The Shapeshifting Detective Review (Switch/PC)
Since the beginning of gaming we’ve strived as an industry to make games look real. Somewhere down the line, some smart cookies asked the question “What looks more real than reality?” and started making games using Full Motion Video (FMV) of actual actors doing actual things. And well…their quality was always a bit all over the place. For a long time the idea was still held back by the technology. The video quality needed to be horribly compressed to fit onto a CD (or god forbid, something with even less space) to work on a console or PC.
So it’s great that in recent years with the rise of indie games we’ve also seen a resurgence of FMV games. Again with varying levels of quality. Her Story is probably the biggest stand out. A game that we generally all loved here at GFG. It used FMV in such a novel and unique way that it had us taking notes while playing it, comparing what we thought to be the solution. Meanwhile Contradiction: Spot The Liar! runs out of steam by the end but has a cast of characters just so endearing and fun it’s hard not to love it. The Infectious Madness Of Doctor Dekker has a similarly interesting cast of characters but its mechanics let it down.
And so that brings us to The Shapeshifting Detective. This is the latest game by D’Avekki Studios, creators of Doctor Dekker. Starring a cast that is a mish-mash of new faces, returning ones from Doctor Dekker and, most interestingly, a couple of Contradiction favourites. It’s not actually connected to any of those games though. It’s a fully stand alone game in which you play as a detective named Sam…who can shapeshift. Yes, the title is a bit on the nose there.
The game opens with a shadowy agent tasking Sam to go to the town of August and find out about the recent murder there. Upon arriving, Sam gets introduced to a variety of characters: Violet, owner of the guesthouse he is staying in. Bronwyn, Rayne and Lexie, three tarot card readers who arrived just before the murder. And Chief Dupont, the police chief in charge of the investigation.
These actors and actresses are mostly familiar faces with Violet being played by Aislinn De’ath who on top of having one of my favourite names in existence also played Marianna in Doctor Dekker and Bronwyn being played by Anarosa Butler who played Emma in Contradiction: Spot the Liar!. Most notable for a lot of players I’m sure though is Chief Dupont’s actor Rupert Booth who played the Detective Inspector Jenks in Contradiction. He plays a more subdued role this time, being stuck behind a desk for most of the game but he also injects a bit of much needed comic relief in places as he snippily tells you where the door is or why you’re an idiot for even considering certain people suspects and so on.
The main bulk of the gameplay involves interviewing suspects, witnesses and anyone who was in town the night of the murder. Each interview plays out as a series of questions. More options open up based on information you’ve learned from other sources. This is where the shapeshifting mechanic comes into play. Characters are only going to tell Sam what they want Sam to know.
Everyone has secrets. Everyone has relationships with each other. And nobody tells the whole truth all the time. Violet is having a relationship with Zak and neither have an alibi for the night of the murder? Well shapeshifting into one of them and talking to the other will reveal new information. Sam can then use this for further questioning later (usually getting around his new knowledge as “Well, so and so told me.”). It’s a smart mechanic and one that allows the supernatural elements of the story to feel more at home as this one is introduced right off the bat.
At times you’ll also get the option to drop certain lines of questioning. This will usually then open up other different options. Sometimes though it will keep the conversation going, but had you asked that question it may have angered the suspect you’re talking to, ending the conversation entirely. It’s a neat mechanic that isn’t that essential, but it adds a little more depth to what would otherwise be a game about talking to everyone and badgering them to get all their dialogue.
The story is divided up into chapters, progressing across different hours of a single night. What actually triggers the chapters to end was never super clear to me. Instead it seemed that sometimes as I went to interview someone else it popped up with the end of chapter sequence. Each end of chapter sequence is a radio show that checks in on the hour talking for a few minutes with some lovely b-roll of paint/ink in water in the background. Thankfully even though you are forced to watch these right away when they trigger, you aren’t forced to actually progress to the next chapter. You can continue interviewing people instead and progress when you’re ready.
The downside of this structure though is that when you do choose to progress you need to watch the same end of chapter sequence again and it’s unskippable. All the dialogue and video is unskippable which makes sense for the most part. But it becomes rather irritating in a game with multiple endings. In fact, the game encourages multiple playthroughs by making the killer change in different playthroughs of the game. So it’s a bit of pain that a game made to be replayed doesn’t allow you to skip things to replay it quicker. But because the killer changes, dialogue also changes. So if you could skip it you could miss something you thought you knew but which had changed in this play through. But at least let us skip those bloody chapter ends!
The actual FMV in The Shapeshifting Detective is used to great effect and is really well put together. They avoid the usual hard loops that often plague the genre by having more natural cuts. There’s also plenty of b-roll of each of the actors sitting looking around (or in the case of Chief Dupont looking very excitedly at a pen) to fill in the background while you’re making choices. This b-roll is normally slowed down but it often looks quite framey more than anything else. It works as an effect but there are times where it looks rough. Other than that though the video quality is all pretty great. I played the Switch version and found it looked a bit compressed when played docked. But nothing terrible and it looks completely perfect when undocked.
The audio though is a bit all over the place. For the most part it’s fine but occasionally a character will sound a bit blown out or sound echoed. Again, it’s largely fine, and the issues don’t get in the way, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t match the high level of polish of some other FMV games.
The Shapeshifting Detective isn’t super long. I would estimate I spent about 2 ½ – 3 hours on my first playthrough. But that’s when being very inquisitive and talking to everyone as much as possible. It only took about an hour to an hour and a half when trying to rush through it a bit faster to see other endings. It’s also pretty cheap though. And if you’re interested in FMV games or even just good pulpy “whodunnit” stories then I think it’s definitely worth a shot.
8 possible killers out of 10