. They’re all optional but if you’re an obsessive collector, you’ll likely find the challenge of getting everything much lighter than some other collectible heavy games. Make no mistake though, like the demon stealth sections, this is just a weak padding device. Without this, the game could probably be finished in only a couple of hours. I collected about 85% of what was available and I still saw the credits in less than eight.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is an aggressively linear game but when you get out into the town of Salem itself, you can see it had ambitions of being much more. You’re actually free to wander around the town and I can see that they probably wanted this to be not necessarily a big open world but one where you could choose to go where you wanted and tackle the story in your own order. Indeed, the entrances to all the various environments you will eventually go to are open from the outset but trying to step into any but the one you’ve been directed to go to results in your character just turning around and saying “Not goin’ that way.” The town is sparsely populated with people who either just stand in place the whole game or are stiffly animated and walking the same looping route. You can’t enter any other buildings, there are no cars moving and much of the town is blocked by “ghost buildings” you can’t pass through. In the end, Salem just serves as another level to get collectibles in, a lot more since you’ll visit it several times. It’s more filler as the game shoves you down a pre-determined path. It’s clear this wasn’t the way the design was intended though and I would have loved to see this game stay in the oven long enough to become more free form.
That’s really the key take away of Murdered: Soul Suspect. This is a game that had lofty ambitions. That’s obvious when you play it. You can not only see that in a general sense but in many cases, you can specifically see what they wanted it to be. Yet for whatever reason, whether it was Square Enix being squeamish about a new IP, Airtight’s mediocre development history or something else, the project was stripped down to a small shell of what it could have been and shoved out the door to try to lose as little money as possible, rather than just cancelled. There was incredible potential here and the framework was in place, they just squandered it and burned not only this brand but the potential for larger budget, console adventure games in the process.
So I’ve spent many words dumping on this game but I also said it was something special to me. Despite the long list of problems, I really enjoyed my time with Murdered: Soul Suspect and though it’ll probably never happen, I’d love to see someone else take a kick at this can. The characters needed more fleshing out but in the moment, were often well realised. You empathised with their plight and what they were up against, a feeling I don’t often get in games. The voice acting was well done as was most of the core writing. The story is a murder mystery and it excels at that. My girlfriend and I recently watched the phenomenal British mystery series Broadchurch which kept us guessing about who the killer was right up until the end, when we found out we were both wrong. The same thing happened with Murdered: Soul Suspect. I had several ideas who the serial killer was and the conclusion was something I never saw coming, yet was fulfilling as well. It also neatly tied a bow on the tale without just being sequel setup. This is so exceedingly rare to see from big publishers now that it’s refreshing when it does happen. While the developers had to neglect major aspects of the game part of Murdered: Soul Suspect, they still managed to hang onto the story they were trying to tell and managed to make it compelling and worth seeing through, even if the path to get these was tedious and frustrating. That’s an impressive accomplishment unto itself if you ask me.
Had this been a $20 downloadable game or even a $30 retail product, I think it might have been considered better and sold much better. Yet Square Enix chose to make this a full-price retail release, essentially guaranteeing it no audience and extra harsh reviews. In the retail console space, absolute quality and polish are required to ensure your game sells. What did they expect to happen with this? Development troubles aside, their publishing strategy with this game was so mishandled that while it may never have succeeded, it could have failed less than it probably has. It likely wouldn’t have saved Airtight Games but at least it might have done well enough to get a second shot with a fresh team.
If you’re someone who thinks games should be about game play first and stories second (as I usually am), the flaws of Murdered: Soul Suspect will probably be too much to give it your time. Even as someone who was surprised by it, I think paying full price for this is a poor value. However, if you’re someone who does like a different, good story that’s not told in a cliché way and has deep characterisation, it’s something quite special and in rare cases, that’s enough for me to like a game in spite of itself. Heck, how many mystery games in general do we get these days?
The most frustrating types of games to see for me are not the bad ones, it’s the ones that clearly could have been great if they’d just been given the chance to be and Murdered: Soul Suspect is most certainly that. It’s a game that was made with heart and well, soul, it just didn’t have everything else it needed and that’s a shame. It’s something different and cool though and in a console space where that’s becoming more and more rare, it’s maybe worth experiencing just for that.