With Shadow Of Mordor out next week, David Rodoy turns his paranormal stare to another game with ghostly goings on. Is it hip to be Square (Enix) or does Murdered: Soul Suspect make you want to give up the ghost? Find out…
Oh, Murdered… why can’t we be friends?
Let us begin with the positives in our relationship. Murdered is a narrative-driven, often atmospheric, fairly original, interesting concept that’s spun out into a pretty competent game. Being generous.
You play a detective named Ronan O’Connor, who is somewhat down on his luck, insofar as the game begins with him being tossed violently out of a window and then shot seven times in the chest.
I believe in the detective game this is called ‘doing it wrong’.
But this is where the game begins. A nifty intro scene showing Ronan’s troubled and twisty-turny life reveals that he lost his wife some years ago and has been grieving over her. In death he discovers that, well, death isn’t the end. Julia, the wife, appears to him in a pillar of light, indicating that to move on and join her he must finish his earthly business. Unsurprisingly, his earthly business is solving his own murder and in the process revealing the identity of a deadly and perhaps supernatural serial killer known as ‘The Bell Killer’ because he’s fond of drawing a bell-like symbol at each killing.
In the course of play Ronan discovers a medium’s daughter, searching for her missing mother who had been helping the police track the Bell Killer, and the dynamic duo thus set off to right the many wrongs inflicted on the poor folk of Salem. Or at least catch the guy who inflicted them.
To the game’s credit, it plays the ghostliness straight up. The world is as it should be, only in the ghost realm there are after-images, remnants of things lost long ago, such as old-style liner boats in the middle of the street, a ghostly house forever in flames, and an unseemly number of ghostly figures and children who haunt playgrounds (often congregating around mortals on the swings for additional creepiness) and who appear to have nothing better to do than stare at you sullenly. Perhaps they wish they were the main characters instead.
This stuff is good. The game even has a side quest system of sorts, where now and again Ronan will encounter a ghost with unfinished business and he can help them sort it out and move on. But critically the game doesn’t do this all the time. Most of the time that’s how it pans out, but sometimes you encounter a ghost who either doesn’t know they have unfinished business, or who simply doesn’t want your help. It adds to the atmosphere, it makes them more than a side quest, and provides a life to the setting beyond the momentary encounters with the other unfortunate dead.
Some of these encounters are quite striking. A suicide victim huddled up and staring at her own dissected corpse, traumatised even in death by witnessing what the morticians did while ascertaining what killed her. There’s no helping her. All you can do is talk and leave her there, all alone with her own corpse while the doctors work – ironically – on your corpse on another table.
Ronan, wisely, does not stick around to watch for long.
Am I making this sound good? I shouldn’t be. Because, sadly, Murdered never reaches its potential. It grasps, it even claws, but it never arrives where it’s going and meanders badly towards a tawdry swamp of mediocrity.
The actual game part of the game involves you walking around as Ronan, possessing people to listen to their innermost thoughts (apparently the people in Salem are very unimaginative, because they often seem to think the exact same things), peek through their eyes at what they’re reading, eavesdrop on their conversations and generally behave like a cross between big brother and that creepy stalker you always wish you weren’t.
Investigations pop up frequently, wherein Ronan must wander around a small area uncovering clues to allow him to solve the question at hand. This requires finding as many clues as possible, and then picking ‘the most relevant clue’. Or clues. Quite often you will have to pick a selection of three clues, or three in a specific sequence, and variations thereon, to solve the investigation.
And why three clues, I ask? Is it because without three clues the moons will never align, and mighty Cthulhu shall never awake from his eternal slumber in Ry’leh? Is it because three actually is the magic number? Or is it because games are obsessed with doing things in threes (if you’ve never looked for this habit, try it sometime; it’s amazing how many boss battles in particular are designed with three phases or have to be hit three times or whatever)? It doesn’t actually matter though, because it doesn’t work.
The problem is that it’s often counterintuitive. It attempts to represent the idea of a detective investigating a scene, but the actual thinking that links a clue to a solution can be oblique at best. Part of the problem is that often you can be presented with three or four clues that you would think would solve the investigation, but nooooooooo. You must find the one clue, the one and the only clue that ‘best’ fits the investigation, with ‘best’ being determined by a game of pin the tail on the donkey. While drunk.
I am being a touch harsh. It isn’t always that bad. But when it is that bad, it becomes a serious and annoying problem. It is only annoying, in that these are never game-stopping failures. In fact you can just blind guess until you get it right each time. But of course you’d rather get it right first time, and there are achievements and trophies associated with doing so.
To be honest, if things were left there, and perhaps they had polished the detective system a tad, Murdered would have been hovering around good. Unfortunately, the developers had a serious case of cold feet and decided they needed some sort of ‘action’ in here.
This action comes in the form of ‘demons’, ghosts who have been stuck around not moving on for too long and now can never do so. Instead they float around feeding on other ghosts, the faded remains of which you find all over the place. Regrettably, this is where it all goes wrong.
In theory the demons are great. They are well-designed, visually, and even better designed orally. The first encounter with them is quite tense in fact; even scary if one is so inclined. But then the mechanics, oh damnable mechanics, mess everything up.
Demons cannot be approached face on. If they see you they make scary noises and start sucking up your soul like an especially angry hoover. So you need to sneak up on them, which you do by hiding in ‘soul remnants’, which is metaphorically like hiding in a field of corpses to escape from soldiers. When the demons turn away you sneak up on them and can perform what amounts to a stealth-kill… at least in theory.
The problem is that the developers included a quick-time button press to complete the kill. This is a variable combination of direction on the analogue stick + a button, which must be input into such a small window that I found myself failing three out of four attempts because I simply couldn’t process what I was supposed to press fast enough. The demon then immediately becomes cross and chases you around, while you bunny-hop through ghost patches as fast as possible to make the demon lose you.
Repeat. And repeat. And REPEAT. AND REPEAT.
And that’s all it took. One series of bad button presses, and the entire encounter mechanic was permanently ruined for me. There’s no atmosphere when my entire concentration is on recognising and inputting the correct buttons fast enough, and there’s no fear when I fail, either, just a random swear word and staring eyes while I wait for the demon to reset its path in order for me to try and kill it again.
So in short, I didn’t like the ‘combat’ in Murdered. In fact it’s so poorly implemented that it almost ruins the game on its own. It is the little mistake that could. Even when it works perfectly, it reduces the demons to speed bumps, distractions to pad out the game that offer so little challenge that they might as well not be there.
On the bright side, I believe, after further playing, that the shortness of the quick-time input window may have been a bug, as later in the game I found that it extended the window long enough for me to do my thing (my presumption is that it’s meant to keep them ready for a-killing as long as you hold the button). On the not-so bright side, this regrettable series of events was caused by a bug. And not the only one.
Besides the apparent ‘split second input window’ bug, I was forced to restart from checkpoint no less than four times over the course of a single play session, usually due to specific story-required button inputs just not appearing. Many cut-scenes are triggered by picking up items, you see, and the option to pick things up or talk to a character or investigate a thing just wouldn’t appear for me. This, also, seemed to clear up the further I got into the game. The mighty Matt Reynolds did not report either of these significant bugs in his experience playing the game on PS4, so it’s possible the bugs are caused by the PS3 version being slightly inferior in some way, but that’s pure conjecture.
It’s all very frustrating, because I want to like Murdered. It often feels as if there was a man in the office of the developers leaning over the programmers’, writers’, and everyone else’s shoulders, watching what they did, and giving them a pep talk along the following lines: “Okay, you’re almost doing this right. This is how you screw it up. We’re aiming to fail here, guys, aiming to fail! Keep your eyes on the prize.”
Even when Murdered is good it manages to frustrate, because it’s the kind of good that gives you a sense that there’s a brilliant game here, banging its head against a brick wall of suck that’s been erected around it.
Take conversations. These happen a lot, as you’d expect. When a conversation occurs there’s an introductory bit of dialogue, and then a floating series of text prompts tagged to each of the face buttons. You pick one, and your unlucky dead guy pursues the line. Simple enough, right? You get to pick your points of interest, right?
In fact, you generally have to exhaust all lines of questioning to proceed the investigation or to at least advance beyond the dialogue, and the end result is that the conversations themselves feel extremely disjointed, with no flow from one topic to another. It’s as if they wanted to just do a single dialogue cutscene but someone was saying ‘No, we can’t have a long cutscene, people will be bored, we need to give them the faint illusion of choice’. And faint it is indeed!
This is one of the most frustrating aspects of the game for me at least, because this is the area where it should have excelled, and could have excelled. By and large the dialogue, taken as stand-alone samples, is good verging on excellent. The performances, at least with the two central characters, are more than satisfactory and at least at the standard you’d expect of a top studio game. But it all comes to nothing because of the weird way the game makes them interact in anything but its cutscenes… which – predictably – are fine.
In this regard, Murdered feels at times like the redheaded, brain-damaged bastard son of Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire. Heavy Rain is the mother in this analogy. It grew up idolising dad, but it was mother’s boy at heart, and it should have listened to her advice more often.
There are plenty of attempts to twist on the mechanics. For example, Joy – the game’s second character – needs to be helped to sneak through a police station quite early on. To do this you have to use your ‘poltergeist’ ability to cause photocopiers and fans to turn on at random or malfunction, thus distracting the cops and leaving Joy a clear sneaking route through the area. Simple enough, right?
Yeah… about that.
The problem I ran into here was that on the way to finding Joy I wandered around poltergeisting everything in sight. Because it was there. And nobody batted an eyelid. Never mind the random spewing coffee machine, who cares that the photocopier is projectile vomiting its paper all over the floor, and hey, fans turn on by themselves all the time around Salem. At least nobody cares until its time for Joy to go back through that area.
It’s such a little thing, but it just destroyed my immersion.
I think I’ll wrap at this, because the key points are told. I don’t want to give spoilers on the story because it is actually quite good, and for those who want to give Murdered a chance, there is some gold to be found here. But it is mired in ropey graphics, immersion-breaking game mechanics, and plenty of irritating bits of game design.
If you’re looking for a decent detective-themed game that has a genuine original spin and a good little story to tell, check Murdered out. It’s one of the cheaper newish titles on the shelves and so isn’t too great an investment. Assume that your copy of Murdered will come bug-free, and with luck it’ll all have been my PS3 playing up (the old dear has some years on her now).
On the other hand, if my plaintive wails sound like they’d frustrate you as they have me, stay away and stick with something a little more polished.
4/10 (7/10 if you find a good story to be a very important aspect of a game’s value)
– David Rodoy