2018 has been a good year for FMV games. Having brought the excellent Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker to consoles, D’Avekki Studio’s follow up follows in its well-acted and scripted footsteps. Gone are the text adventure aspects, however, as the game instead relies on a character changing mechanic to uncover the depths of its mystery. This makes for a very different gaming experience that comes far closer to the visual novel aspects hinted at in the previous game. This development does mean that, despite clear visual similarities and some crossover in casting, The Shapeshifting Detective is more in keeping with trial and error FMV games of the past, instead of the more original interrogations of Doctor Dekker.
One thing that’s quite apparent is that there’s much more variety to the look of The Shapeshifting Detective. Gone is the single office of Doctor Dekker and in comes a number of new locations and a diverse cast of characters with mysterious secrets. The randomised villain ensures that the dialogue is full of red herrings and misdirections, although I managed to guess the perpetrator at the first attempt in my initial playthrough. The whole setup is more cinematic than ‘gamey’ so the real critical discussions have to surround the scripting and voice acting instead of graphical fidelity – it is FMV, after all!
The level of acting in The Shapeshifting Detective is generally impressive. The cast successfully portray a range of roles from sultry guesthouse owners to seedy tarot card readers. The intricate scripting enables all of these characters to remain suspicious even as your investigations reveal more about their personalities and involvement in the central case.
This case is the murder of a beautiful young redhead, and you have been brought in to use your special skills to get to the bottom of the mystery. It is never really explained within the game how you are able to adopt the likenesses of people that you meet, although the links between this game and Doctor Dekker do suggest a shared world of Lovecraftian weirdness.
The beginning of the game throws you into a bizarre encounter with a strange FBI-esque agent in which you are taught the basic dialogue system. The major new addition here is a mechanic that allows you to delete a question or response, which you must do to actually begin the game. This initial puzzle forces you to loop the beginning until you work this out and, judging from the Steam discussions, seems to have caught a few players out.
Once you get into the game proper, you find yourself tasked with interrogating a range of suspects at a local guesthouse. As you progress you can unlock a few other locations with their own specific characters. It grows in a manner which feels similar to the Phoenix Wright titles, but where those games introduced more clearly interactive gaming mechanics in the form of item puzzles and interrogation locks, The Shapeshifting Detective remains steadfastly dialogue based.
Talking to a character unlocks their likeness back in your room and transforming into them will unlock extra options in conversation with others. There is unfortunately no possibility of meeting the person you are imitating, which could have added an element of peril. As it stands, there isn’t really any way of giving your identity away, which is a shame. This is exacerbated by some of the questions you ask suggesting prior knowledge of something which the character you are impersonating could not know. I can appreciate that this isn’t a game that needs to have fail states, but the lack of peril does make this an exercise more in reading than in playing.
The dialogue choices you make, and the characters you choose to become, appear to open up a number of alternative scenarios in which other characters will react to you in extreme ways. You can choose to be seductive, angry, or particularly inquisitive, but only within the fairly narrow range of options available. In many cases, characters just aren’t available in particular combinations, an aspect that made things feel more artificially linear than I would have liked. As a result, there is an unfortunate feeling of just switching through the available transformations as busywork rather than any meaningful engagement. While the same accusation could be made at Doctor Dekker, the framework, setting, and text adventure aspects ensured that there was always at least a veneer of player control.
All in all, The Shapeshifting Detective is a functional but disappointing experience. The investigation lacks the twists and turns of a truly suspenseful narrative and the overriding feeling of weirdness is never really allowed to take centre stage. My initial playthrough seemed to end before it really got started and even though I correctly targeted the murderer, I didn’t feel that this was anything more than a lucky guess. If you haven’t yet played Doctor Dekker then I would recommend that over this any day. If the idea of a digital murder mystery night floats your boat, then there is still plenty to enjoy in The Shapeshifting Detective, but it does nothing to really advance the genre or push the envelope. It’s sadly mediocre rather than transformative.
Version tested: PC – Also available on PS4, Xbox One and Switch