Murder mysteries are the niche of the video game world. While we all fawn over the latest AAA titles, the slow burner of a whodunnit can be just as captivating. The Shapeshifting Detective throws you into one of the most bewitching FMV mysteries ever. Its sci-fi intricacies draw you into a more deliberate sense of immersion. Never knowing what the plot will drop on you next, The Shapeshifting Detective is one satisfying ride.
Set in the fictional town of August, you play as an undercover detective, simply known as Sam. You’ve been sent in to uncover the killer of local celebrity Dorota Shaw. Despite the modern-day setting, August has the feel of a truly haunted town and the film noir-styled guesthouse is the perfect setting for this style of mystery. Radio broadcasts of dark fiction also heighten the urgency of your investigation.
From the off you are introduced to characters who are not afraid to share their feelings on the tragedy. From the local police chief to the guesthouse owner, it’s up to you to unearth their motivations and figure out how they tie to the murder. Every character has a link to each other and the sense of equivocal tension plays a massive part of this atmospheric tale.
The opening two chapters start off slow as the main purpose is to get acquainted with the prime suspects. As you progress, new locations and suspects crop up and the tangled web that connects them all together becomes ever more intriguing. Characters that were easily portrayed as fillers, also have many layers to their personality. One drop of your guard and the identity of the killer could pass you by. Between each chapter – which are split into one hour of in-game time – local radio news bulletins provide updates on the case and all actors inhabit their roles well, apart from a few stilted lines. The closing acts up the pace as all the clues you’ve collated opens a plethora of endings. Each has serious consequences, not just for the killer and the other suspects, but for Sam as well.
Easily the strongest part of The Shapeshifting Detective is the assortment of characters you meet along the way. The offering of personalities keeps you in complete limbo as to who the main suspect is, as the game does not present you with one defining clue to the identity of the killer. Exemplary performances from the likes of Aislinn De’Ath as Violet, Anarosa De Eizaguirre Butler as tarot reader Bronwyn and Rupert Booth as Chief Dupont really set the tone of unrelenting scepticism. While as Sam the player remains mute, most of the time I found myself roleplaying the part of Sam – you gain the ability to shapeshift into any character you confront. Most of the time you’ll be following up leads that are name dropped in interrogation scenes. Those can be followed up as either Sam or in disguise. Conversations open different interactions, depending on the person you are cloaked as. Never have I had to concentrate so hard and even take notes, like a real detective, to determine who the killer was.
The Shapeshifting Detective’s minimalistic gameplay really allows you to be drawn into the characters and mystery. After a desaturated transition screen, you are presented with a choice of people to interact with. The initial selection of questions then opens up context sensitive dialogue options which Sam can either act upon or ignore to preserve his undercover operations. Manipulation is also the name of the game (although not really, look at the title). After disguising yourself, new interactions add small nuances to each character’s connection to Dorota’s murder. Clues you attain are not stored in any hub or menu, the game relies on you to pay attention, or do what I did and create a full mind map with interconnecting strings. It’s up to you to collect the evidence and pin the crime on the right suspect. You can take a taxi to different locations and, while the waiting screens for each selection repeat, your pressing need to gather more clues means you won’t be waiting around long. The only issue I came across was a couple of transition screens which jump cut to a different set of footage after only one second. At those points, my immersion was broken briefly, although this only happened twice. In layman’s terms, this is a first person, dialogue-driven experience that will test your attention to detail.
One thing you can’t accuse The Shapeshifting Detective of is predictability. Every time you start a new game, a new character is allocated as the murderer. I was genuinely surprised in my second playthrough when the plot threw me a curveball I hadn’t witnessed the first time around. Whilst most scenarios can play out very similar, it forces you to look at clues from a different perspective.
In respect to the murder mystery theme and The Shapeshifting Detective is a shining light in immersive story-telling. It may lack in gameplay variety but the shapeshifting mechanic and how it is integrated into the story really sets it apart. Trying to figure out the identity of the murderer from the batch of excellent characters will keep you wanting more.
If you fancy yourself as a budding sleuth, then this is one case worth solving.