Ghost Problems: The Game
Murdered: Soul Suspect begins with the protagonist getting hurled out of a third-floor window and shot several times as he lies dying in the street. Perhaps an unusual way to start any game, but then the goal is for your ghostly form to track down your killer and resolve whatever unfinished business is preventing you from passing over and being reunited with your dead wife. Fortunately, being dead means not having to worry about red tape and due process, and the player is free to investigate their own murder and bring their own killer to justice.
However, Murdered: Soul Suspect's pre-release history might end up being the one thing anyone remembers about the game. From the incredulous reactions to its punny name and early game teasers ("they're calling the guy Ronin?") to a truly baffling and intense PAX panel with a consultant and actual FBI profiler who described in detail his experience with serial killer cases and conspiracy theories, folk were starting to get a sense that Murdered: Soul Suspect would become an entertaining trainwreck when it eventually emerged. It's not clear what Square-Enix and the now sadly departed Airtight Games were hoping to accomplish with the game's promotion, but I can't imagine everything went according to plan.
It's a shame that it got so misrepresented by its own hype machine, as the game is actually a fairly intriguing, small-scale adventure game that tells its story well enough and does right by its Salem setting. No prizes for guessing that the witch trials would be involved with its batch of serial murders where young women are getting dunked in rivers and set on fire (and it takes everyone on the Salem police force an unusually long time to realize this), but there's plenty of attention to detail given to the area and to the game's characters. So, too, does the game get a lot of mileage out of its rugged hero and his incorporeal powers.
That said, no amount of plotting and character development can raise it above its myriad problems. Perhaps fittingly for a game about ghosts, Murdered: Soul Suspect lacks a lot of substance. What little gameplay there is amounts to hunting for clues in the various crime scenes to piece together a mystery and occasionally evading some Dementor-esque demons. The vast majority of the game is spent wandering around as a ghost, talking to other ghosts about their ghost problems and possessing people to hear their thoughts on what they're planning to eat that evening. There are literally hundreds of collectibles scattered around as well, detailing the history of Salem and the historical witch trials, of Ronan's life and that of his wife Julia who died before the events of the game, of the serial killer Ronan is chasing and area-specific collectibles that, once all of them are found, provide various spooky tales presumably sourced from real-life accounts of the supernatural. If you aren't fond of hunting the environment for shiny objects in third-person games, then perhaps Murdered isn't the game for you. Me? I can't get enough. Yes, it concerns me too.
The aforementioned steath sections feel very shoehorned in, like the combat in Deadly Premonition: another spooky and atmospheric game that got the short end of the stick from critics due to its narrative weirdness and limited functionality. At times Ronan will be faced with demonic wraiths that quickly destroy his incorporeal form once they spot him. Ronan has to employ the environment (the demons can pass through walls, but they can't see through them) and "ghost residue" to hide until their backs are turned, at which point the player can get close for a stealth takedown. All it takes is a simple QTE and the wraith is gone for the remainder of the stage. The problem with these sections is that they aren't particularly fun, nor do they ever change during the game's runtime. A couple of stages in, the game introduces ravens that can distract the demons temporarily, making them easier to surprise, but that's it. Nothing else ever gets added to the formula after this, and the demons continue to pop up for no other purpose than to give the player something to do other than crime scene investigation and collectible hunting. They aren't particularly challenging either, and there's no real punishment for dying other than suffering a bit more through the game's extended loading times. Defeating these demons isn't even required, in many cases.
Visually, the game does some interesting things with the combination of the ghost world and the real world, and there's some impressive facial animations and general graphical quality. Both Ronan and his ingenue companion Joy, a runaway urchin and budding spirit medium who is one of a handful of living characters able to see and hear Ronan, have impressively detailed models. The game's many supporting characters and antagonist are less well-realized, but acceptable enough. The ghost world, which appears to be the ghostly ruins of a burning 19th century Salem, act as both a reminder of the city's history and obstacles that Ronan cannot easily get around, unlike any real-world furniture that Ronan can simply walk straight through. The juxtaposition of the eerie blue historical Salem and the muted colors of modern Salem, each jutting through the other, does make for some great looking level design. Sections like a runaway phantom train passing through the Salem museum, close to where the actual train sits as an exhibit, is another instance of the game finding ways of incorporating its two worlds into the game's mechanics, as the player has to run around to avoid getting hit. Whether passing through a ghostly 1900s field hospital built to combat an outbreak of Yellow Fever, or an asylum with a grisly past that comes alive as the player drops into dilapidated sections of the building, it's clear that the game has a few good ideas for this feature that maybe could've used more expanding upon.
For as mostly well-written and acted as the game is, there's a remarkable amount of plot holes and other scripting problems. That Ronan immediately meets the actual Abigail Williams (in full creepy Wednesday Addams form) upon becoming a ghost should be a major warning sign for anyone who's read or seen The Crucible, as is the aforementioned genre blindness when it comes to the witch trial murders. That all of the killer's victims were spirit mediums or had exhibited psychic abilities is something Ronan finds out far too late for someone who's supposedly been following the case this long, and appears to have been made a late-game discovery purely because it would've made things too obvious for the player were it to be revealed any earlier. Whether it's goofy plot contrivances like these, or unexplained elements that eventually become non-sequiturs like the killer's distinctive bell symbol signature, there's a lot of evidence that for as focused on its narrative as this game is, it could've still used some fine tuning. Not David Cage bad, by any means, but still a tad problematic in parts.
Still, if you're looking for something that's a bit more of a casual detective adventure game with some neat ghost mechanics and higher production values than the thousand CSI or Sherlock Holmes games out there, or are patiently waiting for the sequel to Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective that will never happen, Murdered: Soul Suspect isn't a terrible choice by any stretch. Just don't expect to get a lot out of its short runtime and minimal gameplay. Between its lack of replayability and multiple dead characters, longevity is not what this game is about.