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Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Murdered: Soul Suspect.

Murdered: Soul Suspect. 

Murdered: Soul Suspect is apparently not the most anticipated game of the year, which genuinely surprises and alarms me. For shame, gaming community. Dishonour on you all that this game was less anticipated than the last Call of Duty game, for god's sake.It's my most anticipated game of the year, though.  

Murdered: Soul Suspect tells the story of ex-con-turned-Salem-detective Ronan O'Connor, who while charging in to investigate a murder by the mysterious Bell Killer ends up beaten, thrown out of a window, and then shot repeatedly in the chest with his own gun. That's not a spoiler, that's just the premise, as Ronan then returns as a ghost bent on solving his own murder so that he can move on, with the reluctant aid of spirit medium called Joy. 

Ronan, prior to his violent death.

I rented it out with glee on the day it arrived, and have been playing it since – and finished it, because it's not a long game, not in the slightest. In fact, as games go, it's startlingly brief.

Its briefness is its biggest flaw, I think – short games can work very well, such as was the case with Portal, which could be rushed through in two hours and is deservedly iconic. This game could have worked very well as a short game, too, except where Portal feels fast-paced and varied, Murdered: Soul Suspect feels oddly padded out.

Maybe I'm just being grumpy. The 'evade demons' sections, which comprise a major part of gameplay, were not to my taste, so every time one appeared I kind of rolled my eyes and mentally made a mark in the 'this might just be here to waste time' column. They're stealth sections, in which you must use a combination of glowing hiding spots, walls, and ghostly raven distractions to sneak up behind 'demons' one by one and kill them with a short quicktime event. It's not a bad idea, but it has a few problems: If a demon discovers you, losing them is far more difficult than it should be, as you have a limited space to move around in; demons will rapidly change direction, resulting in you occasionally flinging yourself into their path; and they always show up in groups of two, three, or more. 

Excuse me, sir, I need to get up those stairs.

Quite often distractions would be out of reach of hiding spots, too, meaning that if you wished to lure a demon into a trap, you had to make a break for the raven, then sprint back to the hiding spot, then sprint back to the demon while hoping it didn't turn around.

It makes for some very frustrating sections, matched only by the one 'avoid a ghost train that can kill you somehow' section that was both irritating and logically problematic, as you can successfully manage to throw yourself out on a limb three times and take out three out of four demons, only for the fourth to suddenly look around and see you, and then pursue you through the area while the Yakety Sax music plays. I won't say they're not very tense, atmospheric sections, but towards the end they do start to suffer from an Alan Wake problem, where any kind of atmosphere is drowned by the sense that the game is now just throwing them into your path to delay you, causing annoyance at being waylaid by fiery cloaked wraiths override any sense of fear or tension you'd managed to build up to that point.

The game also has a lot in the way of collectables which you can sink time into searching for, and I've never been the kind of gamer who seeks out collectibles. I know that's not true for a lot of people: I once watched someone playing Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess meticulously seek out every single insect in the game for no other reason than because they were there. I myself tend to just pick them up if I find them, and the game didn't really encourage me to do anything more than that: You don't really get anything for picking up the collectables, after all. You get chunks of backstory, mostly, which are nice, but with the exception of the 'Julia's Thoughts' series that catalogue the protagonist's history with his now similarly deceased wife, I never made a point of reading them. 

Also, sometimes there are creepy drawings. Often, even.

There are also sidequests, which were much more to my taste and usually involved the investigation mechanic that I'll talk about in a second. You'd find some poor, lost soul, investigate around until you found the clues to answer the question keeping them on earth, and then they'd vanish into a pillar of light – except for that one time where the game bugged and instead the poor woman remained in place, sobbing, with me unable to talk to her.

(Game bugs were, thankfully, rare. I had the 'you can't talk to this person for some reason' bug twice, and never in a situation that seriously affected gameplay. Ronan seemed as annoyed as me at the bug, as every time it happened he would flicker back and forth like an enraged teleporting pendulum.)

The game shines brightest during its investigation sections, where you're placed in an LA Noire esque crime scene or investigation area and must search for clues, which you can then link together to answer whatever pressing question you needed to piece together a solution to. These sections are sadly underdeveloped, and could have done with some more gimmicks to switch things up a little: A greater focus on forensic examination, perhaps, ala Condemned 2, which had an excellent investigation mechanic; a few more powers that can be brought to bear; obstacles in the scene that must be moved out of the way using possession or poltergeisting, or overcome with the use of your human medium partner, Joy. When the investigation sections are good, they're very good, but when they're bad they can often feel extremely frustrating, and interest wanes quickly.

The last main gameplay sections were the 'escort Joy without her being seen' sections. They're simple, but fun: Joy can't get caught, so she'll wait out of sight while you use your powers to cause the maximum amount of chaos to draw people's attention, and to switch off security cameras, allowing her to slip through the mayhem you've created while around her people just wonder why everything is going wrong. 

I wrecked about twenty interns' night for you, lass.

You can enjoy hearing them pondering their bad luck, and any number of other things, since in a display of impressive devotion to a gameplay mechanic, every single one of the many human NPCs can be possessed. You usually can't do much with them: Unless they're plot relevant you're more or less limited to the 'mind read' option, which gives you a brief snippet of their thoughts, but that didn't stop me from possessing everyone I came across. There's a lot of care put into that mind reading mechanic, too: I never encountered two people thinking the same thing, and more often than not their thoughts matched up in some fashion to the context – a man sitting with a woman was internally sulking about her not wanting a relationship, a waitress was advising herself to just smile, a news reporter was thinking angry thoughts about being given 'small town stories'. It's pretty neat.

It's a very good looking game, with a landscape of ghostly blue ruins contrasted against the warmer-toned modern Salem buildings. Everything is beautifully designed, from landscapes; to the demons who look like cloaked, fiery eldritch abominations; to ghostly mentor Abigail who has shades of Wednesday Addams about her; to player character Ronan, who's halfway between a noir detective, a cowboy, and a gangster. The game is visually never boring, although it is often dark enough that I had to turn up the brightness settings.

The story is very well done too, with engaging characters who have interesting backstories and clear motivations – but there's again a problem with length, as the story often feels very thinly spread, like it could have used another three hours of gameplay or so to give it room to breathe and to give you some time to explore characters who are plot relevant, but get very little time in the limelight, like sulky police officer Baxter and aforementioned ghostly mentor from Puritan times Abigail. 

And the Bell Killer, with his love of guns and boat nectar.

It's a good game with an excellent concept behind it, and it could have done with having more money and time poured into it to make it a longer, more involved game. I don't know whether it'll be getting a sequel – the story is, by and large, very self-contained – but game companies have conjured sequels for self-contained stories before, so if it gets one, I'd like to see something built along the same lines, but a little meatier. Square-Enix Europe has been doing some really good, interesting games lately, and this is one IP I'd like to see them build upon.

On an unrelated note, how tall is Ronan? I swear, he towers over every single other character, and it's not just the hat. 

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