I am a fan of FMV (full-motion-video) games where players get to watch interactive movies and make key choices for the actors to perform as the story moves forward. I’ve played quite a few from exciting and action-packed titles like Bloodshore to found footage mysteries like Her Story. I even played an entire X-Files like series of adventures in Dark Nights With Poe and Munro, which remains one of my all-time favorite FMV titles.
But despite having different settings, actors and plots, almost all FMV titles follow the same basic format. You watch a movie and make choices, which changes how the movie unfolds. Certain ones have more branching paths than others, which means you can play them more times before you’ve experienced everything each has to offer. But for the most part, after you have played through FMV titles once or twice, the thrill in continuing after that is greatly diminished.
But now, one of the most innovative developers making FMV games, D’Avekki Studios, is attempting to break that mold with the release of Murderous Muses, a procedurally generated murder mystery that uses FMV to advance the plot, but is also different every single time a new game is launched. It’s a highly ambitious project, but this is the studio behind the aforementioned Dark Nights With Poe and Munro, so I figured that if anyone could pull it off, it’s them.
When you first launch Murderous Muses, you see the typical Start and Continue menu and then another option for Seed. That is a really cool addition because you can capture the random seed of the game you are playing and then share it with others. So, if a randomized game has a particularly good combination of clues or design, you can save it to play again, or challenge one of your friends to try and solve the same mystery. It even opens up the possibility of a speed run type of contest, with players competing to try and get the best times in identical worlds. So, it’s nice to see the Seed option in a procedurally generated world.
When you actually drop into the game, you find out that you are taking on the role of a caretaker and a sort of watchman for a strange museum called Gallery Argenta, which is located in an even stranger place called Mirlhaven Island. You quickly learn that a year ago, a locally famous artist named Mordechai Grey was murdered, likely by one of the six subjects of his most famous paintings. As a tribute to Grey, the gallery is getting ready to present a showing of some of his most famous works, including the portraits of those six suspects, the so-called Murderous Muses.
On the surface, it will be your job over the next three nights to perform various tasks to help get the gallery ready for the show, mostly by hanging paintings in the correct spots around the display floors. But, the game is much deeper than that because the gallery is both haunted and magical, allowing players to unlock FMV sequences involving the six subjects, police interviews and other clues, all culminating in the ultimate ability to solve the case and point the finger at the real murderer. There are just three nights of puzzle solving and investigative deductions standing in your way before you get to that point.
Each day in the museum is divided up into day and night phases. During the day you will mostly be doing mundane tasks like hanging up pictures, which is actually kind of fun because each time you get one put in the right place (which is done by matching the picture with the title printed on the wall where it’s supposed to hang) a little button pops up which not only confirms that you got it right, but can also be pushed to activate a recording that talks about the history of what the portrait depicts or represents. The really amusing thing is that during the night phase, if you push the same button again, you will be treated to a totally different, much more sinister history of whatever is depicted in that same painting, which is both creepy but entertaining.
During the night phase is when the real action takes place in terms of solving the mystery of who murdered Mordechai. You will get access to the night gallery at that point, which is basically a secret room that is used to investigate the crime. It almost reminded me of a ‘Mind Palace’ that some television detectives use to solve crimes, a way of organizing and visualizing information. Along one wall of the night gallery will be paintings of the six suspects and then three listed traits or subjects underneath them like Desire, Job and Ambition. You need to find those terms along the gallery wall and slot the right painting there to trigger an FMV sequence. If you do all three in order, then you will get to see a police interview with that suspect. It’s really what they say in the interview that will help to narrow down the suspects until you know (or think you know) who the real killer is. And it might be good to take notes to keep your thoughts organized too.
At the end of the three nights you will have the opportunity to name the killer and will get to see if you are correct, or who the real killer was. Don’t worry about learning the truth, because the next time you play, the game and the gallery will be different once again, although the techniques used to solve the crime remain the same. That way, most players will likely become experts pretty quickly at solving the cases and can even try to speed run future plays.
In addition to the main mystery, there are also several side puzzles that unlock treasure rooms in the gallery. And there is one room in the museum where you can store your treasures for later viewing because it’s the only one that is persistent across all future playthroughs, so you can revisit that room as much as you want to admire your treasures and remember your sleuthing successes.
As amazing and fun as Murderous Muses is, the title is not without a couple of unfortunate flaws. The most noticeable is going to be the graphics for the first person exploration part of the game (the galleries), which are not very detailed. They are kind of original DOOM or Duke Nukem level quality. I understand that they are procedurally generated by a small development team, but compare them to something like Anemoiapolis: Chapter 1, which is also procedurally generated and made by a single developer, and Anemoiapolis looks a bit more polished. The real danger for Murderous Muses is that some potential players will see the low-res graphics of the 3D part of the game, and may then decide not to dive into the clever title hiding behind them. Of course, the FMV sequences of Murderous Muses are all high-resolution and beautiful, but most of them have to be unlocked after spending a lot of time in the low-resolution 3D world.
The other problem with Murderous Muses is that there is not much in the way of a tutorial or anything to tell players what to do or how to play. And at least for me, it was not very intuitive figuring out what to do. In my first playthrough, I was following directions and hanging paintings, advancing the days and nights and generally enjoying learning about the history of the island, but I was not working towards solving the mystery at all, and didn’t even really know about the mystery. I basically got to the end of it without any clues about what was going on or who the murderer was. Players like me who are not puzzle gamers by nature could use a little bit more handholding. The good news is that a recent patch has added some more clues to the game to point players in the right direction, so hopefully that will help out the more amateur sleuths among us.
And to end this review on a very positive note, as always with this studio, the acting and the film quality in the title are excellent. All of the actors and actresses do an amazing job at bringing their characters to life in all their quirky glory. It put a smile on my face every time I unlocked a new FMV sequence in the night gallery and made me want to learn more. There are a lot of new actors and actresses who I have not seen before in Murderous Muses, and I was also really happy to see some favorites like Klemens Koehring (of Poe and Munro fame) taking on key roles (and actually helping me to solve the mystery). And yes, Rupert Booth, who GiN once dubbed the “Tom Hanks of FMV” is also included in this talented group. The amazing cast really helps to make Murderous Muses more replayable too, as players will strive to unlock and enjoy all of the FMV sequences.
D’Avekki Studios set out to try something different in FMV, and with Murderous Muses, they achieved that goal. It’s really brave to try and disrupt an established format, and all the sweeter when the resulting product is such a fun and revolutionary game like Murderous Muses, which also happens to be a title with infinite replayability.
Murderous Muses earns 4 GiN Gems out of 5, and may set the standard for what is possible for future FMV titles.