Unheard: Voices of Crime Review
The current murder mystery boom is the best video game trend in years. From high concept experiments like Shadows of Doubt to hyper specific stories like Case of the Golden Idol, it seems game developers are willing to take big risks to leave their definitive mark on the genre. In Unheard – Voices of Crime, gives you a very specific tool of investigation. Can you prove guilt or innocence using only your ears? Through good puzzle design, you just might.
Believe What You Hear
Unheard – Voices of Crime has a setup that may be familiar to some: you are an investigator testing out a new tool of the trade. This tool projects you into closed locations where a crime has taken place. You listen to a short audio play, you fill in a Mad Libs card, plugging specific details into a narrative summary. Hooray, you found the perpetrator!
This is represented through a strange interface. When I say you are projected right into the crime scene, I mean that literally. You have a little avatar that looks the same as the other human characters in the story. But you are not in the story. You are a ghost. This feels like a stylistic betrayal. If the whole game is about listening for clues in the echoes of crimes, why do you need to go to the crimes at all? I would have rather you explored the areas formlessly, or you know, maybe something more thematic like a big floating ear.
Scenes grow more complicated, but they clock in around the ten minute mark. You can scan through the video with common playback tools like fast forward and rewind. The big gimmick occurs when you start ghosting from room to room. There are always multiple scenes playing out, sometimes intersecting with each other, or showing two sides of a phone call. Putting together the dialogue from disconnected scenes is always crucial to finding the truth at the core of the mystery.
Happily for a game so concerned with sound, Unheard has excellent audio design; second to none. When you turn your digital avatar around (curious though it may be) the audio pans from left to right, to best simulate the ear you are hearing it with. The acoustics simulation is also impressive. From the sound clips, you can tell whether someone is speaking inside or outside, in a big room or small, wood-paneled or marble-carved. The sound team at NEXT studios know what they are about, and if I were building a game studio from scratch, they’d be on my must-hire list.
The rest of the production design is more serviceable than inspiring. The visual novel sequences between cases are traditionally presented. I liked the art style well enough, and some of the trippy effects worked well, but it seems like a perfunctory framing narrative on top of a strong but unrelated idea. While the settings are all easy enough to navigate, they sort of break away from the strengths of the game, the sound.
The Usual Suspects
In a game like this, writing is of paramount importance, and quality acting is just as crucial. This is the element that usually kills my interest on Sam Barlow games. Telling Lies had a top notch cast of favorite actors, none of whom are doing their best work. The acting in Unheard seems almost amateurish next to that, but weirdly it’s more effective?
This makes me think about how the game regards itself in its marketing materials. One point they keep coming back to is how the game belongs to the legacy of immersive theater. That’s exactly what it feels like. While characters are well voiced, the performances don’t do a lot to help you get lost in the spaces. They don’t sound realistic or naturalistic. And they’re not supposed to. These are little murder mysteries, played to the cheap seats. The actors need to emphasize certain hints or emotions. As such, you don’t really feel like a fly on the wall, you feel like you are reading an Agatha Christie and every word might be a clue.
Name That Tune
When I first booted up Unheard – Voices of Crime (and wow, what a title that is) I was reminded by another recent game, Cyberpunk 2077. That game had a mechanic that was exactly like the main gimmick in this. You would float around echoes of crime scenes, using mostly audio clues to piece together a mystery. Those scenes felt bloated and all over the place. Sometimes you had to scan temperatures for some reason. Unheard focuses down on what’s crucial- the writing and what it sounds like- and delivers much more compelling mysteries. Cyberpunk was trying to feel like episodes in a prestige TV show. Unheard is offering you up little puzzles.
There are elements of Unheard that still befuddle me. Why did there have to be a framing narrative around testing a sci-fi sound machine? Why couldn’t this just be a series of devious chapters, full of double identities and swapped masterpieces? Ultimately, I don’t think some of the eccentric flourishes hurt the game. Unheard – Voices of Crime focuses on doing a few things well. The game rises to that very specific set of standards.
***PC code provided by the publisher***
- Best sound design ever
- Good writing
- Good performances
- Unnecessary framing narrative
- Perplexing interface