App Reviewed on: iPad Air 2
User Interface Rating:
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There’s a certain charm of games that use full motion video (FMV) to tell their stories. It’s hard enough to get quality performances out of actors when you aren’t also spending a lot of time making a video game, so perhaps it’s not particularly surprising that most FMV games have a lot of awkward deliveries and strange direction in them. The Shapeshifting Detective is a prime example of an FMV game with plenty of quirky acting and strange scene choices, which might make it appeal to fans of the form. Unfortunately though, the game underneath all of this video feels similarly cobbled together, but not in a particularly appealing way.
Video killed the cello star
The Shapeshifting Detective involves a murder in a small town called August. Dorota Shaw, a local cellist, was found dead and the local police chief has no real leads to crack open the case. That’s where you come in. You’re a detective from out of town that’s been hired out to investigate because you produce results, and the reason you’re so capable is because you’re some kind of being that can transform into other people at will.
It’s an admittedly odd setup, but it’s nowhere near as strange as where The Shapeshifting Detective ends up going in its meandering narrative. Without spoiling too much (it’s a narrative-heavy game, after all), the plot moves between things like metaphysics, science fiction, and mysticism constantly. You never really know where the plot may end up going next, which gives The Shapeshifting Detective and oddly compelling quality.
Most of The Shapeshifting Detective’s gameplay takes place via one-on-one conversations with potential suspects in the town of August. These characters will greet you before you can pick one or a few prompts to drive the conversation forward. After selecting one of these prompts, the game will serve up the appropriate scene of a character reacting to whatever you said and you’ll repeat this until you’re done speaking with them or run out of prompts.
As a detective on a murder case, most of these conversations center around asking people for alibis, determining their relationship to the victim, and testing their statements against the testimony of others. Once you’ve confronted characters as a detective, you don’t have to stop there, though. You can also go to your room whenever you want and transform into another character and do things like call out their contradictions, bluff them into saying something they were trying to hide, or otherwise trick them into doing or saying things they wouldn’t do if they were talking to police. It’s a clever mechanic that serves to add dimension to both the game’s story and mechanics.
Can’t hold shape
Shapeshifting to manipulate people is a perfect idea for a game that is centered around narrative choice and investigation, but The Shapeshifting Detective struggles to lug its bizarre setup across the finish line. The game starts out with a really tight cast that you move between conversations with frequently to dislodge small clues and details, but around the mid-point of the game, things spiral out of control.
Underdeveloped characters with enter the story with some pretty weak justification, along with narrative developments that go to some pretty uncomfortable places. Once the cast expands to its full capacity, The Shapeshifting Detective then suddenly decides to move at a breakneck pace toward its conclusion, with little regard for the tightness or consistency that it setup in its first act. By the game’s end, you aren’t really sure why anything is happening, and little is done to explain much of anything to you. It just becomes a babbling mess.
The bottom line
It’s hard to know for sure, but The Shapeshifting Detective almost feels like a game that was rushed along to completion. What starts as a weird—but intriguing—murder mystery devolves into a string of semi-coherent vignettes that reveal who did what, but in a way that doesn’t feel fully explained or earned. It's certainly one of the more unique narrative experiences out there, but unfortunately not one that offers much in the way of satisfaction.