Murdered: Soul Suspect is an adventure game in which you assume the role of a ghostly detective who must solve his own murder. The premise is intriguing and Soul Suspect certainly starts off strong, throwing a plethora of unique ideas at the player, but it doesn't take long for the cracks to show.
Reformed criminal turned Salem P.D. detective Ronan is hot on the trail of the elusive Bell Killer. Things don’t turn out so well for Ronan - he ends up being hurled out of a 3rd story window, his chest riddled with bullets. Ronan then wakes up out of his body and quickly realizes he has become a ghost. He cannot join his wife in the proper afterlife until he resolves the issues keeping him tied down to earth, namely his own murder, and this is his motivation for solving the case. Along the way he receives help from a young teenage medium who can see, speak to, and annoy him, but who also happens to be the Bell Killer’s next target.
One of Soul Suspect's neater ideas is the ability to walk through walls. It would be even better if it were an unrestricted ability, but naturally the game comes up with a contrived impediment that will quickly dash your hopes of freedom of movement. Ronan cannot walk through the walls of consecrated buildings and must instead wait for doors or windows to open in order to enter these otherwise restricted areas. Another unique ghostly ability Ronan can tap into is that of teleporting short distances. This skill comes into play later in the game but it can be cumbersome to use as it requires the coordination of a few button presses and aiming with the analog stick. Ronan can also become a poltergeist and demonize electronics such as TVs, cameras, and telephones in order to provide a distraction in the physical realm.
During an “investigation” you are pretty much confined to a small area and must look around for objects you can interact with. Finding these clues is mostly a matter of walking around until a button prompt communicates that you can take a closer look at something. The clue is then added to your memory. When it is time to conclude your investigation a screen appears listing all of your clues and you are tasked with sifting through them and picking out which one is most relevant and logical to your case. Usually you have three tries to choose the correct answer, but the penalty for choosing incorrectly is so minor that there is little tension when faced with these choices.
Sometimes Soul Suspect feels like a very mature episode of Blue’s Clues. There are points where the game seems to go to great lengths to remind you that you're playing an interactive game. When interrogating a witness for information, for example, no matter which dialogue choice you select the story will progress naturally, making it feel like one long cut scene arbitrarily dissected by button presses.
Only one aspect of the gameplay approaches anything akin to combat. At certain points you will encounter horrifying demons that can see your ghostly form. If they grab hold of you they will disintegrate you into nothingness (yes, you can die even after you’re already dead). The only way to overcome these demons is to sneak up behind them and execute a button command to vanquish them. Evading their detection can be quite challenging at times - if they spot you they let out an unearthly screech and begin their pursuit, and the only way to avoid them is by hiding through possessing nearby humans or by taking refuge in a weird spiritual gas. The first few encounters with these demons is a genuinely tense and unsettling affair, but as the game progresses they became a chore to deal with and vary very little between each encounter.
You can possess pretty much any living person you encounter. In addition to reading their minds you can also influence their behavior by combining your prior knowledge with theirs to unlock new information. You can also possess them to interact with physical objects that require a body or to pass through demonic traps that only harm ghosts. More than once, you also take possession of the body of a black cat and use it to nimbly navigate otherwise inaccessible areas such as vents and tree branches.
As you may have already guessed, the town of Salem, Massachusetts is not quite an open world sandbox. You will find yourself navigating through familiar horror story settings such as graveyards, insane asylums, and churches. Between major plot points you do have the opportunity to poke around the confined streets of the town, find hidden secrets, and interact with some of the locals, but the town feels lifeless, with most people standing around barely interacting with anything and staring off blankly into nowhere. The entire game also takes place across the span of a single night, so it's persistently dark and dreary.
All of that said, the atmosphere is strong. The musical score is aurally haunting and memorable, perfectly complimenting the game's morbid nature. I was pleasantly engrossed by a number of memorable scenes (such as witnessing your own character's autopsy or conversing with a ghostly butcher who admits to having served human meat when he was alive). The pervading sense of dread and danger is constant, except for when Ronan takes a break from his main mission to help solve smaller mysteries revolving around ghosts he encounters who have also yet to move on due to a lack of closure. These mini mysteries are novel — like helping to assuage the guilt of a suspected drunk driver by proving he was not behind the wheel at the time of his fatal accident or clearing up misunderstandings concerning a love suicide — but they take away from the tension and pacing of the central narrative.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is notable for its grisly acts of violence, mostly aimed towards women. Yes, numerous real life serial murderers have preyed solely on women, but Soul Suspect directs an excessive proportion of its violence and torture towards women. The game’s final twist is also a slap in the face that comes down hard on the plight of the fairer sex.
Persistent players will manage to complete the mystery in around five or six hours, perhaps even less if you're not engaged by the side quests or challenge of finding collectibles. The main plus side is that the story is better written than most video game narratives, although it falls short of the 'must experience' territory that games like Heavy Rain or BioShock are often name-checked into. Murdered: Soul Suspect also feels more like the pilot episode of an ongoing TV show rather than a complete story in and of itself; I felt like Ronan could easily go on solving more mysteries.
I really wanted to like Murdered: Soul Suspect, and to a certain extent I did. It pushes a genre and concern for storytelling not often found on consoles. Regrettably, it is too short and uneven an experience to recommend outright to anyone who does not already possess a predilection for this type of game. Like Ronan - who is caught between this life and the next - Murdered: Soul Suspect is caught between the uneasy middle ground of a big budget release and what should have been a more economic digital-only, episodic series.
This review is based on a digital copy of Murdered: Soul Suspect for the PS4, provided by the publisher.