Wales Interactive has been releasing a number of FMV (Full Motion Video) games for a small while now. Some have been big hitters, and others, well, not so much. The Shapeshifting Detective is their latest attempt, and although it is indeed a valiant effort, several issues hinder the overall experience. The game is served as a supernaturally-themed noir murder mystery, in which you take on the role of the titular detective; free and able to take on the identity of anyone that you come into contact with. It’s a stellar story setup, that’s for sure.
You’ll be spending much of your time within trying to suss out the whodunnit. You’ll meet a handful of suspects, and using your aforementioned powers, you’ll freely switch back and forth through the cast’s identities to move the story forward. The game’s story tells of the murder of one Dorota Shaw, with three tarot readers serving as the prime suspects. However, even after just thirty minutes of play, you’ll begin to unravel threads that pull in a wider pool of suspects, and it’s your job to carefully deduct who exactly is telling the truth.
Could it be that easy that it is indeed the tarot readers? Perhaps it could be the deceased’s partner? Maybe the guesthouse’s delusional owner? Hell, even the police chief is as edgy as they come. Nevertheless, you’ll meet the cast and interview them via static first-person perspective. I say static because you have barely any control over Sam, the protagonist. Instead, you’ll click on a range of options to maneuver through each environment, to and from the locations within, and to conduct the interviews needed to extract additional info.
You’ll always have a panel of options on the right hand side of the screen telling you what you’re able to do, in which selecting an option will execute said command. You’re not confined to the guesthouse. Early on in the game you can hail a taxi to visit nearby people at different locations; be it the police station, the local photographer, and any other person of interest that’s later introduced. What makes this game interesting is its shapeshifting mechanic, simply because of how it helps to unfold character motives and the overall story.
For instance, some characters may house secrets that only their close friends are privy to, and as we all know when it comes to a whodunnit, secrets are everything. Simply visiting your own room at the guesthouse (the only place you can shapeshift) and switching into the desired friend will allow you to withdraw those all important secrets. This mechanic is toyed with very well, and truly encourages the player to get creative and hands-on. That said, there’s something that simply cannot be overlooked. The amount of damn backtracking.
Seriously, I understand why your own room is the only place you can shapeshift, but it gets wildly frustrating needing to return to your room to achieve this, time after time, moment in and moment out. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but the transitions between locations are not seamless. You’ll need to wait a few seconds for each area to load, which only adds to the drag. Still, if FMV is where you heart rests, this will be somewhat easier to overlook. Now, let’s tackle some of the game’s more pressing issues, such as its acting.
When it comes to developing an FMV game, you’re resting most of your strength on the writing and the performances. I’ll make it clear that for the most part, the actors here do a good job. In fact, the female actors steal the spotlight in nearly every scene – special mention to Olivia Noyce’s portrayal of Lexie. It’s the male actors that let the game down to some degree. They’re either trying too hard, or not trying hard enough. It doesn’t help that the writing is a bit off, but in the face of how much the game gets right, this can be forgiven.
There’s a wide range of unique interactions that you can make, some of which are completely optional but serve to add more depth to each character. You’ll want to carefully select what you’re going to say, who you’re going to say it as, and in what order you visit each character. It’s far too easy to piss someone off in this game or break trust with them, so the idea becomes to play it safe and to deviously extract the snippets of intel that you need. It’s a very clever structure, but it’s also kind of hamstrung due to its core design.
The main culprit here is when specific characters are not readily available to talk to certain characters that you take the role of. At moments like this, instead of creating a sequence to show any form of engagement, the game simply shows an empty room. Several times did I take on the role of a character to go and visit another character, only to find that they were not in their rooms. It shaves a layer of depth away and had me wishing that the developer had created some extra sequences instead of taking the easy route and wasting my time.
The handling of the interview segments are well put together. You’ll access the room of the character that you’re interrogating, and you’ll be presented with a list of dialogue options. Depending on what you choose, you’ll get some useful information that you can use to your advantage with another character – or indeed, with that same character but under the guise of another. You can even remain quiet at times via erasing a question to achieve a distinct response. Choice is by no means exhaustive and it works wonders at the best of times.
The Shapeshifting Detective remains interesting enough throughout the entirety of play to recommend a purchase, if indeed linear by design and mechanically restricted. The game’s presentation is clean and accessible, ensuring that even complete newcomers can get hands-on with little trouble. Though, most impressive of all is the production value. Despite the occasional odd and unnecessary blur, The Shapeshifting Detective is sharp and slick. I only wish we had just that extra bit of depth to lean on to get even more involved.
Being an FMV means that much of the game’s weight is resting on both its writing and its acting. Unfortunately, the quality here tends to fluctuate. There’s also some odd design choices that hurt the game’s otherwise decent pacing and structure. That being said and overall, The Shapeshifting Detective is just about entertaining enough and interesting enough to recommend.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.