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Preview: Murdered: Soul Suspect

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Last week, we spent another hour with Murdered: Soul Suspect. In a hands-on demo, we took part in the game’s first hour or so of content, which was largely the same as our initial E3 experience.

We left Murdered in Los Angeles saying it looked a little rough around the edges, and it’s great to see that some of the game’s more alarming problems have been polished. That said, the build we previewed last week isn’t without its own issues.

Playing as detective Ronan O’Connor, you get a real sense of your character before you take control of the situation he finds himself in. The game’s opening sequence is a new addition to Murdered, and does a wonderful job of explaining Ronan’s roots. Whereas the E3 build largely filled in exposition through random side-conversations, the game’s new intro does so in a direct, refreshing manner. I couldn’t help but draw connections to Ronan and The Darkness protagonist Jackie Estacado as I watched.

After you see O’Connor fly through the top story window of an apartment building, the circumstances of his death have also been tweaked a bit since E3. The changes have been made to make way for the game’s opening tutorial, but still fit quite well with the game’s narrative. This newly re-worked sequence helps Ronan to actually understand the gravity (pun intended) of the situation he finds himself in, and intensifies his loss as he literally watches himself die. Before he revisits his own murder scene, Ronan is quite aware of the fact that he needs to track down his killer before he is forever stuck in the limbo-like Dusk.

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Best yet, Ronan’s on-again, off-again ghostly cigarette remains in-game. It’s a bit cheesy, but necessary; the game feels a bit like a B-grade movie, but in the good way.

Murdered: Soul Suspect was described to journalists as a supernatural detective thriller at E3, and isn’t afraid to borrow from the combination of genres it’s aiming for. I’d go so far as to describe Murdered: Soul Suspect as L.A. Noire-like, though substituting realistic facial expression capture for an undead detective with ghostly powers. Both games are dealing with a seedy criminal underbelly, and both do it with their own twist. Ronan is able to pass through walls, reveal and strengthen remnants of the world around him, and has to do all of this in the supernaturally-inclined Salem, Massachusetts. The macabre past of the town he finds himself in means that ancestors have gone to great lengths to impede the progress of apparitions. Ronan can’t enter homes unless a window or door is open, but once in, he’s basically free to do whatever he wants. Think Buffy’s vampire lore, and you’re pretty much good to go.

The game is basically divided into three parts: general exploration, detective work and action-packed sequences avoiding or fighting Demons that mean to keep you trapped in Dusk forever. The detective work usually takes centre stage and is reminiscent of point-and-click adventures. Ronan can’t really touch anything – he’s incorporeal, after all – so he needs to investigate the scene using unconventional means. He’s got his eyesight, so he can move behind people and read their notepads. If that’s not working, he can possess people and use their own eyes to look at notes or handle evidence. Ronan can even influence witnesses to remember what they’ve just seen.

As you move around a crime scene, uncovering clues, you’ll gain XP to level up your abilities. After you’ve fully investigated an area, Murdered will ask you to make a deduction to continue on with the game’s story. You’ll basically have to pick three terms from a floating menagerie of options to show you get what’s going on. Other sequences challenge you to prove a theory using one clue of however many you’ve already gathered.

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When dealing with Demons, Ronan can use his new-found abilities to his advantage; the demons are terrifying and powerful, but they’re not too smart. Ronan is able to double-back through walls and materialise behind Demons, executing them so they’re no longer a problem. If that’s a bit too action-packed for you, Ronan is able to sneak around the Demons without confronting them at all. Residue from ghosts trapped in Dusk lingers throughout Salem, and Ronan can jump from residue pocket to pocket to remain invisible to the Demons. This new addition to the Demon-based gameplay means there’s a greater emphasis on stealth than what I first saw at E3.

Even though Ronan needs to quickly catch his own murderer before he is forever stuck in Dusk and becomes a demon himself, the game is littered with side-quests. In the time we had with the preview, Ronan ran into the ghost of a dead woman and committed to help her find her body.To the woman, this little piece of knowledge would bring her peace, and with that, the ability to leave Dusk. While most aspects of the game have been improved, little things like the side-quests and character motivations take you out of the game’s narrative. A woman is dead, and can only find real peace by finding where her body was dumped? Really? Ronan’s own backstory, while marvellously fleshed out, also gave me pause; for someone who’s almost stopped functioning after the death of his wife, you’d think he’d be more excited about reuniting with her instead of tracking down his killer.

Despite some flaws, I’m tremendously excited about Murdered: Soul Suspect. It’s a unique game in a sea of RPGs, shooters and the like. Its June release date may give cause for concern — one wonders if Square purposefully hiding the game around the hectic time of E3 — but it’s a title gamers should really get behind. It shows real potential and promise, and if successful, may prove to publishers that we’re as hungry for new ideas as are ghosts in Dusk to be set free.