What better way to commemorate a murdered artist that to have an exhibition of his Murderous Muses?
Have I mentioned before that I like FMV games? I might have done it in passing. There are so many entertaining entries in this rather niche genre, but D’Avekki Studios are certainly one of the champions of full motion video games. The Infectious Madness of Dr. Dekker was a creative masterpiece, The Shapeshifting Detective expanded that universe with a bizarre murder mystery, and then the criminally underrated Dark Nights with Poe and Munro worked as an episodic choose-your-own-adventure style game. This time though, they’ve gone down a different route, with elements of free roaming, deduction, and puzzle solving alongside the usual video-based entertainment.
You work as a night guard for a museum, due to open in a few days to display the paintings of the recently murdered Malachai Grey on the island of Mirlhaven. Malachai had an impressive array of artwork of all different genres, but of particular interest are six portraits of notable people in the community, all of whom could be responsible for his death. Whilst part of your job is managing the museum at night, another is trying to determine who the killer was by interacting with these paintings.
The three nights you spend in the museum are split into two parts. Initially, you’re asked to find paintings in crates which you need to put in the correct place in the gallery based on the painting itself and the titles of them. Each painting is unique, and with enough time you’ll be able to work out where they go quite efficiently. Once placed, you can listen to a little excerpt about the picture, giving you more information on Mirlhaven Island and just how strange the island is. Once you’re done, whether you’ve placed the pictures correctly or not, you settle down at your monitor and move on to the next stage of the night.
This is where things get a bit more bizarre. You awaken on the same night, in the same museum, but things are considerably different. The layout has changed, new rooms have appeared, and the portraits of the six potential perpetrators are stacked up in the foyer again. Your job now is to take the pictures to a new exhibit room and place them over different title cards — Blood, Love, Money, and things of that ilk — so that they come to life and explain a little bit of their story. They appear to be speaking to Malachai himself in one of a number of conversations they must have had during his lifetime. By putting the pictures over a variety of different titles, you’ll piece together who they are, and why they might want to do away with the artist himself.
Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as that. To learn enough, you’ll need to watch a lot of clips, with each one being based on a different word on the exhibit title. Fine enough, but each time you use a painting to watch a clip, the title underneath it changes to a new work, meaning you can’t just gather up everyone’s association with that key term. Even more complicated is that each painting can only be viewed a certain number of times on a single night, meaning you really have to be efficient in trying to narrow down the suspects.
It’s really quite engaging, and the clips themselves are as well acted as any scene you’ll have experienced in previous games from this team. The fact that you need to put together a timeline in your own head rather than playing through a potentially linear set of scenes really adds to the enjoyment and challenge. I’d probably liken this most to The Shapeshifting Detective in terms of structure, but doing so implies that Murderous Muses is something other than its own beast.
There’s more to what’s going on than meets the eye, especially once you start thinking about the ever-changing art gallery and the different narrators who describe the artworks in the two parts of each night. Each night has its own puzzle that you can solve to unlock additional items that will reveal more about what’s really going on, why Malachai behaved the way he did, and what Mirlhaven island even is. There’s a great mystery to unravel here beyond the cross-examination of the quirky characters who did in our painter.
Interestingly, there’s no way to see everything in a single playthrough either. This makes sense as Murderous Muses is an FMV game, but there’s more to it than that. You absolutely cannot see everything about every character, so part of the museum is dedicated to each of the six muses. As you play through and pick up certain pieces of information, you’ll fill each character’s room with individual artworks that will fill in some of their backstory, all of which persist through playthroughs. This gives you a real impetus to play through more than once, simply to find out what Lileth was up to with the butcher, or what power Myers holds over the people of the island. They seem like minor details, but they really fill in some blanks and make the characters feel more alive than simply being talking heads.
To keep things interesting, each time you play, the murderer will be different, and you’ll have access to different clips. You’ll keep access to your character unlocks and the special rooms that reveal more over the overall story, so you needn’t fear loss of progress. There’s even a seed system so you can share the run you had with other players should something genuinely unexpected occur. It’s a pretty solid way of encouraging replays of an FMV game, something which not all that many players do.
On the other hand, there are parts of replaying that aren’t entirely enjoyable. I didn’t like having to place all the paintings in the first part of the night each time I replayed when all I really wanted was to get to the fun bit. Yes, the layout is different each time which makes things at least somewhat interesting, but it certainly isn’t a highlight of the game. The puzzles to unlock the puzzle rooms don’t seem to change much beyond having different solutions, which means it’s quite simple to speed through some elements of the game without having to give them much thought. The initial playthrough is a little messy too, as I wasn’t really sure what I was meant to be looking for the first time around, even with the tutorial notes scattered around. I will admit that once it all clicked into place for me I found it very satisfying, but at first things were a little muddled for me.
Navigating the museum was enjoyable enough, although the visuals are certainly not a strong point here. The actual artworks themselves are really impressive though, as are the descriptions which come across as something you might hear in an actual art gallery. There’s a certain eeriness to exploring the museum too, with various bizarre and out of place objects which don’t make sense in the second part of each night. This is certainly helped by the sparing use of sound, giving you a constant sense of isolation.
The clips themselves are very well done, fitting together regardless of who the killer is on that run. Every playthrough brought me at least a few new scenes that I hadn’t seen before, and seeing as a run can be completed in as little as two hours, I was never left feeling that playing through again would be a chore. The acting and voice work throughout are tremendous, with narrator Higgins being a particular highlight.
Whilst it might not be what everyone was expecting from D’Avekki Studios, Murderous Muses is certainly another feather in the cap for this very talented team. I have yet to be disappointed by anything they’ve made and this meets the standards I’ve come to expect from them. Unique characters, a bizarre world, and unusual mechanics for the genre come together to be greater than the sum of their parts, and I’m as keen as ever to see what they put together next.