It can be difficult to reconcile the concept of Murdered: Soul Suspect with the delivery. As a result I've spent as much time thinking about what the game could have been as opposed to what it offers.
The concept, for what it's worth, is the perfectly eccentric and idiosyncratic experience you'd expect from someone like Shu Takumi, director of the Phoenix Wright series. You play as Ronan O'Connor, a recently deceased cop-turned-ghost who must use his supernatural powers to solve the mystery of his own murder.
It couldn't be more of a Japanese pitch. In fact, fans of Takumi will point out the unmistakable similarities to Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective.
But lay your eyes on the game and what you'll see is unmistakably Western. Visually, it has the hallmarks of an Unreal Engine 3 project; the muted tones, moody lighting, detailed textures, and its own fish-mouthed characters. Beyond that, Murdered leans heavily on Western motifs: it's set in Salem, Massachusetts, a town known for its historical links to witchcraft; and stars Ronan, a typical hardboiled cop with Irish roots.
Instinctively one gets the impression that much of the feel can be attributed to the game's Washington based studio, Airtight Games, which has worked on titles such as Dark Void and Quantum Conundrum. But what we're told instead is that this western concept was Shiokawa's original vision, Airtight was simply chosen to realise it.
"We're very much [Shiokawa's] clients," explained senior design producer Eric Studer.
"We're making the game he wants to make. He has an idea of the systems he wants to see and the story he wants to tell, we iterate on that, build the systems as a group and take it back to him. There's a back-and-forth between what he wants and how we implement it."
Our hands-on with Murdered begins with a crash course in Ronan O'Connor, the crash part of it being Ronan shattering glass as he's tossed through a top floor window. As he descends to his demise we relive key moments of his life, each manifested in a tattoo on his body. A cheated death tattoo references the time he was stabbed, another alludes to his criminal past, while a rose represents meeting Julia, his wife. The rose later becomes blackened with ink, signifying her death, or perhaps worse.
According Studer, Ronan's persona and tumultuous past were part of the original concept delivered by Shiokawa, but Airtight did clear up some of the misconceptions he had about American cops.
"Shiokawa-san was looking to do a ghost type game and then he saw Die Hard," Studer continued.
"It's important not to think of Die Hard holistically, it's more about who John McClain was and what kind of ghost he would be. He'd be a very strong willed character that wouldn't give up, he wouldn't just abandon his quest to stop the bad guys. He would find a way to overcome the impossible odds."
You can see perseverance in Ronan, who plays the hand he's dealt in a very cop-like fashion. He spends little time grappling with the realities, or unrealities, of his predicament before springing into action. Within moments he's noticed the corpse sprawled across the road shows a spark of life when he touches it, and - as anyone would - immediately tries to jump back in, with the player aligning and orienting his limbs and head to merge the two.
It would've worked too, if it wasn't for the hooded killer to finish the job, riddling his torso with bullets. The gunshots burn a cluster of orange holes in Ronan's incorporeal form, cementing his deadness but also making the character model a little more visually interesting.
The gunshots burn a cluster of orange holes in Ronan's incorporeal form, cementing his deadness but also making him more visually interesting
After a 'walk towards the light' section, a quick chat with the aforementioned dead wife about finishing unresolved issues, and some exposition about Dusk, (a spirit realm in Salem that's not quite as inescapable as purgatory) Ronan is back at the scene of his death, trying to piece together what happened.
The core of Murdered plays out much like L.A. Noire, in that players must comb their environments searching for clues that will progress the investigation, which in this case involves sniffing out the killer's trail before it goes cold. But whereas Team Bondi's game relied on noticing the nuances in people facial expressions and body languages, Murdered allows players to inhabit characters and manipulate them.
In the crime scene is Stuart, an officer scribbling into a notepad various observations. Nearby, a panicked lady is claiming to have seen everything that happened, along with two police officers talking between themselves. The game lets the player know exactly how many clues can be found at the scene and, by wandering around and interacting with Ronan's body, more clues are collected.
At this stage, it's fairly obvious the best place to look is the policeman's notepad. this kind of information is often ascertained by possessing people. Once inside Stuart, players have the option to "peek". By seeing through his eyes at his notebook we learn the only weapons at the scene belong to Ronan, and that Cassandra Joy, a building tenant, is missing.
Jumping into the muttering cops, meanwhile, lets players eavesdrop on the conversation. They discuss whether Ronan was reckless in chasing the infamous "Bell Killer", who apparently has been on a bit of killing spree lately. The last stop is the eye-witness claiming she saw it all. The problem with her is that she's too emotionally unstable to properly recount the details of the event. However, with the clues gathered, Ronan is able to possess her and use the power of suggestion to get her mind on track.
By selecting key pieces of evidence, such as the shattered glass and shell casings, she will retell the scene of Ronan falling through the window and being shot.
The next step is to get into the building and gather more information. Ronan can't simply walk into a building since, given Salem's proclivity for the supernatural, most buildings have been christened to keep out ghosts. Instead he must find opens created by others to gain access. However, once inside he's able to phase through most walls as he pleases. This is when the game becomes a far mor interesting sandbox to explore.
Murdered adds an extra dimension to the bog standard NPC by giving players the opportunity to hear what they're thinking as well as what they're saying. This creates mini-narratives in the various rooms of the building for players to experience.
In one room, for example, an elderly man sitting in front of the TV is berating his wife for being nosy. Jump inside the old lady's head and you'll hear her worry that her husband prefers the TV to her, and ponders whether she should withhold his meals as punishment. In another room three people are playing poker, one player is feigning confidence, another is reserved and a third is focused on the game. Reading their thoughts reveals the overconfident guy is, as expected, bluffing, while the other man is pondering whether he should go easy on the woman in the hope that she likes him. The lady, it turns out, is a grifter, and is taking them both for all they've got.
Ghosts also can be interacted with in different ways. In a boiler room on ground floor is the ghost of a young woman who knows she was killed in that very room, but cannot figure out why her body is missing. Although she suspects an "older" couple to be responsible for her death, she qualifies her statements by saying she was on a lot of drugs at the time. By searching around the building players can use a "reveal" ability to manifest collectibles which explain her story.
The third floor is home to a mother dealing with her child's inability to sleep. In her mind she's assessing whether giving the child too much sugar may be the cause, but if you venture into the child's bedroom you'll find he's haunted by a ghost spirit in a closet. Talk to the ghost and it recounts the story of failed kidnapping; that the child should have been the criminal's ticket to riches, but instead got him killed, so now he's going to spend all time haunting the poor boy.
There's scope to tell some very cool stories outside of the main narrative, and Studer says the team has spent significant time giving players more ways to drink in all the stories surrounding.
"The thing about the Dusk is that, fictionally, there's not a lot of room for ghosts that have died of natural causes. It's a pretty bleak place that exists because of human suffering, so if you're there it's because of a pretty nasty reason," he said.
"As you follow the storylines you'll see some of the ways people have died. It's a little bit dark, but that's okay. There are other characters that you'll meet that have interesting ways of interacting with, and that will influence how you perform investigations, and offer insight into the story and the world.
"We have five or six collectible types that you'll interact with in slightly different ways, and the rewards for collecting them are slightly different. If the player takes the time to do that, you're going to learn a lot about who these characters are and why they act the way they do, both between themselves and to Ronan.
"It all goes into the fact that we created a lot of lore for the game, but it's done to enhance the complexity of the world and make the characters feel three-dimensional. A lot of lore isn't necessarily part of the story, but we didn't want it to go away, so we created extra interactions to show the thought we put in."
Murdered offers little guidance on where the player should go or what they should pursue and, as far as we can tell, doesn't surface side-quests and second points of interest in any obvious fashion. In a way, this makes the exploration element interesting, but at the same time risks players bypassing the better content entirely.
"It's a risk we take. It's also cooler that way," Studer says.
"If we were constantly pointing people to things to do it would undermine the sense of exploration we want the player to feel. The good news is that once you finish that story you can go back in there.
"As you learn that things aren't being put in front of you, you can go back and look for things to hopefully discover what you might have missed first time through."
The main goal, of course, is to reach the top floor and look at the secondary crime scene, but this made slightly more difficult by the inclusion of demons.
Possessing similar wall-phasing abilities as Ronan, these beings are created when people refuse to resolve their issues and move on. They patrol environments in a manner reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid guards; strictly following a set pattern until its broken. If Ronan is seen, the ghost will attempt to absorb him.
Sprinting away from demons giving chase isn't very effective since they move much quicker than Ronan, so players must instead hide within designated pockets of space that Airtight describes as "residual soul energy". Ronan can jump inside these pockets, which are represented as white whisps, and even leap from one to another. Using this skill in tandem with his ability to distinguish the location of ghosts through walls, a game of cat and mouse is established. The key is to pay close attention to the demon's patrol and anticipating the best way to manoeuvre around it. Occasionally, there are opportunities to distract demons, such as turning on a nearby TV.
Arriving at the fourth floor crime scene, it's time for Ronan to figure out what the Bell Killer was up to. The room is guarded by two policemen trying to keep inquisitive tenants under control. One officer is bluntly telling the people to mind their own business, while his partner silently wishes he'd keep his cool and relax. Inside, a detective is hunched over a counter littered with photos and reports, he's nervously trying to figure out where the missing tenant, Joy, has gone.
The routine is the same; gather the pieces of the puzzle and then put them together to make a deduction. This time the clues aren't so obviously marked, and discovering them all requires some close inspection. Eventually, players can mentally build their own impression of what happened. The act of putting together the pieces of the puzzle isn't particularly satisfying since you've already sussed it out in your head and are just going through the motions to progress. The reward for doing it right is simply the game reinforcing what you already know, without giving you any new revelatory information to think about. Though this may change as the game and story progresses.
Then another opportunity arises. Noticing the faint figure of a girl in a nearby room, Ronan is able to analyse her. A selection of words appear on the screen, such as ignoring, interfering, calm, fighting and frightened, and the player must pick the ones that most appropriately describe her condition.
If players select 'watching', 'hiding' and 'frightened', a whole scene plays out in full: A killer enters the room and begins searching, while she hides nearby. Ronan emerges and a fight ensues, but the killer seems to have supernatural strength and tosses Ronan around before throwing him out of the window and then going down to complete the kill.
Murdered builds puzzles around a narrative, rather than the other way around
Other clues, meanwhile, reveal the girl was in contact with a priest at a local church, and was packing to leave the apartment, giving Ronan his next lead to follow.
Although we weren't able to continue the game from this point, we were able to spend a little time in the Dusk's hub world. According to Studer, although the hub world serves as the connective tissue that holds the locations together, there's also plenty for players to do there.
At the pier we found a ghost of a woman standing by the water, who tells us she died trying to rescue others during a shipwreck. It's moments like these that show Murdered: Soul Suspect's true promise: Murdered builds puzzles around a narrative, rather than the other way around. Like most adventure games, its quality is hinged on the writing.
It's clear that the success of Heavy Rain and the resounding critical acclaim for TellTale's The Walking dead are a buoy for this project, but a large part of their successes can be attributed to Sony's marketing might and the virility of The Walking Dead as a property.
I can't help but come back to the game it could have been, conceptually at least, if it wasn't torn from its Japanese roots. This is a unique and interesting concept dressed as a me-too title, which I think does the idea a disservice.
It'd be a shame if Murdered: Soul Suspect becomes just a blip on the gaming radar because, as it stands, Square Enix's game has a lot of potential. And if there's one thing the industry could do with more of, it's successful narrative driven games.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is scheduled for release in June on Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One and PC.