Murdered: Soul Suspect is a game that seems to have been made for those who enjoy the stories in their games above all else. Needless to say, I enjoyed it very much, but I can also see how others could walk away with a completely different impression. It is a game littered with various flaws, after all, and while I felt that all of these flaws were minimized and outweighed by the strength of its story and atmosphere, those who primarily look for a deep gameplay experience and replay value are bound to wind up disappointed.
The story is the game
Imagine Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit, and the noir-ish elements of Casablanca having a nasty threesome while Alan Wake’s atmosphere watches from a dimly-lit corner of the room. The resulting child would be M:SS, a game more focused on its story and style than mechanics. In it, you play as recently killed cop Ronan O’Connor, a man with an extensive criminal history who turned his life around after falling in love, but who then wrapped himself up in the danger and preoccupation of police work once said love was unexpectedly killed. None of this is approaching spoiler territory; the game begins with an amazing introductory cutscene that not only explains all of this back story, but also sets the stage for the mystery of the “bell killer,” a psychopath who’s been killing people all around Salem and leaving a mysterious bell symbol at the scenes of his crimes.
The bell tolls for thee
Needless to say, Ronan finds himself a victim of said bell killer after trying to single-handedly arrest him without backup. You soon realize that he’s in a purgatory kind of state that keeps him from moving on and being reunited with his dead wife, and it’s apparent that the only way to finally move on is to solve the mystery of the bell killer. Murdered: Soul Suspect, then, is a game that combines ghostly tricks (specifically possession, mind reading, and planting thoughts in people’s minds) with detective work, and while it doesn’t always succeed perfectly, it’s certainly a completely unique experience.
Being a ghost is fun, but limiting
First off, playing as a ghost is pretty much exactly what you’d expect it to be like. Walking through walls, cars, and other obstacles is no problem, and you can even “possess” any character in the game. However, there are some serious limitations to what you can actually do. For example, the spirit world is a mixture of the old and the new, so while the living can walk down a street with no problems, you may need to find an alternate path due to an old-timey ghost building that’s blocking your way. Ghostly obstacles can’t be walked through like normal obstacles, naturally, so these can occasionally force you to find another way around. There’s also a rule you pick up on early in the game: ghosts can only enter a building through an open door, window, or other opening. That means that most of the buildings in the game will be inaccessible.
Ronan’s powers in detail
Possession is possibly an even more limiting power than being able to walk through some-but-not-all obstacles, because while you can zip your way inside of any NPC, 90% of the time you’re only given the option to read their mind. Mind reading is an interesting little feature, but most generic NPCs walking along the street have identical thoughts, and even the unique characters only ever seem to get 2 thoughts that repeat over and over. This means that while mind reading is an interesting feature, it ends up being criminally underutilized. That’s nothing compared to “influence” and “peek,” however, those being your other two options when possessing NPCs. To start with, you’re only able to use these when the plot calls for it, and both are underwhelming powers for a ghost to have.
“Peek” is fairly obvious in that you look through the eyes of the living to see what they see, and I can’t help but wonder why this is even necessary since Ronan is invisible and could theoretically just lean over to read what he needs to read without the need for possessing anyone. “Influence” is a bit more interesting in that it pops up a screen of clues and allows you to select one of them to influence the possessed individual’s thoughts, but there’s only ever one “right” answer, making this feel more on-rails than it probably should.
Linear is the name of the game
I have no problem with linearity, of course, but there were several junctures where I wished that I could influence someone’s thoughts in a different way to discover some extra information, or at least confuse the possessed by making them think of things they have no knowledge of. There would be something undeniably fun about that, but investigations are ultimately a 100% linear affair in that you search for clues, then put the pieces together by selecting the most relevant clues from a list of everything you’ve found in order to form conclusions. While it’s not always obvious which combinations are the “right” ones due to how general many clues are (meaning it’s possible to come up with combinations that make perfect sense despite being considered wrong by the game), you’re given an infinite number of tries to put everything together the “right” way. This eliminates any frustration that the less-than-ideal mechanics would cause otherwise, though you’ll no doubt wish that you were given just a little more freedom.
Accepting this is key
Whether you enjoy M:SS or not ultimately comes down to whether you’re capable of looking past the linearity and wasted potential of the possession mechanic. If so, the story is intriguing enough to draw you in. If not, you’re bound to be disappointed by the game. It’s just that simple. The atmosphere, story, and voice acting are all amazing enough that any story lovers out there will end up loving the game despite how much better the mechanics could have potentially been.
Throughout the game, you’ll find different kinds of collectibles spread throughout the world. These come in several different forms, from the random notes of a “ghost girl” you meet to the lingering memories of Julia, your dead wife (which, it should be mentioned, help explain the relationship between Ronan and her from her perspective and are quite a nice touch).
There are also unique collectibles to be found in the smaller locations you venture through, such as the church and graveyard. These unlock little side stories that play out as cutscenes once you’ve found all of them, and while the stories only connect to the main story in a tangential way, I nevertheless found myself hunting them down despite generally being collectible-adverse.
QTEs are demons
In addition to investigations, there’s a semi-action element to the game in the form of demons. These are lost souls who’ve become so lost that they can’t be saved, in the process becoming hideous monstrosities who feed on other souls. Needless to say, you won’t be approaching these things directly. In fact, these demons seem to be used deliberately as roadblocks to pad out the length of the game a bit and provide the gamer with a little action. This succeeds and fails in different ways to where it’s neither a positive or negative thing.
On the one hand, you’re completely helpless against these demons in a straight-up fight, and that helplessness (combined with the absolute necessity of sneaking up on them one at a time) can occasionally be terrifying. This is doubly true given the twisted way that demons move, mixing both slow and unnaturally fast movements together in a truly disturbing way.
On the other, actually destroying/banishing/whatever-ing these demons plays out as a QTE sequence where you’re told to hold one button and then press another sequence of buttons. This is difficult on a gamepad, but I actually found it even harder with the keyboard and mouse, and the consequence for failing the QTE is alerting the demon (and any of its nearby friends) to your presence. From there, you have to zip between “ghost residue” hiding spots while avoiding the screaming demon/s who are looking for you, and this can be truly frustrating, especially when a demon comes to check the hiding spot you’re using and blocks the path to the next hiding spot, all but guaranteeing that you’re discovered.
As strange as it sounds, even something as inherently flawed as QTEs manage to add atmosphere to the game. Murdered: Soul Suspect is strangely eerie in a way few games are because of that atmosphere, and a large part of that eeriness comes from playing through the game as a ghost. What do ghosts have to fear apart from (the admittedly rare) demons, after all?
It’s strange to see ghosts of the departed litter the world as you run around and realize that this would probably be a bit on the scary side if you were playing as a living character. Playing as a fellow ghost, however, means that they’re more reminders of your own state and the city’s past than anything harmful or terrifying, which in turn means that this game is safe for even the most horror-adverse out there despite its uniquely disquieting atmosphere.
It’s a bit on the short side
If length is a big deal for you, you should probably be aware that this game is only around 7-10 hours depending on how long you spend hunting down collectibles. I did feel that this was a bit short for such an interesting mystery, but it’s better than the game padding itself out and overstaying its welcome. Still, the length, combined with its linearity (and thus lack of replay value), means that this may be a game to pick up during a sale rather than paying full price.
While checkpoint saves are a huge negative point against most games, that’s mostly because of said games’ action and non-linear elements. M:SS is a linear game largely devoid of action, however, so I didn’t find the checkpoints to be that big of a deal, especially since it saves frequently enough that you can quit at virtually any time and not have to worry about replaying large chunks of the game. Still, this may be a deal-breaker for some.
Aliasing is the devil
I don’t care about graphics very much, but M:SS struck me as unusually ugly for a modern game. As I played, I realized that a big reason for this was the constant aliased edges that no antialiasing could seem to smooth out. The “ghost” effect is a glowing kind of effect, you see, and I’ve noticed in other games such as Bioshock Infinite and several others that scenes with lots of glowing tend to be where the antialiasing fails to work adequately. In those games, these sections are only a few frames long and thus only noticeable in screenshots. In M:SS, however, Ronan glows for almost 100% of the game. On the bright side, the game runs remarkably well and seems to be highly optimized; most modern games make my computer scream like a jet engine, but playing through M:SS, my computer never went beyond a gentle hum.
The music reminds me of Fahrenheit in a lot of ways, only minus the licensed music. If you haven’t played Fahrenheit yet, what that basically means is that there’s a lot of subtle string music that happens in the background to build tension, but that you aren’t really aware of most of the time. In fact, Murdered: Soul Suspect’s music is even more subtle than Fahrenheit’s, and many scenes have no music at all. While this would be horrible for most games, there’s a great little “clue found” string sound that’s allowed to shine because of this, and the combination of that and the other downplayed musical elements fit the game like a glove. I’m a sucker for memorable themes and prominent musical elements in games, but M:SS has the only kind of soundtrack that would work with the type of game it is. Anything else would be a distraction.
Here’s what you should do: