Die Hard and ghost guns.
Thrown through a fourth-story window, Ronan O'Connor sees his life flash before his eyes in the story of how he got each of his many tattoos; from his life of crime as a troubled teen, to his jail-time and reform through his marriage, to him becoming a cop, to his wife's death and him throwing himself into the job as a means of vengeance. Then he hits the pavement and stands outside of his own weakened body, and in the first gameplay section tries, briefly, to put his soul back into it, until his cloaked and masked attacker comes down and shoots O'Connor dead with his own handgun.
Walking towards the light, Ronan encounters Julia, his dead wife, who tells him he's in what can either be a prison or a bridge to what's next, and that he needs to make it a bridge. Moments later you find yourself at the police-taped crime scene of your own murder, and Ronan determines that solving the case of whom took his life is what will get him to the other side.
So begins Murdered: Soul Suspect, Square Enix's adventure game developed by Airtight Games. The preview build I played recently at an event in San Francisco treads the same ground as the live demo I saw last year at E3, but plays out at a more leisurely pace with the opportunity to explore, as Ronan investigates and attempts to solve his own murder.
Being set in Salem, Massachusetts, it has a long history of the supernatural to draw upon, which helps set the rules. As a ghost, Ronan can pass through any obstacle, except those buildings that are consecrated (which happens to be every building in Salem), meaning he must either wait for the living to open a door or sneak in or out of windows. He has certain powers at his disposal: the ability to possess people and peak through their eyes, eavesdrop on their conversations, or influence their memories in order to gain clues.
The investigative aspect of Soul Suspect plays out the most like a better-structured version of the Sherlock Holmes series of games, with the player collecting clues and then reasoning out what the logical conclusion is to what happened from those clues. The clues, in the form of living memories, then play out in front of Ronan, giving him a path of where to investigate next. The actual investigation is fairly similar to the FBI investigative sections of Heavy Rain with available clues elaborated on as you find them.
Naoto Sugiyama, Square Enix's producer for the game, tells me that the brief stealth combat sections have been misconstrued; they're there to break up the game's narrative flow, but the game isn't an action game. These stealth sections are interesting all the same: As Ronan you can teleport and hide from the floating demons—the lost souls of ghosts who have forgotten who and what they are, who only exists to swallow the souls of the dead—and then sneak up behind them and execute them in a flashy light show.
After completing the available mission objectives, I was invited to investigate the nearby areas of Salem, with side missions where Ronan helps some of the other dead move on, finding out where their bodies are, how they died, etc. It's rewarding, if not necessary to the story. Collectible items that expand the story also litter important areas of the landscape.
The game wasn't always this way, according to Sugiyama and Airtight Games' chief creative officer Matt Brunner. Square Enix wanted to create a new IP and paired creative director Yosuke Shiokawa with Airtight to kick around concepts for development. Brunner mentions that they spent a lot of time developing the concept of "what it means to be a ghost in a game" and at one time had 7 or 8 different possible scenarios.
According to Sugiyama, the game was originally much more action-oriented, and the lead character would have been a security guard killed by terrorists. Shiokawa's original concept, according to Sugiyama, was "imagine if the terrorists kill John McClane in Die Hard, and he continues to try to save his wife and children as a ghost." This lead to all kinds of action-oriented gameplay, like using steam vents to jump and even a shooting mechanic for a short time with a "ghost gun."
"The ghost gun was a terrible idea," Brunner says totally deadpan. prompting laughs from Sugiyama, "but games aren't a medium like film, there's a lot of iteration."
Through that iteration, Soul Suspect eventually settled on its investigative adventure gameplay, making it unique in the triple-A space. Though this demo only hinted at it, the story of Salem will feature much more prominently throughout the story according to the devs, as Ronan solves both his own murder and unravels the parts of himself that refuse to move on. Murdered: Soul Suspect is targeting a June launch on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.