There are ground rules for the dead in Salem. The first rule of ghosting, as always, states that faffing about this mortal coil is mandatory until all your Earthly baggage is removed. There are also laws that aren’t so obvious, like “ghosts are intangible but can’t walk through the walls of consecrated buildings,” which in the erstwhile witch-obsessed Salem includes every single apartment complex but not a single mausoleum. Things like walls and trains also have ghosts, and these, too, are solid. And passing through certain rocks isn’t allowed, if the rocks are really big. Wait. Are these rules or suggestions?
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a game that plays fast and loose like this—with its rules, with its investigations, and even with its own code. Take the game’s leading man, felonious police detective Ronan O’Conner, who has donned the badge to make amends for his criminal past. At first glance, he is every bit the B-movie protagonist he should be. It starts with him falling out a window, his life’s milestones flashing before his eyes. Every one of these major events is punctuated with the acquisition of an awful tattoo, like a dollar sign that is on fire, until he is sleeved in idiot metaphor. He mouths off a series of awesomely bad one-liners. He is shot over and over until he is dead. And his fedora follows him into the afterlife, because he is the sort of the guy that is soul-bound to a fedora.
But Murdered is not some late-night show about a douchey ghost cop, and hoping will never make it so. As soon as Ronan learns he has to solve his own murder in order to join his dead wife in the nice part of the afterlife, he’s all business. The one-liners go away, and he enters a charmless working relationship with a bratty teenage medium named Joy. Why the sudden about-face? Murdered won’t say—it will just act like it didn’t happen.
If Ronan is not a consistent character, he can at least hang his fedora on this: He is, always and forever, a terrible detective. Fortunately, even the lizard part of the brain can solve the mystery of the Bell Killer. There is an investigation toward the middle of the game that requires Ronan to get Joy past a stonewalling receptionist. He thinks aloud that he should check her desk for weaknesses, as the camera pans the office. The only thing on her desk is a photo of a little boy on crutches. This is an example of a medium-difficulty puzzle in Murdered: Soul Suspect.
At its most base, the game becomes The Tautology Challenge, where thinking about it at all means overthinking it by a mile. In one case, Ronan possesses a person’s mind, and asks, “How can I get them to think about the killer?” Some buttons appear on screen; one of them is labeled “The Killer.” Ronan O’Conner’s not really a details guy.
But Murdered is not all walking through (some) walls and deciding which is the more important clue, the dead body or the angry cat. There is also a bit of stealth, where Ronan has to avoid demons that will suck the soul out of his… soul. This involves teleporting between hiding spots until you can get behind a demon and execute it, which does add tension to a game that is otherwise devoid of risk.
But part of this tension comes from the fact that dying at the mouthparts of a demon results in an astronomical pause while the game reloads. And most of the challenge in the investigations comes from the fact that it’s hard to tell whether the right action just hasn’t been taken yet or if a computer-controlled actor missed their mark, making progression impossible without loading the last checkpoint. Maybe other versions of the game are less buggy, but the PlayStation 3 edition struggles to hold itself together.
Murdered’s loose feel doesn’t always weigh against the game, though. The ghost “stuff” that populates Salem is a lovely amalgam, as the ghost world doesn’t particularly care what era any one object comes from. So there’s glowing colonial brickwork next to steam locomotives next to gramophones next to sedans. There are also times where the game recalls that its premise should be handled playfully, so it lets you possess cats that can be made to pointlessly meow. And when it remembers both to be silly and to sweat the details, the game delivers wonderful Easter eggs like the origin story of the fedora, which it’s safe to say inquiring minds were demanding to know.
It’s times like that one, when Murdered actually feels like it is thinking about what the player wants, that it’s possible to enjoy the game’s elusive premise and nonviolent eeriness. But most of the time, it’s an unfocused experience that breaks its own rules and serves up the barest of challenges. It’s much easier to accept that Murdered isn’t really thinking about what it’s doing at all.
Murdered: Soul Suspect
Developer: Airtight Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3