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Why Murdered: Souls Suspect Fails as a Mystery Game

Murdered: Soul Suspect was a bit of a disappointment to me. I really love the concept of a murder mystery/detective/investigation/whatever the hell you want to call the genre game, which is why I really wanted this one to succeed. Sadly, this was not the case. As a video game, it's painfully average, but as a mystery game, it's a sad failure.

A mystery game should have a strong focus on clue-gathering and investigation. Anything else takes away from the heart of the experience, and simply isn't what we came for. At their core, mystery games are essentially an evolved form of the puzzle genre, and most often takes the form of a point and click adventure. The satisfaction doesn't come from a grand sense of adventure or a high skill level, but in the "a-ha" moments when you finally piece together the mystery for yourself. Therefore it's not hard to see that such a game - one that focuses on critical thought over action - might have trouble hitting the mainstream market.

So maybe some compromises are made in order to vary up the gameplay. This isn't an entirely unheard of. L.A. Noire had tepid gunfight sections and Deadly Premonition had shoehorned combat that ranges from laughably stupid to mind-numbingly boring. 

Murdered: Soul Suspect comes in as the worst version of this concession, with "stealth" mechanics that boil down to using Detective Vision and waiting for the one enemy in the game to turn their back so you can execute the same kind QTE every time. There's really no fun to be had here, and all it does is pad out the game's length with sections that will have you groaning whenever demons show up.

These demon sections are a huge black mark on an already mediocre experience, but they're not the reason the game fails in my eyes. Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire both had action segments, but these could only detract from a satisfactory detective experience. Murdered: Soul Suspect may commit some of the same sins these game do, but it lacks the strong core to which the others return. The heart of the experience, the mystery solving, is just unsatisfying, which sinks the whole game for me.

Action games test your reflexes and quick-thinking ability. On the opposite end of that spectrum lie strategy and puzzle games, which focus on deeper thought. If you're playing a first person shooter, you have to make quick, shallow decisions with short-term consequences. If you're playing a grand strategy or investigation title, you should be mulling over complex conundrums that have a deeper impact on the experience. Critical thinking isn't something that games do too often these days, but you'd think that an investigation title - a game in which the express intent is to unravel a mystery for yourself - would feel right at home with this.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. A mystery game to me is about deep thought and puzzle solving, two things that this game fails to execute properly. The heart of the game is searching crime scenes for evidence and using those clues to unravel a little more of the story. Having a keen eye for evidence is an important part of being a detective in these games, so we're doing fine so far.

Unfortunately, what you do with these clues isn't very interesting. The core gameplay is just stating the obvious. After finding a few clues, you need to pick out which ones are relevant to the case, which has nothing to with critical thought, but rather trying to understand the game's weird logic. Common sense isn't a very satisfying puzzle to solve.

The game arbitrarily gives you a limited amount of guesses to the correct answer, but it's impossible to fail the investigation, and even if you do screw up, you're prompted to try again right away with no real consequences. With nothing at stake and no real challenge, it's easy to get bored with a series banal point and click "puzzles" that feel more like an interactive cutscene broken up and sold as a video game.

Sometimes, the game's attempt at interactive storytelling is just laughable. During one scene, you'll look at a corpse and hear a noise, with the game prompting you to determine what part of the scene made that noise. You get three chances and three choices, and if you pick the wrong one, the game boots you out of the menu and forces you to go back in, with absolutely nothing lost.

Other puzzles play out like a high school exam. For example, you might be shown a picture or memory of something or someone, with a variety of descriptive verbs and adjectives floating around them. The way you solve these is to find the answers that are ridiculous or don't belong, leaving only the most relevant ones. Now you aren't really thinking like a detective, you're thinking like a school student taking a pop quiz.

At one point, you see a key drop down a vent and chase after it, ending up at a screen with three objects: a fork, a spoon and the key for which you were just looking. The game then asks you to pick up the thing you need, but only gives you three chances to get it right. That's three chances and three choices. How is that even a video game mechanic?

This level of simplicity in its interaction makes it feel like you're watching Dora the Explorer. You're on a linear track with no way to fail, shouting obvious answers at the screen, and even if you do guess incorrectly, the outcome remains the same.

Failure carries only the risk of the slightest of minor inconveniences, nothing else. In L.A. Noire, there were points where it became possible to get an undesirable outcome to the case, or at least solve the mystery in a less-than-optimal fashion. Misreading suspects, not using the right clues in the right places, and drawing incorrect conclusions can all negatively impact your score and ranking, as well as the outcome of the case.

The evidence found in crime scenes can be used to catch suspects in a lie, if you know when to use them. If you have hard proof that contradicts their statements, you can use that against them. The game never brings up a prompt to tell you to use your clue, you have to use your brain and remember what clues you have and can use.

For all the shit I give it, Heavy Rain might have some of the best investigation mechanics in the mystery genre. During certain scenes in the Norman Jayden chapters, you'll be able to fully investigate a crime scene and collect evidence. You don't need to pick up everything, only the most relevant pieces, and if you don't get them all, the case is unsolvable, which can lead to one of the bad ends unless you successfully gather the right information as Madison.

The climax of Norman Jayden's investigation arc isn't a shootout or a boss fight. The game takes all of the evidence you found, spreads it across a desk, and forces you to piece together the puzzle by linking the clues and forming a coherent narrative (something the game itself sadly lacked) from them. That's the ultimate mechanical culmination of the mystery, actually solving the mystery.

If you don't have all the clues, you won't be able to piece the mystery together, and you will fail. There are one of three outcomes: you solve the case in time, you give up, or you run out of time and die, due to some contrivance for which the plot never really gives proper exposition. It might seem a little silly, but having a time limit adds an element of challenge missing from the finale of Murdered: Soul Suspect.

The climax of Murdered: Soul Suspect's is very underwhelming by comparison. Like the "Solving the Puzzle" chapter in Heavy Rain, you have a time limit to solve a simple puzzle. The problem with this final level is that you have about ten seconds to figure out what it is, which runs contrary to the entire rest of the game and the genre as a whole. 

Having to figure out the game's logic in such a short time doesn't add any sort of tension to the game, and will most likely only add to the frustration when you fail. And if you do fail, you're just put back a couple seconds earlier to try again and again until you get it right. The time limit in Heavy Rain on the other hand is just long enough to not be frustrating, but also strict enough to make you stress. It's a tough balancing act, one that even Heavy Rain doesn't do perfectly, but Murdered: Soul Suspect just seems to fail miserably in the attempt.

Murdered Soul: Suspect is a mediocre game with good ideas that sadly fails as a mystery game. It saddens me that it wasn't enough to save Airtight Games from being shut down because despite some very poor design decisions, it could have been a great game if it's concepts were fleshed out a bit more and maybe if they had some more time and money. As it is, it doesn't challenge the player, it never makes them think, and it certainly doesn't warrant a $50 price tag. It turns out your own murder is actually pretty easy to solve.

Perhaps if the developers had some more resources, this would have been a much better value, both for the player's time and money. Development troubles aside however, what ultimately sinks Murdered: Soul Suspect is a lack of competence to back up their ideas. 

Murdered Soul Suspect doesn't seem to understand what makes solving a mystery fun, and like many similar games outside of the occasional point and click, it has no idea how to entice the player with thought-provoking gameplay that doesn't involve violence and twitch reflexes. It's a real shame too, because the premise of solving my own murder as a ghost is actually pretty cool. Sadly, we may never get to see what that game would have been like.

Oh wait, yes we can. Go play Ghost Trick.
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About Kenneth Cummingsone of us since 5:17 AM on 03.22.2013

My name is Ken. I have a deep passion for art and storytelling, video games in particular. You can follow me on Twitter here: