Thursday, February 12, 2015

Game Review - Murdered: Soul Suspect (Xbox 360, 2014)

I love adventure games, but almost every game based on exploring and solving riddles falls victim to a common flaw - when every interaction in the world is carefully programmed, you have to be able to anticipate the designer's intended solution path to solve a puzzle.  At the same time, the designer tries to obscure that path to make more challenging and satisfying puzzles.  It's a delicate balance, and only the best of the best are able to strike it consistently.

Murdered: Soul Suspsect's premise puts it on track to be a member of the highest echelon of adventure games.  It opens with a serial killer murdering Ronan, a detective in Salem, Massachusetts.  His spirit leaves his body, stuck in limbo until he can resolve his unfinished business (solving his own murder), which is when you take control.

What follows is a fascinating story in a brilliantly-crafted universe.  Ronan's disembodiment comes with some interesting advantages, like the ability to walk through most physical objects and possess the living and read their thoughts.

Ronan also encounters a variety of other tormented souls and reflections of particularly strong historical events, which fleshes out a detailed world.  Many characters you meet have little if any impact on the main story, but they still seem to have unique personalities and desires.  There are also a lot collectibles that reveal detailed backstories.  It makes for a fabulously engrossing experience.

That said, there are disappointingly few side quests to complete.  You can help a few of the ghosts that you meet, which provide some cool diversions from the main quest, but the small handful of side quests are all available right at the start.  It's a lot of failed potential in my mind.

Fortunately, the story itself is one of the more intriguing I've seen in quite a while.  The supernatural elements are effectively integrated into a believable modern-day world without becoming the dominant theme - the focus of the game is always the serial killer case.

The visuals, writing, and voice acting are all solid.  There are minor flaws here and there, like an occasional awkward line or odd animation, but the details usually enhance the overall experience of the story.

In summary, it's an awesome, nearly cinematic experience, even if it is a little on the short side (it took me about 10 hours), though that's partly due to lack of side quests.  With such a strong base, the usual problems with adventure games become exceptionally depressing.

The gameplay is basically split into two broad genres, adventure and stealth.

The adventure portions consist of collecting clues, interviewing (or, more often, mind-reading) witnesses, and figuring out how everything connects together.  The game's major areas are self-contained, so you never have to wander too far to find important details.  Most of the challenge of these segments is therefore found in finding collectible items (the clues) and getting around obstacles that block Ronan's path.

When you think you've collected enough clues to solve the next piece of the puzzle, you can bring up a screen that shows all the potentially relevant bits of information.  This is where several of the puzzles become frustratingly opaque - I often felt that it was pretty clear what was going on in any particular scene, whether the focus was determining what happened at a crime scene or deciding what will motivate a particular character to act the way you want.  It wasn't always clear which of the puzzle pieces the game wanted me to choose, though.

Granted, the cost of failure is exceptionally low, as it just reduces your rating for that scene (and rating doesn't seem to be tied to anything else in-game), but it's annoying to feel like you screwed up because the intended solution was excessively vague.

The adventure bits aren't very difficult, but that's ok because the exploration and investigation itself is reasonably fun.

The stealth sections are just bad.  You'll occasionally come across demons roaming certain rooms, and if they catch you, they'll devour Ronan's spirit (but the cost of failure is again minimal - checkpoints are very forgiving).  Your best bet is to dispatch them from behind, but if they see you, they'll hound you until you can hide for a while.

That's all fine; the implementation is the let down.  It's mostly that the hiding mechanics are awkward.  If you're spotted, you have to dive into various spectral hiding places scattered throughout the area.  The demons will attack hiding spots after they lose sight of you, so you have to bounce from spot to spot to avoid detection.  Jumping is disorienting and somewhat imprecise - it can often difficult to get the command to slide into a new hiding spot to pop up.

That's actually a general problem with the game: you have to be standing in the right place with the right orientation to be able to collect many of the important objects.  Most of the time, that's a minor annoyance, but during the stealth sections when quick reflexes matter, it can get really frustrating.

Fortunately, there aren't many stealth segments, and when they do happen, they aren't very long.  It could have been a cool way to add some tension, but it falls well short.

That's it in a nutshell - a beautifully detailed world to explore punctuated by some frustrating gameplay elements and design decisions.  I definitely recommend it, though if you're looking for some smooth action, you'll have to look elsewhere.

My Rating: 7/10 - good.

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