I'm over halfway through Murdered: Soul Suspect when I realise something: I've not shot or punched anyone during the whole time I've been playing. Nor, it turns out, will I shoot or punch anyone for the remainder of the game. It's a testament to the game's peculiar strengths that it manages to feel like an action game while cleverly distracting you from the fact you're not actually getting much action.
The reason is pretty simple. Ghosts can't pick up guns and their fists tend to float right through whatever they try to hit, and since you're a ghost - the ghost of detective Ronan O'Connor, killed while investigating a serial murderer known as The Bell Killer - this can't help but restrict your options when it comes to violence.
You rely instead on brains, as you try to solve the mystery of your own murder so that you can find peace and be reunited with your dead wife in the comforting glow of The Other Side. This you do by using your ghost powers - and, yes, one of the characters explains them to you using that very term - to poke around crime scenes and read the minds of other characters.
It's an adventure game, basically, right down to the often frustrating hunt for clues. This makes up a good chunk of the gameplay and tasks you with finding a certain number of bits of info by exploring a tightly defined location, examining everything. Moving the story forwards requires you to find and identify the most relevant clues. It's not the most graceful representation of the detective's art, but it is a more compelling take on the genre than the rummage sale of irrelevant detritus that typified LA Noire.
You don't even need to find every clue, provided you can use what you do know to pick out the right key words. A lot depends on your willingness to play along, to act the great detective - but when that runs dry, a little bit of guess work generally gets the job done, since there's no meaningful penalty for making mistakes (unless you care about the half-hearted scoring system which ranks each puzzle out of three).
When you're not poking around looking for clues, you're trotting around a sort-of open-world version of Salem, Massachusetts. As a ghost, you can only enter buildings that have been left open - a door, a window - and there are also overlapping spirit world elements of the town that are as solid to Ronan as the "real" world elements are intangible.
It's a nice effect - as pedestrians casually stroll about their business, unaware of the spectral locomotive running through the street - but it's pretty clearly just an elaborate in-fiction way to keep you contained and navigating, rather than walking through every wall to get to where you're going. Even more blatant are the toxic patches of ectoplasmic goop, which exist for no other reason than to prevent Ronan from taking certain paths. There is a narrative explanation for this, late in the game, but its origin as a signposting tool is barely concealed.
Other gameplay elements include sequences in which Ronan must guide his reluctant sidekick - a sarcastic teen medium, ironically called Joy - through guarded locations, using your invisible presence and poltergeist distractions to clear the way, just as she uses her ability to, you know, actually touch stuff to help you out. It's the sort of guided escort mission that could be horrendous, but it's incredibly forgiving and the sparky banter between Ronan and Joy makes them more entertaining than the slender gameplay would otherwise be.
Less enjoyable are the bits where you're suddenly faced with demons. These floating Dementor-esque phantoms will suddenly infest the world, usually when you're on your way into or out of a location and the game needs to give you something to do along the way. If they see you, they'll screech and home in, sucking your soul and killing you a second time. The only way to avoid them is to hide in stationary remnants of other spirits, which you can teleport between. Sneak up on a demon and you can turn the tables, exorcising it by yanking its spirit out with a simple button-and-direction-matching input.
It's a crude version of stealth, and also the closest Soul Suspect ever comes to direct violent action. These encounters mark the game's low point, by a considerable margin, and it's while constantly failing and restarting these simple yet infuriating gauntlets that you'll come closest to switching off and giving up.
I'll confess, I did that more than once. But I always came back, a few minutes later. Partly, yes, because it's my job, but also because I was honestly enjoying Soul Suspect's flawed, clumsy charms. Boiled down to the basics, the gameplay is fairly flat and limiting. You jog to a location, find clues, solve a riddle, dodge demons and then repeat the whole process again. Possessing other characters is never as interesting as it sounds, mostly just triggering the same two irrelevant soundbites, and the puzzles never really strive to develop their systems beyond the basics.
There's no map, which makes navigation around the confusing streets a bit of a pain, and waypoints to your objective are sometimes used, sometimes not. For most of the second half of the game, it kept telling me to "Exit the attic" - a simple task I'd completed hours earlier. The visuals are OK, but look more like they belong at the start of the previous console generation. Flickers and glitches are commonplace. Soul Suspect gets a lot wrong, quite frankly.
It also gets a lot right, and the stuff it gets right is the stuff too many other games neglect. Stuff like character, innovation and, in its own clunky way, ambition. Soul Suspect, for all its wonkiness, is different. Noticeably different. At a time when publishers crow about "new IP" because they put a new name on the same old mechanics, there's something to be said for a game that genuinely doesn't play like anything else on the shelf.
The story certainly helps. It's a hokey tale, but one that's told with the briskness of a smart B-movie and even delivers a couple of solid twists along the way. Indeed, with its stylised detective hero, puffing away on ghost fags even in the afterlife, a series of fetishistic murders and a plot rich in demons and witches, it feels a lot like the best game Dario Argento never made. It's never quite as bizarrely loopy as his cult movies, but the offbeat tone is unmistakable.
Both Ronan and Joy are clichés in many ways, but they're well written and convincingly performed. He's gruff, but never in the distracting, self-pitying, introverted way of modern game heroes. She's sassy, but refreshingly down to earth. No sexy attitude or saucy clothes for this heroine. She's just a girl, and the fact that this is worthy of note says a lot about how rare that still is in games. I enjoyed spending time with both of them (though not much time, admittedly, since the game lasts maybe six hours at a push).
And it's that underdog likeability that rescues Soul Suspect from the lower reaches of the score table. It's a Good 6, that delightful strata of games that stumble in the technical aspects, but compensate with personality and charm, somehow all the more enjoyable for their imperfections. I can't pretend that Soul Suspect is a particularly great game, but I do know that it's the sort of game I'll still remember - and remember fondly - in five years' time, which is more than can be said for most of its glossier rivals.
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