by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Jump Into the Movies
The Shapeshifting Detective isn’t like most games you’ve played. In fact, it stretches the definition of what a game really is. There aren’t any controls. There aren’t any “moves” or combos. Instead, think of FMVs, or full motion videos, as interactive movies. Made up entirely of live-action footage of actors, FMVs tell a story that let the player interact in some way, shape or form. It’s a genre I was unfamiliar with until fairly recently in my gaming life, but one that I’ve fully dived into and have come to enjoy quite a bit. The Shapeshifting Detective isn’t the best FMV I’ve played, but it’s also far from the worst, landing squarely in the middle as a title worth looking into if you’re a fan of this scarcely populated genre but probably ok to miss if you aren’t already.
As the story opens you’re approached by a strange man with some strange instructions. There’s been a murder, and you’re the only detective with the skills to figure out who did it. The kicker, though, as you can probably surmise by the game’s title, is that your skills go a bit beyond your average Sherlock wannabe. Gifted with the ability to perfectly mimic the voice and appearance of anyone you’ve met, you must navigate the web of witnesses, investigators and suspects to get them to open up in ways they might not to someone they don’t know. It’s a cool concept, and one ripe for “game-ification,” but ultimately one I felt was a little more underbaked than I would have liked.
A Murdered Musician
Once arriving in the town of August, the details of the crime become a bit more clear. Darota Shaw, a young musician who’s garnered some amount of local fame for receiving a prestigious music scholarship, has been murdered in her bedroom - a common enough setup. Things get stranger, though, as the chief of police Dupont informs you that the crime was predicted by a group of tarot readers shortly before it happened. He’s sure they did it, they’re adamant they just predicted it, and the owner of the guest house they’re staying in can’t remember anything from the night of the murder at all. These are the people, along with a few more with tangential relationships to the victim and suspects, amongst whom you must live, sneak and interrogate.
It’s interesting to note that the murderer is randomly selected from three possible people every playthrough, so there isn’t one distinct conclusion that the game works towards. There are a few scenes that change to make the culprit make sense, and this randomization is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, changing the murderer from one playthrough to the next does add replayability. I like playing FMVs with friends (who normally haven’t seen anything like them), so replayability is good. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for a narrative hand-crafted to reach a certain conclusion. To be frank I’m not sure if the trade-off in replayability is worth losing what the writers could have potentially added to the sleuthing if they were able to work the whole experience towards a completely pre-determined murderer.
Talking to everyone is fun for the most part. The cast of characters has some interesting personalities, and the first few times you talk to someone disguised as some else - getting information meant for private ears - makes you feel like quite the sleuth. Eventually, as chapters continued, I found myself getting a bit bored with the formula. I’d shapeshift, then interview everyone I could. Shapeshift, interview everyone. Repeat, repeat, repeat. With only the occasional change in how conversations play out, staring at someone sitting in a chair or on a bed starts to feel pretty repetitive. I wish there was more of a feeling of choice. FMVs typically succeed by having one of two different attributes: the viewer/player can either have frequent, significant impact on the direction of the story (a la the fantastic Late Shift) or they’re given agency to interact with the media in a significant way (think the brain-bending Her Story). Yes, you can choose which person you shapeshift into and when, and you have some dialogue options, but I never really felt like I was making an important decision for the majority of the story.
Production values in The Shapeshifting Detective are generally pretty high, but end up being a bit of a mixed bag overall. The video and audio quality are as high as you’d expect any modern HD movie to be. Since the vast majority of the interviews are composed of still-cameras pointed portrait-style at the recipient of your questioning, there isn’t much to say in the way of camera work or lighting. The highs and lows of the acting are a bit more pronounced, though. A few of the actors are pretty good (I liked Chief DuPont and Rayne), some are pretty bad, and most flutter somewhere in the middle. It is the acting, though, that I think amplifies the game’s other problems. I don’t think I’d mind the repetitive nature of interviewing and interaction if the acting was able to deliver on the emotional promise of the premise. A woman is dead, murdered in cold blood, yet everyone seems to be chatting like it’s Sunday brunch. Even the actors that are fine are just that, and nobody gives a performance that had me wanting to see more from them. I think I would have thought more highly about the experience as a whole had I been given some pathos to draw me in, but the largely flat performance by a number of the actors kept me from really caring about what happens to anyone. Cuts are a bit jarring as well. How to transition smoothly between video clips is an issue that’s easier solved by more cinematic multi-camera FMVs, but the jumps and cuts here were a lot less smooth than they probably should have been.
Overall, I did have fun with The Shapeshifting Detective. It’s a very competently made FMV, and one with a unique enough twist to earn a spot among its peers. I do think that there was a lot more potential in the concept than what the final product ended up delivering, but such is the case with many first shots at a new idea. Here’s to hoping we’re in line for a sequel that gives the concept some more room to grow.
Fun concept, intruding murder, the shape-shifting twist is unique
Some questionable acting, lack of emotional appeal, structure/pacing grows a bit tired