Publisher: Square Enix Developer: In-house, Airtight Games Formats: 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One (version tested) Release: Out now
We’re an alley cat, and we’re stuck in an alley. More specifically, we’re the ghost of a police detective possessing the body of a cat, but that doesn’t make the head-height fences barring our progress any less baffling. Our feline ride is only in this area to let us climb two scaffolding towers for collectibles, auto-jumping from beam to beam. Back on ground level, though, this fence is apparently impassible. Frustrated, we hit Y to meow in protest, then revert to the incorporeal form of Ronan O’Connor and stroll through the fence and back onto the ugly streets of Salem, Massachusetts.
Videogame logic is one thing, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of the problem with Airtight’s 3D detective thriller: it’s so restrictive. You’ll butt up against its limitations in the copious impassible ‘consecrated’ and spectral obstacles of Salem, which hem you onto the critical path; in a whodunnit story that’s more interested in telling you what happens than freeing you to deduce anything; and when you’re granted a teleportation power that’s used almost solely to allow a ghost – a ghost – to pass through gaps in walls or make short jumps.
Still, detective games often rely on tight plotting to make up for reduced agency, and Murdered’s mashup of cop and ghost stories has the potential to intrigue. A serial killer is on the loose in Salem and the police are baffled, labelling him the Bell Killer after his distinctive mark. We learn this early on through the eyes of O’Connor, a chain-smoking cop with a murky past. The story begins with a lone arrest attempt that culminates in O’Connor being hurled from a four-storey building and then riddled with bullets. If he wants to escape the limbo he’s thrust into and join his wife, Julia, in the afterlife, he’ll have to solve one last case: his own murder.
Demonic pits block O’Connor’s path, but humans can stroll by unhindered. Like so much here, their potential is squandered. When the script doesn’t just bypass them automatically, a human to distract, possess and ride over trouble is never more than a few feet away.
It’s an ugly state of affairs, and we’re not just talking about the killings. Murdered’s bland, grey-blue Salem is a town of patchy texture work and interchangeable citizens that share a meagre handful of cartoony faces. More shocking are the technical issues: the game drops frames on Xbox One like a clumsy glazier, the camera can’t handle tight spaces and lets you stumble blindly into rooms and into danger, cutscenes trigger out of sequence, and ghostly sidequest NPCs respawn after you’ve helped them pass into the great beyond. Most irritating, however, are the times when the all-pervading button prompts fail to arrive; it irks when you’re caught during a stealth section due to an absent QTE cue.
Such shonkiness might have been redeemed had Murdered known what to make of its interactive format, but it doesn’t. Your hunt for the killer’s identity will take you to a variety of horror cliché settings, as well as a hub of Salem streets, but each is full of the same dreary activities. Investigations make up the bulk of your casework: 3D hidden object zones where the developers are afraid to hide the objects, labelling them not only with prompts when you stand nearby but often with crime scene paraphernalia too. Psychic residues, descriptive challenges and O’Connor’s ability to possess specific people and influence their thoughts are sprinkled lightly on top, but the foremost adds nothing more than button presses, while the latter two are by turns insultingly trivial and confusingly illogical.
Investigations wrap up with a test. All the evidence you’ve found is laid out and you must answer the question of the moment – Where’s the girl’s body? What was my killer doing? – by picking out up to three of the most relevant bits. Usually, you’ll have been explicitly told the answer, and so the only modicum of challenge is in deciphering the occasionally obtuse logic of what to place in the slots.
O’Connor is, despite a gruff demeanour, likeable. His story even has a few moving moments, but it’s bloated by meaningless hardbitten pronouncements and busywork.
Between investigations, there’s a numbing barrage of collectibles to harvest, and you’ll have to avoid the poorly explained demonic forces that haunt this twilight limbo. Yet stealth has little meaning in a world where you have X-ray vision and the power to walk though interior walls, while demons sashay along tightly scripted paths and are unaware of anything not in their direct line of sight. Get behind a demon and you can even terminate it with a quick QTE, turning a potentially terrifying interstitial between casework into a faintly amusing hunt as you stalk your unwitting prey from the next room across.
It all goes to hell if you do get spotted, however. You’ll die quickly in the open, so Airtight has filled Salem with aura ‘hiding spots’. Oddly, many are redundant and it only ever puts a few where you need them, while the dim-witted demons become hide and seek experts once aggroed from their scripted routes. In the end, we’d mash RT to leap between a cluster of two or three spots to avoid being found until the demons blinked back to their routines.
With so little systemic support, Murdered puts all its emphasis on its story, which just can’t bear the weight. The writing aims for hardboiled horror – Dick Tracy by way of Paranormal Activity – but feels undercooked. O’Connor spouts trite observations full of false import. The ghost writing that accompanies clues rarely has anything to say (“Troubled” floats by a scribble on a mental asylum wall) and the ending is an anticlimax, spitting on any connections you’ve bothered to make and mechanically relying on a baseless leap of logic under time pressure. On every level, then, Murdered throttles its premise. Much as it saddens us, given the promise of seeing a 3D Ghost Trick, we pronounce this dead on arrival.