With the advent of HD video and more readily available tools, FMV’s grand return seemed inevitable. It’s been a long time since the Sega CD, and the folks producing interactive movies nowadays have no delusions of grandeur. This isn’t the future of gaming; it’s just a little corner with an appreciation for a certain brand of storytelling. From this corner comes The Shapeshifting Detective, a compelling murder mystery with more than a few supernatural twists.
You play as “Sam,” an entity of unknown origin with the ability to shapeshift into anyone you meet. As you can imagine, this ability very much comes in handy during a murder investigation. The small town of August bursts into chaos after a young cello player dies in her bed from strangulation. A trio of tarot readers even bizarrely predicted the crime hours before it occurred. It’s your job to team up with the local police and use your powers to uncover the truth about everyone.
The Shapeshifting Detective Review – Taking the Case
The Shapeshifting Detective is a pretty straightforward adventure, at least in terms of gameplay. Each scene plays out with real actors answering questions and posing their own. In certain spots during the case, you have a chance to either ask a dialogue option or let it fade away. Sometimes, this leads to new avenues of questioning. Other times, it just closes options off. Either way, it’s a great way to add variety to your admittedly limited interactions.
In a game like this, I would generally avoid spoilers from here on out. A mystery is all about determining whodunit, but The Shapeshifting Detective‘s story doesn’t need protecting. Every time you load up a new game, the end result randomizes. While the story structure remains similar as the night goes on, new facts emerge each time you dive back in, pointing you towards a different killer every time. The actors do a great job of keeping their cards close to their chest. Each performance inspires unease in simple conversations, just in case it’s their turn to play the villain. In both of my complete runs through the story, I kept guessing all the way to the end, which is the mark of a good yarn.
The Shapeshifting Detective Review – Sorting Through Red Herrings
Of course, this may also be due to a few of the more curious inclusions in the story. Several times as you’re going along, the camera will pan to a scene outside of the normal dialogues. Maybe there’s a quick scare or an otherwise unexpected movement. In any case, these scenes rarely add up to much, at least in the stories that I saw. It’s entirely possible that another playthrough would reveal what they’re hiding. In fact, it seems like that has to be the case considering how connected some of them were. In any case, they just seem like they existed solely to distract and confuse during my playthrough. The extra air of mystery is unnecessary considering how well the actors push the narrative along.
Speaking of, The Shapeshifting Detective‘s has a dynamite cast. Contradiction star Rupert Booth continues to impress as Chief Dupont, and Esmonde Cole kills as overconfident photographer Zak. Performances are serious enough to keep the story grounded. However, the actors all know they’re in an FMV game and ham it up accordingly. This is a pure noir tale, with the type of gritty self-serious moments you want. When the subject matter inevitably drifts onto something goofy, it gets the amount of respect it deserves. The game even makes it a point of offering some pretty insane choices for the amusement of adventure gaming veterans.
The Shapeshifting Detective Review – Grilling The Witness
It’s surprising how in-depth The Shapeshifting Detective gets with its occult material. There are several points throughout the campaign where you can get tarot readings or watch a Ouija board at work. These supernatural tools of the trade are presented well, and I learned quite a bit about their meanings. It added a lot to the character of each fortune teller and provided some great twists and turns. Because you’re never presenting an honest face, you feel tension whenever they read your fortune. It always seems like you’re on the edge of an uncomfortable reveal, which provides great plot momentum.
Although, the game’s UI system could probably use a little work. In every chapter, you get a simple list of names containing people you can visit. This list gets bigger as the game goes on, and each person is also a possible shapeshifting target. Once you transform, each other person will have possible dialogue options with them. This is one of the game’s high points, as you’re able to jump around between identities and cause havoc if you so choose. However, no matter if you can talk to someone or not, the option to visit them still presents themselves, which clutters up the menu.
Therefore, if you want to see everything you can on your run, you’ll be paging through menus over and over rather than actually playing detective. There’s also no checklist for replaying scenes you’ve already seen or an option to skip through a playthrough a-la Zero Escape. This might not work with the game’s random nature, and the story is definitely replayable as is, but I just wish it was easier for players to see where the new stuff is. Some of the best moments hide behind very specific interactions, and it’ll be hard to experience all of them without some sort of guide.
The Shapeshifting Detective Review – Final Verdict
Since we live in the age of HD rather than the age of CD, The Shapeshifting Detective‘s great looks aren’t a surprise. While there are times when you can see where a conversation is stitched together from disparate clips, the video generally runs great. The sound is moody and incidental, although special note should be made about the game’s radio shows. It seems like a lot of work went into these dramas, including an in-game explanation for why you can hear them wherever you go. However, there’s no real easy way to listen to them other than setting down your controller and going through the loop. There’s no sound menu that unlocks after your first playthrough and no option to skip to the Tex Murphy cameo. This seems like something that could be an easy fix, so I hope it comes to fruition.
After a pair of four-hour trips all around August, I can safely say that it’s a tour well worth taking and retaking multiple times. No matter if you’re looking for a goofy FMV good time or an engaging mystery to solve, The Shapeshifting Detective delivers. You can see where the corners were cut if you push too hard in the wrong places, but the story and characters drive the game past those shortcomings. The Shapeshifting Detective‘s pulpy charm and offbeat story show that it doesn’t take a detective to figure out how enjoyable this game is.
The Shapeshifting Detective was reviewed on Xbox One X and PC via Steam with codes provided by the publisher.