Ronan O’Conner has a bit of a problem, but that’s nothing new. He’s a small-time street criminal turned cop hot on the trail of a serial killer in the small town of Salem, Massachusetts. Things are actually going pretty well until he finds himself thrown out of a second story window and subsequently shot to death by said killer. Ah, well. Nothing we haven’t seen before. Time to move onto our next protagonist, and catch this guy, right?
Not so fast. See, Ronan can’t move on and be with Julia, his deceased wife, until he comes to grips with his unfinished business: in this case, his murder. This isn’t a spoiler. You get all of this information in the first five minutes of the game, and this quest comprises pretty much the entirety of the game’s ten hour run time. So the question, really, is this: how do you feel about detective work?
How you answer that question will largely determine how you feel about Murdered: Soul Suspect. Despite his checkered past and ridiculous hat, Ronan is actually a pretty boring fellow whose defining trait is his ability to smoke his last cigarette as a ghost, forever. It’s not that he’s a bad character per se; he’s just kind of dull, or at the very least, the way the story presents him is. Thankfully, Airtight Games has built a pretty interesting game around him.
Because Ronan’s dead, he can’t interact with the world in the traditional sense, but that also means he can go pretty much wherever he likes. Walls are little more than barriers that you can’t see through, gaps can be teleported over, and televisions and copy machines can be possessed at will, and all of this means you can interact with both the living and spirit worlds in a number of unique and interesting ways.
Most of the time this means exploring the various areas of Salem, examining clues related to the case, and learning a little more about Ronan, the other characters, and the town itself. Often, Ronan will find himself at a scene and have to reconstruct what happened by collecting clues scattered around the environment. It’s usually not much of a challenge. All you have to do is find and click the appropriate icon, but the game does switch it up by allowing you to possess people so you can see what they’re looking at, read their minds, and even influence their memories so you can gain access to more clues.
For the most part, this is pretty easy: you just pick the clue or clues that will stimulate the correct response or advance the case, and Ronan takes it from there. Sometimes, the game will present something challenging or unclear, but by and large, it’s a fairly straightforward exercise, and like most games that find their roots in the adventure games of old, there’s no penalty for failure. This type of investigation is the meat and potatoes of Soul Suspect’s gameplay, but that’s not all the game has to offer.
When you’re not solving cases, you’ll spend your time exploring the town, interacting with its inhabitants, both dead and alive, and finding collectibles. There’s a lot to collect here, from information on the town and its unique history, memories of Ronan’s life, notes left by other characters, and news articles, small journals and forgotten items that, when collected, piece together a ghost story from the town’s past. Most of this is optional, but a good portion of the game’s backstory can only be understood if you spend some time collecting these things.
Some, for instance, will focus on the Salem Witch Trials which, as you can imagine, play a pretty large role in the game’s plot given its supernatural origins. Others might focus on Ronan’s marriage to Julia and well as her struggle with mental illness, while some are news reports based on the recent murders, how Salem at large has reacted to them, and what the town’s relatively small police force is doing to catch the guy behind it all. All of this adds quite a bit to the game, the sense of place, and the story, but with about two hundred collectible items, there’s almost too much stuff. It’s kind of a shame that you have to chase them to get the whole picture, but is nice that Soul Suspect uses its collectibles to such a meaningful extent.
The town of Salem (and the creepy music that goes with it) is well-realized, and goes a long way towards selling the game’s narrative. A lot of this is due to the dual nature of the town itself. Because Ronan is dead, he can interact with both the real world and the spirit world, which is largely made up of remnants of buildings from the witch trials, and other ghosts. The overlapping worlds makes for some really cool environments and adds an interesting twist to exploration as Ronan cannot pass through objects in the spirit world, but it’s the ghosts themselves that steal the show. Some are just there to stand off in the middle distance, look creepy and disappear just before you get to them, but others are legitimate characters that Ronan can interact with.
The breadth of characters on display here is impressive. Some are downright creepy, such as the ghost that is stalking the little girl he was sent to kidnap in life, only to thwarted with deadly force by her father, or another who stole personal belongings from women and stalks them, a habit he continues even in death. Then, of course, there are the sad stories, the ghosts who don’t even know they’re dead, like the college student left to die because of a stupid prank, or the man who wait for the girl he was with after he fell into the river and, unbeknownst to him, drowned.
These stories will upset you and tug in your heartstrings, but you can’t help them. No, the only ghosts that Ronan can help are the ones like him, the ones who are held here by some unfinished business, and just need a little help to move on. This plays out like any other case, but it’s a nice change of pace, and it is rewarding to see their stories through, even though there are just a few of them scattered throughout the game.
Unfortunately, not everything in Soul Suspect works as well as these scenes do. The game will attempt to change it up from time to time by forcing you to contend with demons, lost souls who never moved on and eventually went mad. Fighting demons is a game of cat and mouse. You’ll try to sneak up behind demons and exorcise them with a well timed button combination before they see you. If the demon’s do see you, you’ll have to retreat to a nearby hiding places and bounce between them as the demons search for you. Other areas will have you possess a cat so you can crawl through vents.
These sections aren’t without value. The demon bits, for instance, can be legitimately scary, but they break up the pacing and feel generally at odds with the rest of the game tonally. The same can be said for the cat sections. While fun, they feel a little out of place and can be frustrating as you’re not always sure where you need to go. That said, these aren’t the real problems plaguing Soul Suspect.
The real problem is the bugs. At one point, my objective tracker simply refused to update, and I went through the rest of the game trying to “escape the attic.” Another time, a ghost I had already helped randomly reappeared and while I could interact with all of the objects concerning her, I couldn’t talk to her. That’s to say nothing of the various ways Ronan got stuck in the environments during our journey. None of these things ever broke the game, but it’s still frustrating to see a game with so many little things that actively pull you out of the story.
And really, that’s the issue with Soul Suspect. It’s the little things: the bugs, the occasionally annoying demon or cat section, the tonal shifts, and the little inconsistencies, like how so many people in Salem have the exact same thoughts, or how little you have to do to solve cases, that pull you out of the game. That didn’t ever stop me from enjoying the game’s narrative; that unfolds nicely, especially if you factor in the collectibles, which manage to make even Ronan interesting. The game has some great moments and more than a few surprises up its sleeve, but it’s ultimately just as flawed as its protagonist, and not even the best ghost tricks can save it from that.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.