When I think of Salem I tend to think of crazed Puritans from centuries ago burning anyone they can find at the stake, the religious hotbed of intolerance that Miller paints so perfectly in The Crucible, of a town obsessed with spirits and witchcraft. Even today, Salem notes its infamous history in rather tongue-in-cheek fashion, gently acknowledging the feared mysticism of ages past in restaurant monikers and the names of its schools.
It's just about the perfect setting for a game that's all about a ghostly detective, treading a path between the living and the dead as he tries to investigate his own murder.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is an intriguing game , and much of that comes from that high concept pitch underpinning everything. You play maverick detective Ronan -- a man with a chequered past, a dead wife and a sweet hat, obsessed with tracking down a serial killer that's been operating in the area. He gets a lead on the suspect's next target and immediately rushes to confront him without backup -- a choice that ultimately leads to Ronan getting thrown out of a fourth-floor window.
The game opens with you desperately trying to get back into the building, only to realise that you can't touch anything, no-one can see you, and hey! isn't that your body lying there on the ground? It's during these sequences that the game explains the basics of navigation and interaction, having you try to realign your spirit with your body, only for the masked man you were trying to pursue to emerge from the building and drill seven shots into Ronan's chest. That would explain why his torso has more holes in it than a wedge of Swiss cheese.
It transpires that Ronan is stuck in a purgatorial realm -- both a prison and a bridge of sorts, as his dead wife Julia explains in an ethereal cutscene -- known as The Dusk, and he's there because there's some unfinished business he has to take care of. "Save yourself," instructs Julia, telling him to work out what part of his life isn't done yet. The answer is clear: he has to find his killer.
In practical terms, this seems a little tricky at first. After all, Ronan is a ghost -- he can't talk to the witnesses (or indeed anyone who's still alive), he can't interact with most objects save for the odd TV, and he passes through walls with the greatest of ease, except for exterior walls, that is. Salem's buildings have pretty much all been consecrated, so Ronan cannot cross the threshold of a building unless there's a door or window open. After that, though, walls are fair game.
It's quite thrilling at first, that freedom of movement. Once I'd followed a policeman inside the apartment block from which I fell, I spent a good deal of time just playing around with ghostly movement, trotting in and out of various rooms, gliding through walls like a knife through butter, and indulging in a spot of voyeurism. You leave behind milky wisps of an outline whenever you pass through a wall, but there were many already visible when I first walked in, and that's the thing: you're not alone in The Dusk.
Ronan can chat to some of the other inhabitants of the purgatorial plane, and often conversations will branch out, serving up various options for the player, depending on how you want things to proceed. Picking the right line of questioning may well prove invaluable later on in the game as you begin taking on side quests and supplemental cases. Everyone who's inhabiting The Dusk is there for a reason, after all, and Ronan will often come across spectres with questions regarding their final moments.
On our way up to the room from which Ronan was thrown, we encountered the spirit of a sobbing woman who had no idea where her body was. Naturally, we offered to help -- Ronan is a detective after all -- and our investigations led us to the neighbouring flat. When puzzling out cases, Murdered has you comb the area for evidence, much like L.A. Noire. But although Ronan can't interact with real objects, he does have some gifts that stand him good stead.
For starters, he can possess people, eavesdropping in on conversations and occasionally encouraging the host to perform a simple action such as bringing up a police file, or picking a photograph out of a stack of papers. When it comes to witnesses, players will have to determine what the best approach is in order to trigger a specific memory from an array of possibilities, with a little stack of police badges indicating your success. Follow the right path on the first attempt, and the value of the evidence will be 3/3. That number goes down the more attempts you need to pick out the right prompt, though we're still not sure yet exactly how that ties into things. We botched one instance of this early on and it didn't seem to affect our investigation too much.
Ronan can also see the echoes of certain items and people, and picking out ethereal anomalies and revealing them with a push of a button is often required to unveil a piece of evidence. With people, it's slightly different. Once we reached the top floor, we discovered an imprint of our killer in the doorway of a cupboard. Reading the situation, you then have to determine the likeliest adjectives and adverbs to describe the scene you're looking at. In this case, was he searching or leaving? Was he frustrated or purposeful? It's a nice little touch that delivers a welcome little payoff as we have to think for ourselves, but even so it was pretty easy.
Even given that fact that this was the game's opening sequence, that's still the sticking point really. Murdered does a number of very interesting things, wrapped up in a high concept that's fundamentally appealling to mystery fans, but I'm eager to see how the cases kick on from this first chapter, and what the punishment for failure (if there is one) might be. Everything seemed rather straightforward, with little to no risk -- Ronan's already dead after all -- but one wonders how Airtight are going to make the game compelling beyond the simple attraction of the whodunit narrative.
There were some little changes of pace delivered by Demons -- creatures who've been stuck in The Dusk for too long and have essentially lost sight of themselves and now live to feed on other souls. They roam about the place looking for things to devour, and in order to neutralise them, Ronan must sneak up on them from behind and destroy them with a little QTE that changes with each encounter. If a Demon spots you, you're forced to jump into the echo of another spirit, and essentially hop from echo to echo until the Demon loses track of you. It ratchets up the tension a fair bit, but again it'll be interesting to see how Demons develop over the course of the game as a whole, and how they impinge on later, presumably more expansive, cases.
A success, then, in piquing curiosity. I'm a big fan of old-school mysteries and adventure games, and I was a big fan of L.A. Noire, and the interrogation sequences in particular. There's a kind of satisfaction in being thorough that comes from picking a crime scene clean of evidence, much in the same way that clearing out a house of all its loot in Thief might bring. But pulling the strings together -- that's where the real reward comes, and although I got a little taste of it here -- one of the nice touches in the side missions is you see the spirit you helped "ascend" after bringing them peace -- I still have a number of questions.
The fact is, though, that I could have happily sat there and played the game for hours. In terms of drawing me in, Murdered: Soul Suspect absolutely did it's job. It looks like it'll be a slow-burning, languid affair when it comes to the meat and potatoes of the gameplay -- to expect anything else from an investigative mystery game would be unfair, frankly -- but I look forward to discovering how the story shifts in pace, and what later elements Airtight incorporates into proceedings. It's frustrated me that we haven't seen many studios take on the challenge of this sub-genre, and to be fair after looking at what happened to Team Bondi that's perhaps not surprising, but if Airtight can pull this off, Soul Suspect is shaping up to be a thrilling slice of murderous, mysterious entertainment.