The Big Sleep
Murdered: Soul Suspect doesn’t lack an understanding of the blueprints behind a good detective story. Laid out on a table like engine parts, the components are all there. Reassembled, the sparkplug ignites and the pistons pump. A requisite tough-as nails cop with a shady backstory and self-serving interests takes players, complete with intermittent bouts of narration, from Point A—a murder—along a logical sequence of sleuthy events before arriving at Point B’s big killer reveal.
The problem with following a blueprint and having characters so easily summarized as “requisite tough-as-nails cop with a shady backstory” is that it signifies, quite clearly, that you’ve stumbled well past city limits into dumb-stereotype territory. Enter Soul Suspect’s former flatfloot–turned–paranormal P.I., Ronan O’Connor, a walking, talking, ethereal mass of detective-fiction clichés.
The son of a career criminal, Ronan’s own history is a similar patchwork of felonious misbehavior, biographied by tattoos that cover every inch of his upper torso. Soul Suspect’s Salem, Massachusetts, it seems, is one with criminal activity on par with South Boston’s. But Ronan’s self-destruction is spun round 180 by the love of a woman, of course, and through a little string-pulling on the part of her badge-wielding brother, he’s able to become a plainclothes cop and right all his past wrongs, karma-style. The right-side-of-the-law Ronan is a fedora-wearing, chain-smoking, well-dressed misanthrope. Had Ronan been holding a tumbler of whiskey when he died, no doubt he’d be constantly taking pulls from a perpetually filled glass between drags of his ghostly cigarette and the dime-store similes he occasionally drops.
Oh, also, he’s dead. Spoilers?
Not really, of course. This is the premise to Murdered: Soul Suspect, a fact Square Enix’s marketing efforts have made no effort to hide, and literally the first thing to happen in the game. Press X to start, and one loading screen later, Ronan crashes through a window, plummeting four stories on the wrong side of gravity. He doesn’t survive, but for good measure, his murderer, the Bell Killer—a serial killer stalking the streets of Salem—puts seven of Ronan’s own slugs in his chest. Not content to let the other side of life inhibit his investigation, Square Enix’s vacuous echo of Sam Spade sets off to solve his own murder and stop the Bell Killer in the process.
It’s an interesting premise, to be sure, and when it comes to detective fiction, a good hook is one half of what helps set you apart. But Ronan and every other cast member he comes in contact with exist not as interesting people but roles within the context of the genre. If Scooby Doo hadn’t beat them to it, Square Enix and primary developer Airtight Games probably would’ve named their obligatory red herring Red Herring. The one cop in all of Salem who seems to find Ronan disagreeable does so on principle (because a former criminal couldn’t possibly make a good cop), not because of any interesting or complex human reasons. It’s antagonism for antagonism’s sake. Ronan’s spunky female sidekick, a teenage medium named Joy, has about as many dimensions to her personality as syllables in her name. Everyone plays a part, and as a result, the story falls apart, because without a strong attachment to the people and reasons surrounding the mystery, all you’re left with is clever ideas that never amount to more than a conceptually interesting set up.
More importantly, and more immediately problematic, without that emotional investment, Murdered: Soul Suspect never rises above the curious murky waters of underwhelming and mildly interesting. That last part has, again, more to do with something Soul Suspect represents as opposed to what it actually is. In this case, it’s the absence of conventional gameplay mechanics like full-blown firefights and larger-than-life action sequences. In this regard, Square Enix has done something fascinating and commendable. They set out to create crime fiction, and in doing so built a game that services the narrative instead of saddling a triple-A game with elements of something smarter.
Soul Suspect does include “encounters,” of a sort: demons that pop up at the tail end of almost every investigative step. Their threat is remedied in a stealthlike manner by playing hide-and-seeking in phantom residue, creeping up behind them and then willing them away with a few two-button quick-time-event prompts. Internally, their presence makes a sort of sense within the lore of Soul Suspect’s narrative. But mostly, they just feel like a tacked-on way to give players something more to do than just toss rooms.
Honestly, what passes for interactivity here is best described as a three-dimensional adventure game, in which Ronan can freely roam crime scenes and the streets of a small slice of Salem and press Square to inspect this or that. Then, once he’s gathered enough evidence, he can make associations and come to an intuitive understanding of what’s gone down. But while it’s refreshing not to spend either side of every other plot beat mowing down otherworldly enemies or some such, an unnecessary amount of handholding during investigations robs Murdered: Soul Suspect of deductive intrigue. Flexing mental muscle to make associations is never required—you just need to pay enough attention to separate what’s clearly important from what’s clearly not. There’s no hazy, gray middle ground. It’s either Super Obvious Clue or Taco Bell Receipt. And even if you find selecting the right leads a little muddied, you have three attempts to get it right, so there’s plenty of room for error.
I’m told that with Murdered: Soul Suspect, creative director Yosuke Shiokawa actively sought to avoid what he considered Heavy Rain’s biggest whodunnit misstep: an illogical culprit. Within the fiction’s internal logic, I think he manages to pull that off. What we’re left with, unfortunately, is a story that’s very clearly carefully constructed. Without anyone to give a damn about, the artifice that is Murdered: Soul Suspect never amounts to more than another abject study in the fundamentals of detective fiction at the expense of what, sooner or later, videogame designers are going to figure out is the magic answer to everything: Characters we actually care about.
|Developer: Airtight Games, Square Enix • Publisher: Square Enix • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 06.03.2014|
While a welcome break from the tired retreadings that define most games, Murdered: Soul Suspect finds itself in a precarious place where narrative value, above all else, is of chief importance. But while the deadlike denizens of Salem might sound right for this sort of game, the absence of compelling characters keeps what’s otherwise an interesting idea from landing any staying power.
|The Good||A pleasant departure from rote gameplay ideas; an interesting premise.|
|The Bad||Ronan’s cliché-come-to-life swagger and exhaustingly unoriginal design.|
|The Ugly||Apparently Salem’s citizens are so devoid of original thought that most share the same ones.|
|Murdered: Soul Suspect is available on Windows PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for PS4 using review code provided by Square Enix.|