A murder mystery of many faces.
The Shapeshifting Detective, a narrative driven adventure game, has you solving a strange murder as a detective that can turn into anyone they’ve spoken to. You start off as Sam – or, rather, in the form of Sam. You’ve taken on Sam’s identity – his voice, his looks – so that you can gain people’s trust and solve the case.
The police chief who’s assigned you this task seems to have his mind made up as to the identity of the killer – but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily correct. He is hoping you will find him some proof. Your main challenge is to not get caught while shapeshifting.
The case of a strangled musician seems fairly ordinary – until you hear about the three tarot card readers who predicted the crime before it happened. The chief thinks that the head of this tarot card reading group, Bronwyn, is the murderer. The card readers each have their own reason for following this specific murder, but it’s not one they’ll easily share with a stranger, so you’ll need to use your shapeshifting abilities to draw the information out of them.
You’re can shift in the privacy of your own room – inside the ‘guest house’ – a hotel in the town of August where the murder took place. There are several other people at the guest house, including the owner of the establishment and all of the tarot card readers. Other individuals can be visited by calling a cab – and you can visit them as any character you can transform into.
Being someone else is not always as easy as it may seem – most of these people don’t know Sam and don’t want to open up to him. Becoming someone who you know very little about, and talking to another person you need information from, can turn sour. It’s an engaging challenge, as you try to match the behaviour and knowledge of the character you’re playing as, knowing that if you mess up you might get caught, or change the way other characters view the person you’ve shifted into.
The game is split into chapters, introducing new characters when you move into a new section of the game. Once you’ve unlocked a new chapter, you get the option to move forward to it, or to stay in the current chapter and continue to ask questions. But the decisions you make have a permanent impact, with little opportunity to run through all of the dialogue you might have once been presented with.
The game is constructed of 1,600 full HD video responses, so everyone you speak with is a real human with recorded lines and movements. Some of the acting is a little questionable, but the audio and ambition that went into creating this intricate web of conversations should be commended. It feels fresh and unique.
Where The Shapeshifting Detective falters slightly is in its processing of the conversational logic, leading to a frustrating repetition that sometimes creeps into play. At one point, playing as Bronwyn, I explicitly encouraged a particular character to speak to Sam. Later, playing as Sam, this same character told me she needed to seek Bronwyn’s permission before she could talk to me. So I had to switch to Bronwyn, approve the topic again, and switch back to Sam again to progress the game.
It never becomes intolerable, but it does jar in the moment. With these minor annoyances in conversation ironed out, The Shapeshifting Detective could be a far smoother experience.
This is also a game that relies heavily on audio. While there are subtitles, you’ll need to understand each character’s tone and manner of speaking to really get the feel for when they are lying, uncomfortable, or becoming irritated with your questioning. I played through The Shapeshifting Detective on the Switch, and found that I needed to carry a pair of headphones with me when out and about to get the same level of satisfaction from it.
And it is satisfying – especially as The Shapeshifting Detective becomes more intricate, unlocking new routes of conversation to explore, switching between characters as more information comes to the surface. Despite a couple of minor foibles, this a very nice mystery game, with plenty of content, and a web of intrigue to explore.
[Reviewed on Nintendo Switch]