We all know how Die Hard ends. A bloody and battered John McClain reaches behind his head, whips out a concealed handgun and pops Hans Gruber. "Happy trails, Hans," he quips as a (very dapper) Severus Snape tumbles out of the skyscraper and onto his concrete doom.
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But imagine if instead, at some point during his barefoot battle through Nakatomi Plaza, John McClain is ambushed by a hooded assailant, has the stuffing beaten out of him and is thrown out of a window. Then ghost McClain rises up out of his limp, lifeless body and begins an otherworldly investigation into the identity and motivations of his mysterious killer.
This idea became the kernel of a series of prototypes that eventually became Murdered: Soul Suspect. And that's exactly what happens Ronan O'Connor, the protagonist of Square Enix's new game.
Confused? Yeah, so were we, perhaps because we were distracted by the tantalising idea that Airtight Games has a prototype of Die Hard: Ghost somewhere. But, not being ones to interrupt during the unveiling of a brand new IPs to discredit idea kernels, we ran with it.
Like most protagonist these days, Ronan O'Connor is from the Nathan Drake Academy of character design. He's the roguish type: strong features; a cowboy's stare; the perfect amount of stubble; grizzled voice well-suited for a dramatic narration of one's own untimely demise.
Instead of the unkempt hair, stained shirt, half-tuck and jeans, Ronan's rocking a fedora tipped just low enough to cast a shadow over his eyes, a suit-vest, and a red silk shirt with rolled up sleeves. He's undoubtedly the coolest looking ghost in town, and there happens to be quite a few of those in Salem, but more on that later.
Our demo of picks up at the scene of Ronan's death, following the aforementioned ass-whooping. Not content with thoroughly killing his corporeal form, the mystery killer pops Ronan's ghost with a few bullets, leaving some blazing, bright orange bullet holes permanently in ghost Ronan before wandering off into the night.
Ronan's on the hunt for clues that will put him on the trail of his killer. Slouched over his body is a detective muttering about "not waiting for backup" and Ronan being "a dumb son of a bitch". A second detective doesn't take too kindly to speaking ill of the dead and a fight scuffle briefly breaks out. It's later hinted that the second cop might be Ronan's brother.
Ronan exists in Limbo, a world known as Dusk, in this middle ground he's able to explore the real world, but also make use of unique abilities afforded to him by being a ghost. The core of gameplay is very much in the spirit (ho ho) of classic point-and-click adventure games. Players must explore their surroundings and gather together enough pieces of the puzzle for a picture to form.
In this scenario, the Ronan is surrounded by a number of potential sources of information: a couple of cops yapping about the case; a detective with a notebook filled with leads, and a stricken witness.
Being 100% dead, Ronan can't get his phantom fingers around a pen to scribble notes in a notebook, so his thoughts are expressed instead expressed by his mind's eye. These appear as floating text in the world and are essential to investigations. When Ronan looks at his own body, the screen is filled with thoughts, feelings and possible scenarios for what happened. The player needs to pick the right options, in this case "fell from window" and "shot", to trigger a short flashback of events.
Like all good ghosts, Ronan can also possess people. Although he isn't able to manipulate them (that put an end to any mischievous plans we had) he can see through a subject's eyes. For the purpose of figuring out who shot Ronan this was just the trick to take a peek at the detective's notebook, which revealed the gun didn't belong to the killer, but was Ronan's.
Possession also lets Ronan hear through a subject's ears, which is used in this case to possess one of the two chatty cops and eavesdrop on the conversation. The two officers continue to converse as normal, seemingly indicating you're only possessing the his ear - terrifying.
There's a natural flow to the conversation, with both officers interrupting and occasionally overlapping each other. The pair discuss Ronan, his tattoos and how he was more criminal than cop.:"You look like a thief, you die like a thief". Snooping in on the convo didn't provide any additional information on the case but it provided a little more colour to Ronan, who it seems hasn't always been on the up and up.
The distraught bystander, on the other hand, did have some new clues, the only problem was that the stress of seeing the event has impacted her ability to recall details properly, and on top of that she's hysterical. Ronan is able to help her see through the fog by combining his memories with hers, a ghost-cop version of the Vulcan mind meld if you will. Buried in the mess of emotions in her head is a clue directing Ronan to the fourth floor.
Ghosts are incapable of walking in and out of exterior building walls, the contrivance created for this is that the citizens of Salem are in-touch with the supernatural and christen buildings when they are built to ward off otherworldly entities. To enter buildings there needs to be a breach, and it just so happens that a police officer has very kindly opened the door.
Inside the building, however, Ronan is able to move freely through walls and fixtures. This opens the gameplay somewhat to exploration. By moving through the various rooms players may uncover secondary quests and characters to interact with. For example, in one room the frightened ghost of a young girl wrestles with her unexpected mortality, she's too afraid to figure out what happened, but by searching around and listening in on conversation the player can get to the bottom of how she died.
In another corridor another young girl scribbles an anonymous looking mural on the wall, it shows the town church surrounded by what look like magic symbols. This is a tease for side-quest that spans the majority of the game pertaining to the town itself. Like this, other extra-curricular activities will be rewarded with more information on characters, the nature of Dusk, and other details about Salem.
The next stage of our quest for answers takes us to the third floor we get our first taste of combat. As well as wannabe-Sherlock ghosts, Dusk is also home to a number demons for Ronan to tackle. Dealing with demons is all about picking the right moment to strike, in the demo Ronan inhabits NPC characters to hide from demons, by leaping between them he's able to flank the demon, get inside it and make it explode.
Eventually Ronan reaches the fourth floor, the scene of the crime. Here he puts some of his other tricks to use. Ronan can take memories that have been pulled into the Dusk reveal them and investigate. By interacting with memories Ronan is able to figure out the killer was actually looking for someone in the building. That someone happens to be a girl, hiding in a nearby room that watched the attack happen and escapes through nearby window.
This is all information that the cops haven't, and probably won't, be able to ascertain. Once all these pieces have been collected, players must then put them all in chronological order to watch the event unfold from the very beginning, from all the angles.
The last piece of information the fourth floor room has to offer is a picture which, on contact, delivers a psychic vision showing the girl is staying at a nearby church. As Ronan follows the girl's path out of building, the camera zooms out to reveal the city's rooftops are filled with ghosts.
In many ways Murdered: Soul Suspect is an evolution of the classic point-and-click genre and, like those games, its success will hinge entirely on how good the puzzles are and the stories it has to tell. Although we weren't immediately captured by the figure-out-why-you're-dead premise, the supernatural element is a wrinkle that could take it to interesting places.