Scottish studio Blazing Griffin are no strangers to the multiplayer murdering scene. As (I’m assuming) a successor developer to the original creators Outerlight, they made the fancified Remastered version of longstanding Source-based competitive murderiser The Ship. After a Kickstarter for a sequel to The Ship didn’t get out of the drydock, they developed this game, Murderous Pursuits, ploughing a similar outwit-and-kill furrow, though in a different direction. Set aboard a Victorian-ish blimp commandeered by the mysterious Mr. X, the guests are assigned targets and must kill one another in the sneakiest way possible to earn Favour – the player with the highest Favour at the end of the game wins. If you’re a long-term player of The Ship, you might find the gameplay a little unfamiliar; if, however, you’ve spent any time playing the multiplayer which was briefly included in the Assassin’s Creed games from Brotherhood to Black Flag, you will find it very familiar indeed, though at a vastly different pace. The art style and presentation are properly charming, a cartoonish version of late 19th-century exuberance. As a fan of this sort of game, Murderous Pursuits is an attractive package – however, some technical concerns alongside mechanical issues occasionally serve to deflate the fun.
When Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood came out in 2010, I was a fervent AC fan, and so were a lot of the people I was at school with – the massively popular Assassin’s Creed II had created a lot of fans, and though annualisation fatigue took out my enthusiasm after Revelations I was pretty excited to get to grips with the game. Multiplayer was an unexpected inclusion, but it offered something pretty unique for the time – stealth-based competitive murdering, based on the identification of your target, evasion of your pursuers and good use of your abilities and perks. Though it had a raft of flaws, it was an absolute blast, especially in a lobby with friends. The mind-games took on an additional level when they got personal. Identifying your enemies in a sea of similar-looking NPCs and closing the gap in a sensible manner made the game feel very rewarding for a patient player – get too excitable and your bonus points (which actually made up the bulk of your score) would go out the window, and nobody exposed themselves as badly as the Renaissance Rambos sprinting all over in a blood frenzy.
In many ways, Murderous Pursuits feels like a back-to-basics version of AC’s multiplayer, which released when the craze for level-based perks and character loadouts were reaching their peak. It keeps a sort of target radar (no portrait is given for your quarry, however), additional points based on exposure and killing from hiding places, a read of how many hunters you have and if they’re close, and the general framework is quite similar. However, it ditches the climbing and traversal of AC in favour of a much slower pace of movement, as well as losing the dive-to-cover hiding spots of that game – you can only blend into crowds in front of, say, tables, windows, or paintings, and there are no moving crowds. Active abilities, similar to AC, are available, though they are quite sensible here. Reveal gives you information on all the characters in a wide circle around you, telling you if they’re a hunter, your quarry, or a nobody, Flash stuns everyone around you, Counter gives you a precious few seconds where you will (you guessed it) counter an attack, and so on. Though it has a levelling system, there is no character progression tied to it, and all the abilities are available from the off. I’ve seen somebody complain about this, but to me, this seems like a wise decision; the design of the game means that veteran players are already at an advantage without also having access to additional abilities (or, like in AC, an array of sometimes-cheap passive perks).
At its stripped-down centre, then, you are assigned a target and given an idea of how far or near they are with your quarry detector. You must identify them among the NPCs, who all share character models with the players (though sometimes they are wearing different coloured outfit skins). Approach them and take them out, while paying attention to your Exposure meter, which depletes when you move around and replenishes when you’re incognito in a crowd, as well as keeping an eye out for your own pursuers. There is a satisfying core of gameplay here, revolving around map knowledge, not acting obviously like a human, memorising what the other hunters look like, and so on. Knowing your enemy and understanding what they see is as important as looking out yourself – walk into a room with your quarry alone and they will be able to instantly identify you as their hunter. The satisfaction is similar to The Ship or AC in that successful predictions of movements and understanding of your enemy’s behaviour will lead you to reap the greatest rewards – and when this comes off it feels excellent. However, this is marred by some worrying inconsistency on the technical side, a pace which can feel frustratingly slow, and some problems mechanical imprecision that persist from AC.
Exposure, in particular, seems designed to control the pace of the game, much like high or low ‘Profile’ was in AC, but the risk/reward is off from what I’ve played. It drains quite fast, even walking at a normal pace, and with lengthy recharges can make trying to get into the same area as your target a bit of a chore. Sprinting seems at this point entirely a desperation move or a complete noob-trap, as it drains your Exposure nigh instantly as well as obviously marking you as a human player. This contributes to a generally treacle-like pace, which (while it will appeal differently to different tastes) highlights the need for quicker traversal options. Map knowledge helps, but you will likely end up doing a lot of empty-time walking around, particularly going up and down stairs. In AC this was rectified by being able to completely exposure yourself momentarily as a roof-hopping idiot for a positional advantage, but here even if you can see that your target is down the stairs from a balcony, for example, it can take so long to get to them that by the time you get there they’re long gone. It’s worth noting, however, that pace control in these games is very important, and with a little tweaking Exposure can work very well – discouraging excitable players from running around and getting too melee-happy is extremely important for having the game played properly, as well as avoiding having to rely on the game’s targeting to react to surprise attacks.
This one is a problem that has persisted since the days of AC multiplayer: the controls for targeting are imprecise, and this can lead to frustration. Especially considering the massively lengthy punishment animations for misfires in Murderous Pursuits, especially around the guards, there is no worse feeling than getting killed because your character attacked an NPC instead of your hunter. Lacking a precise reticle, it will lock on to the nearest character in the direction you’re looking, meaning that it’s all too easy to fall prey to a hunter who keeps enemies between the two of you until they decide to walk straight through them and attack. Lacking any clear mechanical priority for near-simultaneous attacks, this will come down to what I imagine in practice revolves roughly around who clicked first and their connection to the server, but what in reality feels like a messy roll of the dice or the whims of the targeting system. Misclicking an NPC in this situation is guaranteed death.
On top of this, there are occasional strange situations where you get the wrong-target thing happen for trying to stun a hunter, who will then kill you for free. Likewise, I have been arrested more than once for trying to stun a hunter near the guards – something which on other occasions (and I’m pretty sure in the game’s rules) is fine. These strange inconsistencies (something which the guards seem to be involved in frequently) can really play havoc with the psychological aspect of the game and wreck your enjoyment. One time I identified my hunter, someone at the top of the scoreboard who had been ruining me all game, following me through a corridor, recognising his model and colour scheme. I decided to hide around a corner and lie in wait to stun him, to get him off my tail and send a message that I had his number. He rounded the corner, and inexplicably the targeting refused to let me stun him for the all-important second before he clicked to end my sad, brief life. Things like this are, I imagine, why all the high-ranked players I run into always use have the Counter skill equipped as a little insurance (and, indeed, why I don’t leave home without it now). Getting assigned two hunters for no particular reason when you’re placed low on the scoreboard has happened a few times and also feels somewhat unfair.
The game’s well-designed aesthetic and smooth presentation are really very impressive from a small studio. The levels are well-rendered, the characters full of personality (and importantly very distinguishable) and the colour palette and lighting makes every level distinct and atmospheric. The game doesn’t push the boat out in graphical terms, but its art and design do the heavy lifting. The environs of the ship manage to feel very nice, with a great distinction between the public-facing areas, the boiler rooms, kitchens, and so on. It captures a lovely, quirky vision of 19th-century science fiction in the world of upper-class socialising.
Edit: After doing a little digging into what was causing the issues, I think that it’s a memory problem – Murderous Pursuits takes up about 1.5GB of memory when it’s running, and performance seems very tied to memory usage. With 8GB of RAM on my PC, I ran into performance issues if I didn’t close other memory-hungry programs like tabbed browsing and Slack. Once these were closed, the game ran much better – so bear this in mind if you run into the same problems I had, as the game suffers above 75%-80% memory usage. This did not completely eliminate stutter and freezing, but contributed massively to reducing it. I’ll leave this next bit up, since some of what I said is still relevant, though to a reduced degree.
A caveat for what I’m about to say: I have seen other people playing the game just fine, looking very smooth, and I haven’t seen many complaints of this type. This could be a problem with my hardware specifically, but it isn’t one I run into in other games. It’s a shame, then, that it’s let down by performance problems and plagued by semi-frequent loading screen lock-ups. At least for me, on a machine capable of handling much more intensive games, hitching and stuttering are remarkably frequent. Especially on levels with larger, open areas and balconies like the RCS Laboratory and Music Hall, entering and exiting these areas moving even at the game’s Exposure-mandated lugubrious pace is accompanied by momentary freezes. While not a killer, they do very unpleasant things to the feel of the game, and it can be frustrating to lose sight of a target or even get killed while they’re happening, even if these things don’t happen totally because of the stutter. I’ve never had the game hard crash while playing it, but on an infrequent but repeatable basis when attempting to exit a match and enter matchmaking again the game will lock up on the loading screen for the level – once or twice it’s eventually booted me back to the main menu, but sometimes it’s only rectifiable by closing the game. Alongside some of the full-bodied freezes I experienced, these seem rather serious and should be a priority for fixes.
I don’t mean to sound too negative about Murderous Pursuits. Its basic approach is solid, and its easy-to-grasp rules make it a laugh to play with friends and strangers alike, as it’s mostly based on observation and prediction. It’s a game I’m keen to see expand and evolve in an underrepresented genre, and Blazing Griffin are really keeping up the pace, with a remarkable stream of first-month updates and additional features. Since the first time I played, they’ve added a load of new skins, a ranking system and a party-play option as well as a host of bugfixes. They have a clear roadmap for additional content they would like to prepare for the game, and I’m hopeful that they’ll make it. At the minute, it’s a little difficult to find a proper game with more than a handful of real players. This might be down to the game’s low profile before release and relatively high price of admission (£17.99 with £7 extra for the deluxe edition). It does make me wonder why Murderous Pursuits wasn’t released as an Early Access game – with a clear progression for the future and a very high rate of developer communication, it has the hallmarks of a successful example, and I think a “1.0” release when the game is more fleshed out and a little less janky would have done it some favours. The lack of a discounted multi-pack is a little disappointing, as convincing your friends to take a gamble on an unfamiliar game is a challenge (at least for me). Hopefully, with a well-priced sale and some smart promotion, it can get a second wind.
There is a lot to like with the core package of Murderous Pursuits. Its style is top-notch for a multiplayer indie game, and nothing quite gets the blood pumping like these sorts of cerebral blend-and-stab competitive environments. It’s a shame that in its current state it has a few problems that might limit your enjoyment, but I’d encourage you to give it a shot, especially with friends. Blazing Griffin seems to be committed to the future of the game – something that’s always good to see in a developer, and I hope that that commitment pays off.