If Murdered: Soul Suspect had been released in, say, 2004, gamers might be speaking about it in quiet, fond tones, reminiscing about how it broke new ground for console adventure games and presented the kind of story you didn’t see often enough in those days. The reality, however, is that it’s a triple-A game, released in 2014, and even if seen as an old-school throwback, it’s not even remotely up to the task of doing its best ideas justice.
The game’s failures become more egregious because of those great ideas. Murdered: Soul Suspect is a game about dead detective Ronan O’Connor, who’s stuck on Earth as a ghost and can’t move on until he solves the mystery of his own murder at the hands of a serial murderer called the Bell Killer. The story takes place in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, and the ethereal debris of the witch trials of 1692 is still splattered all over the afterworld, long torn-down Puritan buildings still stand, albeit gutted out for construction, condemned witch families stare at the undead in silent recognition from a distance, and the memories of Ronan’s past life haunt him around every corner. You collect clues about the murder either the traditional way—sifting through pieces of evidence, making hypotheses, and reading police reports/newspapers/web sites—or the ghost way, which involves possessing people to hear their thoughts, or talking to the victims themselves if they haven’t gone into the light yet. You also have the help of Joy, a teenage medium whose mother has gone missing, and may be one of the victims.
We’re meant to believe that solving the mystery of the Bell Killer would redeem Ronan and allow him the peace to move on, but nothing about the game gives the impression that he deserves it.
On paper, these are the makings of something if not brilliant, then at least unique, a sort of supernatural L.A. Noire riff, but Murdered: Soul Suspect doesn’t have the saving grace of over-ambition on its side. In fact, the exact opposite is true. If the game didn’t hover around 60fps and 1080p, everything about it would feel like a developer’s first shot at making a third-person game in 3D. Murdered: Soul Suspect is plagued by Bush-league physics issues, making interacting with objects often a choice of getting the camera to focus just the right way to target the right item. Aside from an admittedly interesting twist on a final boss, you have only one enemy variant the entire game that’s just an excuse to shoehorn a poorly conceived stealth mechanic. It almost manages to skate by with an elegant, plot-driven reason for its invisible walls (in the game’s mythology, all the buildings in Salem were consecrated during the witch trials, so ghosts can’t walk in without a proper open door), but then you run into situations where you can’t go to specific open locations, just because Ronan doesn’t feel like it, which siphons any hint of freedom out of what’s already a relatively small open world.
All this could be forgiven if the actual mystery was worth solving, or if our hero was one worth following, and the game’s lack of modern game design and forethought shows here as well. Ronan’s harshness to Joy keeps adding up over time, and it makes helping him less urgent than the game wants the player to keep believing. Every crime scene involves either walking around until you find something you haven’t hit the collect button on, or a screen where you select two or three relevant nouns and adjectives to accurately describe the thing Ronan just saw two seconds ago. The answers to each puzzle, quite often, relate to generic info about the Salem witch trials, since it’s the Bell Killer’s m.o., and even if Ronan wasn’t born and raised in Salem, they’re details that would be obvious to anyone who’s touched a fifth-grade history book—and yet the game treats these puzzles like they’ve asked the player to solve the Hellraiser cube. The sidequests, often involving listening to a fellow ghost’s tale of woe, are more or less the same, and the game doesn’t even offer a baseline amount of depth a game with this level of clout behind it could implement to make them more than just fetch quests.
The central mystery does take advantage of the storied, grisly history of Salem, but not in any way the player can’t see coming for miles. Playing through that mystery, with wonky physics, an uninvolving protagonist, and a beleaguered sidekick far more worthy of the attention, adds up to an experience that fails its promise on all fronts. We’re meant to believe that solving the mystery of the Bell Killer would redeem Ronan and allow him the peace to move on, but nothing about Murdered: Soul Suspect gives the impression that he deserves it.