Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3,PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Airtight Games
Publisher: Square Enix
A good detective story has the capacity to keep its audience in thrall until the very end, but is also requires spot-on pacing in order for it to work. The mystery of the killer needs to be kept alive until the very end, but along the way the audience needs to feel like they’re learning enough new information to keep them theorising and interested. The final reveal needs to be shocking but logical.
Developers Airtight have taken the concept of your average whodunnit one step further, introducing a brilliant setup for their game. You play as one Ronan ‘o’ Connor, a man with a hell of a rough past. His body is adorned with tattoos, each denoting an event from his life, such as a near death experience when he got stabbed during a fight. After meeting the love of his life Julia, Ronan manages to get things on track, and with the help of his new brother-in-law/police officer Rex, joins the force, eventually becoming a Detective by smudging the paperwork a little in order to hide some of his worse offences. Still, life ain’t done with Ronan, and his wife is murdered by a gang of thugs, a simple victim of random crime.
The game picks up three years after this event, and Ronan, now taking even more risks than normal, is working a case to track down the mysterious Bell Killer, a murderer responsible for numerous gruesome deaths. Having managed to track the killer down Ronan proceeds to charge in without backup, and as a reward get’s thrown out of a window from several stories up. Just to be sure the job is done, the Bell Killer grabs Ronan’s gun and proceeds to sink seven rounds into the detective’s chest.
If you’re now screaming in rage, wondering why I spoiled the ending, then you should probably settle down. This is not the end of Ronan’s tale, instead it’s merely the start of the game. From his own corpse the ghost of Ronan arises, obviously more than a little shocked at this strange turn of events. He’s trapped in the world he once was alive in, unable to touch anything or talk to anyone, a spirit lost in limbo. In order to move on and reunite with his lost love, Ronan needs to complete his “unfinished business” and figure out just who the Bell Killer is.
Given his chequered past and initially gruff exterior Ronan could have easily become just another generic protagonist, but solid writing and a talented voice-actor make him incredibly easy to like. He’s tough, but smart and surprisingly caring, a man who understands how the world really works in ways that his fellow policemen and detectives can’t, a fact that has earned him several enemies among the force who feel he’s little more than a criminal. Matched up with Ronan is teenage medium Joy, a trouble teenager struggling to deal with her ability to see the spirits of the dead, Like Ronan she’s instantly likable. Dressed in black with a couple of piercings, like Ronan she has a depth and warmth to her personality that draws you in, while the similarities and contrasts between the pair make for some strong banter.
The mystery itself is generally handled well. The dialogue doesn’t always come across as completely natural, but a strong cast of characters manages to make up for it, although Rex in particuilar, Ronan’s step-brother, could do with much more time in front of the camera. Indeed, at around 6-hours the entire story feels like it needs more time to breath. Still, within that time the pacing is excellent, always delivering another interesting snippet of information at just the right moment to keep you guessing and creating theories. Like all good mysteries, at least in my eyes, there’s enough clues presented that a player with an eye for details could actually deduce the killer’s identity, or at least make an educated guess, and even if you don’t then the final reveal will click everything into place neatly. Having said that, the plot does rely on a fair standard contrivance within the mystery genre to help throw you off the trail, which I can’t mention as veterans of the genre will then probably be able to figure out the culprit too easily when playing. There’s nothing wrong with using that method, but I’m personally not a fan of it as it did mean I had a strong suspicion before the final reveal. Another point is that the killer himself/herself could have done with having their motivations fleshed out just a shade more, as their past is a little vague.
Despite these few shortcomings, however, I was invested in the story from start to finish, thoroughly engrossed in discovering Ronan’s killer and helping him move on. As cliche as it is to say this, and as much of a bad pun it is too, Soul Suspect’s story has something often lacking in triple-A creations: soul.
Arguably the strongest decision on the developer’s behalf is choosing the infamous town of Salem as the location for their supernatural tale. While the few NPCs that wander the streets do a poor job of making Salem feel like a genuine place filled with people going about their lives, the sheer weight of the real Salem’s past adds a powerful sense of gravitas to its virtual counterpart, although obviously if you’re unaware of its troubled history then it’ll have a far lesser impact. Even if this is the case, though, the streets of Salem are filled with the faint souls of those who gone before, while ghostly chunks of a far older Salem are visible, often running across roads or through buildings. The entirety of the game takes place during the course of a single evening, and a gentle fog hangs over the town. Salem may not feel alive, but it’s dripping in atmosphere and serves admirably as the backdrop to Ronan’s story.
Yet, even with the power of current-gen consoles it’s disappointing that Salem is not a seamless world, but rather a series of story locations connected to a single centre hub. Journey to the Church in order to investigate and you’ll be herded through a brief cutscene that feels like it’s their to hide the level loading in. Attempt to venture somewhere you’re not supposed to be going just yet and you’ll be herded back to the current area with a comment from Ronan. Nor is Salem exactly a vast place to explore, although scattered around you’ll find plenty of collectibles that provide some great background to the story, such as the collected thoughts of Ronan’s wife Julia, and plenty of stuff that details the brutal history of Salem. As you wander around there’s also ghosts to be found trapped in limbo who you can help move on the afterlife, although these are disappointingly rare, a great shame when the few that exist are brilliant little stories in their own right and are worth going out of your way to find and complete.
As a ghost you’re able to walk straight through normal walls and objects, and so the developers have managed to use Salem’s history to guide players around, a clever move on their part in order to keep things moving along, even if it does somewhat damage the fantasy of being a spectral spirit. Every building within the town of Salem has been consecrated, meaning the only way to gain entry is through an open door or window. Once inside a building, though, you’re free to pass through the walls, a disconcerting power to begin with that requires you to abandon all previous videogame experience but that quickly becomes normal. Back out in the streets of Salem and those ghostly apparitions of the old town also serve as a method of carefully corralling you. Ordinary living citizens can pass through these pale blue walls, ships, and walkways, but as Ronan you physically can’t. While like being unable to simply walk straight into a building this somewhat damages the fantasy of being a ghost, it’s easy to forgive the developers considering how much of a headache designing a game where the player can literally walk through everything would have been. At least they managed to work these restrictions into the actual plot in a way that makes sense, unlike the strange glowing pools which arms stretch forth from to grab Ronan and drag him down to his second death, which are vaguely explained away by the plot but are the most absolutely obvious method of directing the player.
The bulk of the gameplay is composed of using your detective skills to piece together what happened in a crime scene, and thereby slowly build a picture of the overall mystery. Upon entering a crime scene your first goal is to begin scouring the environment for clues, the total number of which can be found is displayed at the bottom of the screen. This simply involves looking for a likely object, wandering up to it and tapping the X button, at which point you’re usually granted a brief piece of text and the clue is added to your list, although sometimes you’ll also be rewarded with a quick flashback sequence. Other than merely hunting for objects you’ll also occasionally need to possess and influence a person in order to get them thinking about a something specific. To do this you need to select one of the clues you’ve already found which you believe may spark the required thought, as hinted at by the floating text above the person’s head. Sometimes you’ll also need to possess somebody in order to look through their eyes, or activate a fan to move some paperwork using your poltergeist ability, a power that’s oddly underused. Finally, you’ll sometimes find a residual static image of an event, and must choose from a series of floating words those that you think describe the emotions or actions of the scene best. For example, a young girl peering round the corner at Bell Killer is obviously scared, hiding and watching. In order to conclude a case you must choose several of the clues you’ve gathered that best answer the question Ronan has posed about the crime scene, such as why the killer was there.
Although the game firmly places you into the transparent shoes of a detective you’ll never truly feel like one. The game actually tells you when you’ve gathered the required clues needed to conclude a case, so it’s entirely possible to actually pick up the three needed straight away, while the solution itself is always blatantly obvious. Furthermore it’s actually impossible to fail or draw the wrong conclusion. Your only punishment for not picking the wrong combination of clues is a lower rating in a scoring system so arbitrary that it’s entirely possible to go through the entire game without even realising it exists. There’s never a eureka moment, a spark of intuition as you work through the available evidence and arrive at a startling conclusion. There’s never a sense that you personally are working anything out, but rather that you’re just along for a ride in which you’re occasionally asked a simple question to which the game has already strongly hinted the answer to.
After a while it honestly begins to feel like the developers thought their audience were idiots incapable of piecing together even a simple crime scene, mere meat-sacks whose brain has been so burnt out on shooting stuff that we can’t comprehend anything past a gun. I genuinely don’t believe that this is truly what the developers thought, but it’s certainly what it can feel like at times.
In their defense, however, creating a game where you take on the role of a detective seems to be quite a demanding challenge. Even L.A. Noire largely failed to create gameplay systems that truly made you feel like a detective, while the Batman games also struggle to depict this aspect of the Dark Knights layered personality. Make the investigations too difficult or even realistic and people can get frustrated, while making them too easy, as they are here, is just as bad. This is why I keep angrily batting down all suggestions that they attempt to make a game out of the Sherlock TV series, at least until I’ve seen some proof that someone can make a game where I truly feel like a detective.
You’ll never throw a punch or fire a gun during the entirety of Souls Suspect, but that doesn’t mean you’re free from danger, as apparently being dead isn’t enough. Demons occasionally pop up and rove the environment, looking to devour your soul, which is, you know, nice of them. You can’t tackle them head on, instead you must walk up behind them (there’s no actual sneak button) and perform an execution by holding down the right trigger, followed by a contextual command. Should you happen to get spotted then you’ll need to run for it and take cover in strange, floating residue from spirits that have faded away. The demons will search these hiding spots, and so you must flit between then with a tap of the right trigger until your foe lost interest and wander off to resume their never-ending patrol.
The first few encounters with the floating demons is tense and exciting, their arrival in the world heralded by a hell of a scream which will likely get the hair on your neck standing to attention, but those feelings quickly wear away as it becomes apparent that they represent very little danger. Hiding from them simply means jumping from spot to spot until they get bored, the only key skill required being to keep another hiding spot within distance. Even if you get discovered you can simply leap out and run over to a new spot and start the hide ‘n’ seek sequence again, patiently waiting for them to go back to doing demon things so you can destroy them. The only other element of note is that ghostly crows occasionally provide a way to distract demons. As a gameplay mechanic the demons are just too easy, and evading them grows tiring far too quickly.
So, what else does Soul Suspect offer? Well, there’s the occasional escort mission where you guide Joy through a building, using your ghostly powers to turn off cameras and distract people by activating a TV or some such. Unlike most escort missions these sections are frustration free, but that’s only because they’re impossible to screw up and extremely easy. Like most of the game it’s the banter and relationship between Ronan and Joy that keeps things interesting. Possessing a cat from time to time is also a thing, because for whatever reason their minds are malleable enough for you to take control of their bodies, allowing you to make your way through vents or other areas otherwise impassable.
And that’s just about it. When you get down to it Soul Suspect isn’t a game with much going on to talk about. You can possess the people wandering the streets in order to read their mind, but it’s hardly worth it given that they each have just two lines of thought. Other ghosts can be found around Salem that cannot be helped, their plight evoking sympathy despite the lack of actual time given over to their individual stories, such as the guy who was the victim of a frat prank gone wrong, and doesn’t even realise it. Encounters with these people make the game feel like it was created on a tight budget, because if the developers had more cash at their disposal then I imagine the world would be a little bigger with more of these ghosts around offering side mysteries for you to solve, or stories to take in.
There’s also a dialogue system in which you can choose what to ask a person next, but it feels rather half-hearted in its inclusion. Mostly you just have two options to pick from, and asking one opens up another one. It hardly brings much diversity to conversations. There were also several encounters where only one option is presented, the selection of which opened up one more and so on, making the whole damn thing utterly pointless. If you’re only going to provide a single selection, why not simply make it a standard cutscene, especially since there’s a strange transition between someone speaking and the dialogue selection popping up.
Soul Suspect’s narrative kept me engrossed from its opening moments to its finale, more so than most other games I’ve played over the past couple years. It’s not the most smartly written, but the intriguing setup, choice of Salem as the locale and characters kept me hooked. It’s just a shame that from a gameplay perspective Soul Suspect flounders, unable to create a compelling play experience to match the plot. This is a title for gamers who appreciate a good story more than anything else, then, and can forgive the shoddy gameplay.
What it truly has going for it is being utterly unique, playing like nothing else on the market. It’s heavily flawed, but quickly draws you in with its clumsy charms.
So now it’s time for some contradictions. Despite the scores awarded, on a purely personal basis I’d recommend this over something like the recently released Watch Dogs, despite Ubisoft’s game being the technically more sophisticated and impressive game. The story, characters, setting and ideas all clicked with me, largely due to my love of mysteries and the dark fascination that most people seem to have with the supernatural, regardless of beliefs. It’s quirky and brilliant, yet due to its clear flaws I cannot fairly award it a higher score.
+ Great mystery.
+ Great characters.
– Uninspiring gameplay.
– Fairly short.
The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
Murdered: Soul Suspect shows there’s still room for interesting, unique ideas within videogames while telling a compelling story. It’s just a shame the gameplay can’t live up to it.