Reviewing The Infection Madness of Doctor Dekker, I argued that full motion video games had undergone a stunning metamorphosis.
Yet having played The Shapeshifting Detective, another D’Avekki Studios title, I’ve been forced to revise that opinion. I’m now convinced that the stinky FMV caterpillar of days gone by has completely expired inside its shoddily-woven cocoon – and what we’re dealing with now is an entirely new beast.
Yes, The Shapeshifting Detective makes heavy use of full motion video but does so in an entirely purposeful manner. More adventure game than movie, The Shapeshifting Detective tasks you with solving the murder of cellist Dorota Shaw. Your gift, as the title suggests, is that you can morph into any of the characters you encounter, catching them in a lie or uncovering information that they’d only reveal to a “friend.”
At least, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. My first impulse was to disguise myself as a character and then confront that same character with their terrifying doppelganger. Sadly, while that opportunity does present itself at one point, the game forces you to act like a proper detective and, you know, actually investigate stuff. But annoying as it is to be doppelganger-blocked, The Shapeshifting Detective weaves such an engaging, esoteric tale that you’ll quickly forgive it that.
Like The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker, the quality of the in-game acting varies but any scenery-chewing is entirely in service of the game. The Shapeshifting Detective resembles nothing so much as a British version of Twin Peaks, albeit with an Agent Cooper who can rearrange his own face. Everyone has their secrets and it’s very easy to forget that you’re there to solve a murder rather than sort through each character’s dirty laundry. There’s almost too much lore; like Twin Peaks, you’ll still have questions at the end of the whole affair, so be prepared to live with that.
There’s definitely voyeuristic element at play here, learning what characters think of you, and each other, by stepping into their shoes. I felt a surge of joy when a character said to be wary of “Sam” (the gender-neutral name you operate under), unaware that they were in fact talking to that individual. The questions you can put to each character are pre-scripted, which sounds limiting but given how clunky The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker’s parser was, it’s actually a blessing.
Equally satisfying is the manner in which your shape-shifting antics open up new questions. The Shapeshifting Detective doesn’t quite have the flair of the Ace Attorney games, where uncovering a lie is a momentous occasion. But you’ll be patting yourself on the back every time a character gets that deer in the headlights look as they realise they’ve been rumbled. Though you also risk shooting yourself in the foot if you follow a particular line of questioning too far; the game lets you “bin” certain questions, but the drive to dig deeper is hard to resist.
It’s nearly impossible to get an early Game Over, but the more key questions you miss the less informed you’ll be when it comes to identifying the murderer. There’s always a certain amount of instinct involved; you’ll never be as certain as Columbo is of his quarry but having your suspicions confirmed will make you feel like you could, with a bit of luck, fill Peter Falk’s shoes. On the downside, get it wrong and your own life could be on the line.
There’s nothing gamebreakingly awful about The Shapeshifting Detective, but it’s not immune to the issues that affect other genre games. The game takes place over the course of a single night, each hour divided into a single chapter; each chapter bringing with it new revelations and new characters to interview. And you’ll relish meeting each new individual, from landlady Violet through to Zak, the rather creepy photographer. The snag is that the hours don’t advance until you’ve hit a specific trigger, usually by uncovering a particular piece of information. You can keep digging without moving on but on a few occasions, I struggled to discover the dialogue trigger that would move the hour on. I’d rather this system than being forced to move on, but it did prove frustrating sometimes.
Like The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker, The Shapeshifting Detective proves that full motion video needn’t be a non-interactive medium (I’m looking at you, The Bunker). If you’re looking for a game that moulds its plot round your every decision, you won’t find it here. But you can spend a good hour just listening to the oddball Night Vale-style stories being related on the radio, before you interview a single suspect.
Throw in the twist that, each time you play, the murder could be a different person (plus the ability to skip cutscenes you’ve already seen) and you’ve got a game that stands up to repeated play. A neat twist is that, like The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker, keeping your own set of investigative notes is the key to success. Scribbling down each character’s testimony, as well as cataloguing your own hunches, serves to make you feel like a real detective.
The Shapeshifting Detective may lack the colossal budget of AAA games, but it nevertheless creates an intimate, skewed world that will draw you in. If you’ve ever fancied yourself an amateur sleuth, albeit one with an distinct biological advantage, then The Shapeshifting Detective will be right up your street.
The Shapeshifting Detective is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. This review is based on the PC version.