Fed up with chicken dinners or whatever is served for being the last one standing in battle royale games that are all the rage now? Bored with gunning and running to tally up in the more traditional multiplayer shooters? How about something more cerebral and stealthy - a slow-paced multiplayer experience that still has the same idea of eliminating other people from the fray? Well then, Scottish developer Blazing Griffin may have something for you to whet your homicidal appetite.
Set in Victorian era, Murderous Pursuits is a stealthy third-person game of kill or be killed. Mysterious Mr. X is looking for new hit men to join his ranks, so he stages a murder play onboard airship Britannic, similar to luxury ocean liners of the era. Partying through music hall, backstage, laboratory and engine house, there are eight special guests among the cruise entourage. They are assassin candidates, hunting each other to earn favor in Mr. X’s eyes while avoiding any needless attention. You must track down and kill your assigned quarry before your hunters do the same to you. There are eight characters to choose from; admiral, brute, dodger and prince typify male participants while assassin, doxy, duchess and tracker represent the fairer sex. There are no substantive differences between the characters, it’s all down to looks and to get lost among all the identical looking people.
At first it may seem funny that everyone, including the gruesome eight (be them human players or bots filling in a shorthanded roster) and all the dozens of NPCs that make up for the party crowd, share exactly the same character designs, variety only coming from different color sets. It’s like an eerie gathering of clones. Soon you’ll realize that’s the very idea. Were the player characters somehow singular, they would stick out like sore thumbs and the game would be reversed to an open hunting ground, just like in any run-of-the-mill multiplayer game. Now you don’t know who’s who mingling among cruise guests. There are no gamer tags or anything like that hovering above character heads to give them away.
You go around the sets, observing through the crowd who might be your quarry while avoiding hunters because you’re someone else’s target. A quarry tracker helps pinpoint your victim, tells if he or she is on the same floor and shows a sketchy direction to their whereabouts. The closer you move, the wider the green tracker bar gets, and when the quarry is in the close vicinity, the bar lights up. And that’s it, you still have to deduce the target before closing in for the kill. You can only hope that their behavior will eventually reveal them to you.
When moving around, the exposure rating goes up. The more exposure player has, the more precise the quarry tracker is. Of course, it works two-ways and your hunter can get a better sniff of you. To decrease exposure, there are vignettes scattered around to slip onto. They are small areas rounded up with a white dotted line, usually involving activities like admiring a piece of part, drinking at the bar counter, dancing in a group and so on. Stepping on a vignette and staying there for a while lowers the exposure. Also, kills from within vignettes are rewarded with a nice bonus favor. Oh yes, the favor. The game won’t necessarily be won by the player with the most kills but the one with the most favor. A low exposure gives more favor for the kills. Various weapons, like daggers and pistols, can be picked from weapon caches and each tool of trade carries a random favor rating from one to five. After a kill, the favor for the weapon you used drops to one so it’s better to get something with more jazzy favor rating. Killing streaks are also rewarded with added favor.
The game mechanics and the rules are simple, but it’s clever how they manipulate the players to behave in a similar manner. You don’t want to stick out as you don’t want to look either hunter or quarry. On one hand, you have to be on the move, actively seeking and eventually following your quarry. It’s as important to step on vignettes to idle, not only to get rid of the exposure but to obscure your presence, like being just one of the people playing cards over a barrel or listening to someone playing harmonica. Awkward rambling, sudden changes of direction, otherwise twitchy movement and especially running will give you away. You realize you start moving like an automaton, carefully not to make any human like gestures. Picking up a weapon is unavoidable, though, and will make you look most suspicious, so don’t do it while you suspect someone near being your hunter. There’s a minor warning about hunter’s presence so it’s better to act like everyone else. Or else!
Quarry doesn’t equal just fodder, though. You can slap to stun your hunter and get away, losing yourself as the quarry. And again, it works two-ways. A few seconds later new quarries and hunters alike are randomly assigned. Being at the same time both the hunter and the quarry is a wicked game indeed, and it works remarkably well, making some constantly unnerving moments. Especially when you’re in a lead and the last minute is ticking away. Now it’s time to keep cool and not make any wrong moves! There are five abilities to help in killing or defending, and you can choose up to two of them to a game. “Disguise” and “humiliate” are pretty useless, and the “counter” sounds fine on paper but in practice you have to be face-to-face with the hunter to nullify an incoming kill which isn’t always likely. The most practical abilities are “reveal” to get a glimpse of possible quarries and hunters, and “flash” to stun everyone in the near vicinity. All the abilities have long cooldowns so you can't spam them.
Of course, occasionally you get it wrong and hit a wrong target. As a penalty, you get an instant maximum exposure and stand still for a few seconds humiliated, making you an easy target. If you survive, you’ll lose your quarry and the new one is assigned. All invaluable seconds lost in tight ten-minute games. There are also guards patrolling some areas. You don’t want to make anything suspicious under their eyes, because if they catch you, you get arrested, once again exposing you. What’s worse is that during those agonizing seconds the guard is writing a penalty ticket, he’s actually occupied and there’s a fine chance of your hunter killing you like a sitting duck.
There are some nitpicks. Target acquisition is sometimes twitchy and you can unintentionally hit a wrong person if two or more characters are close together. Even though the targeted character is highlighted when you move in for a kill, the target can still suddenly change if you happen to alter the viewpoint even slightly. Same thing can happen when you’re trying to stun your hunter. You can accidentally flip around, making you a laughably easy target. Recent patch improved the targeting a bit but still it can be an issue. Sometimes - or actually quite often - the guards seem to have eyes on back of their heads. The guard’s detection awareness is indicated with a small warning sign, but it won’t always show up. These hiccups lead quite frequently to unwanted situations of getting you irritatingly killed for not exactly your own fault.
Apart from practice with AI, there’s only a quick play of ten minutes, or you can set up a private room for friends with variable settings. The good thing is that matches are always available, as the roster is filled in with bots when needed. They behave pretty believably too, and can mimic human-like antics, like running or changing direction on a spot. Still, they can’t make up for experience, tension and fun when the murder game is played with human opponents. A good match is as much about cunning as it’s about luck. There can be hilarious chain of events, only possible with real players. Completed games net experience to level up which in turn unlocks new color sets for characters. Of course, NPCs share these variable colors too.
Murderous Pursuits doesn’t look like your average indie game. The atmosphere is spot on. Britannica is rendered in pleasing period graphics, with moody lighting illuminating neatly detailed sets. The expressive character designs are caricatured and some could say they are multicultural stereotypes (assassin geisha, a black tracker woman or British snarly brute) but all are done with a good taste. You can imagine them being disguises for a costume party, hence the similar look everyone onboard shares. There’s a smooth lounge music playing in the corridors and halls of Britannica, never drawing too much attention but creating a tranquil aural backdrop for the sinister play.
I’m told that Murderous Pursuits resembles its spiritual predecessor The Ship and also multiplayer modes of older Assassin’s Creed games, but having played none of them (only campaigns in AC series) I can’t say anything about similarities. All I can say for sure is that the game evokes a strong “one more match before I quit” mentality. The gameplay and the rules work like an oiled machine keeping a steam engine rolling. Of course, the play can get a bit repetitive and there could be more variety, but then again, it wouldn’t be the same game anymore. Developers have promised some new features over time, like ranked games and more maps. But what Murderous Pursuits really needs at the moment are more players to join the party, and that’s one of the reasons you’re reading this review. So, put on your killer dress, acquire a ticket to Britannica, pick up your favorite weapon, hide it in the sleeve and have a bloody good time!
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.