I'm a sucker for a good crime mystery. When I need to cleanse my palate and take a brief hiatus from video games, you can usually find my nose buried in one of the greats: Chandler, Thompson, Christie, Ellroy, and other authors who leave a satisfying reward at the end of their labyrinthine plots full of booze, larceny, and moidah.
When done well, these stories operate under the terms of very game-like mechanics: Characters and their actions adhere to a certain set of rules -- rules that often grow more complex as the plot slowly unravels. While this factor is key to why I love the books I do, finding myself pulled from cliffhanger to cliffhanger in pursuit of the ultimate truth is something I've rarely experienced in a video game. And outside of Persona 4, Deadly Premonition, and the Phoenix Wright series (including its related spin-offs), it's hard to think of many other titles that make mystery a core component -- and do it effectively.
I have to sympathize with developer Airtight Games, because while it's (comparatively) easy to simulate shooting endless waves of humanoids in the head, abstracting the act of deduction into a controller-friendly experience is a much more complicated undertaking. And Murdered: Soul Suspect's protagonist, Detective Ronan O'Connor, is staring down one of the most formidable deductive feats affecting the dead today: solving the mystery behind his own murder. While Murdered may share the same premise as 2010's woefully overlooked Ghost Trick, the similarities end there. Where Shu Takumi's modest little adventure game explored the full potential of the spiritual world, crime-solving, and time-travel, Murdered squanders its interesting setup by making the player feel they're barely an accessory to Ronan's underwhelming investigation.
Soul Suspect takes you through its mystery by confining Ronan to certain areas until he can piece together a new lead that carries him to his next destination. And while his experience is otherworldly, Ronan's interactions with the physical world are actually quite mundane. Each area offers a certain amount of clues for Ronan to discover, which mostly amounts to navigating through these environments and nabbing whichever objects light up with a button prompt. Most of the time these clues are scattered throughout a level, but when Ronan investigates an actual crime scene, many of them are conveniently labeled with yellow markers by the police.
At first, it seems as if Soul Suspect will require Ronan to go through some clever machinations to find these important pieces of evidence, but its "puzzles" don't get much more inspired than having him jump into the heads of NPCs to check out whatever important item sits directly in front of their eyes -- which seems altogether unnecessary, seeing as the ghostly Ronan can phase through physical objects. At times, you'll have to make a nearby piece of machinery turn on or off to distract the living, or jump into a cat's body to squeeze into a ghost-proof area, but these solutions are always the most apparent ones. And Ronan's possession powers limit him to reading the thoughts of any passersby, or inspiring certain ones to think of subjects that can yield important clues, so don't think you'll be able to run amok in the body of any living thing a la Dishonored.
Unfortunately, this approach makes your role feel more like a clue collector than a detective, as much of Soul Suspect's deductive work stays on auto-pilot. When you finally collect all of an area's given clues (or just the necessary ones), you're then presented with a question that requires a handful of your found evidence for the answer. 98% of the time, these solutions are head-smackingly obvious, but regardless of their difficulty, finding them will lead Ronan into a seeing flashback of the related events that transpired. It's an experience that left me disconnected from the mystery: I would scoop up all of an area's given clues -- some of which seemed to have no bearing on the case until Soul Suspect deemed it so -- feed them to Ronan, and wait for the revelation made possible only by his ability to see these snippets of past tragedies. While the story took some interesting turns and twists, at no point did I ever feel responsible for uncovering the truth -- instead, I was just dumping clues into the intake valve of a truth-finding machine.
At around 10 hours, Soul Suspect isn't a very long game, but it still features some annoying padding meant to justify a boxed retail release. In the style of Alan Wake, the world is littered with collectables for the sake of giving you something to collect, and while these stray items yield a few lines a text about in-game subjects, it'd be nice if they had some effect on Ronan's abilities. And while Soul Suspect has enough self-control to avoid giving Ronan some sort of ghost-blasting arsenal, the investigation segments are often broken up by stealth-based puzzles that end up being more tedious than challenging. Apparently, when ghosts wander the earth for too long, they transform into demons with the average intellect of a genome soldier from the original Metal Gear Solid. The time you spend sneaking around these guys only serves to delay Ronan's investigation, which makes for an extremely unwelcome detour just as all the pieces start coming together.
It's a shame that Airtight Games underthought Murdered's detective work, because its depiction of Salem, Massachusetts has a fantastic atmosphere I loved wandering around in. True, it can be shlocky at times, but Soul Suspect fills its world with colorful vignettes that explore the many options of ghost life -- like the spirit of a stalker who finds it much easier to keep tabs on his prey with his new, invisible form. If Murdered: Soul Suspect had at any point made it seem like my presence was necessary, I definitely would have been more invested in its central mystery and world. Instead, I felt more like Watson to Ronan's Sherlock Holmes -- a curious onlooker who can only stand by and mutter "How does he do it?"
The reliable Unreal Engine 3 doesn't offer many new surprises, but Murdered's atmospheric depiction of Salem and its (living and dead) inhabitants is definitely effective.
Murdered's soundtrack isn't very memorable, but its ambient background mix provides a spookily appealing portrayal of Ronan's ghost-filled surroundings.
The lack of a map is unfortunate, and items often won't yield a button prompt until Ronan do-si-dos around them a few times and ends up in juuust the right position.
Even though there's a bit of supplementary content in the game, Murdered doesn't provide any compelling reason to jump back into it once the mystery's been solved.
I really wanted to like Murdered: Soul Suspect, but -- like L.A. Noire -- it's a detective game that manages to gets its most essential quality absolutely wrong. The backdrop of Salem lends a lot to its central mystery, but at no point will Soul Suspect ever put your deductive skills to work. That's fine if you're indulging in an episode of CSI, but I like my thinky games to require more than just passive interest.