Robert’s Take: Across Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s four novels and fifty-six short stories, Baker Street’s distinguished detective imparts an essential axiom: details are imperative, but if you don’t take a step back, it’s easy to become lost in the minutia, losing sight of the significance of the entire event. It’s an adage that expressions the tension between the micro and macro, and one which Ukrainian developer Frogwares admirably straddled in the recent release of Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments.
Undoubtedly, the title captures the diminutive details of Holmes’s late-Victorian context. Build upon the third iteration of the Unreal Engine, the developers have crafted an ornate recreation of nineteenth century London which exhibits an astounding amount of craftsmanship. On next-gen systems and PC, players can perceive the soot-stained pores of characters, and glimpse the occasional vein under porous skin. Environments are just as rich, with ornate wallpapers blemished by years of oil-lamp illumination and remarkably-rendered wooly fabrics, while lavish milieus such as opium dens, rustic cabins, and train stations are so rich, distraction can be distressing threat.
Pleasingly, the plush visuals exist for more than mere visual spectacle. Crimes & Punishments taps into Holmes’ zeal for masquerade, allowing and occasionally obliging the character to disguise himself in a number of elaborate, and unlockable get-ups. The game’s elevated level of graphical fidelity means the investigations in the game’s compilation of six chapters are less about pixel hunts and more about perceiving incongruities that surround each crime.
While character animation and voice acting isn’t quite as prodigious, revealing the infrequent lapse in quality, it’s still a marked improvement over the studio’s last investigative expedition, 2012’s The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. It’s clear Frogwares has been keeping a vigilant eye on the their contemporaries, as mechanics that recall Telltale’s The Walking Dead complement the fact-finding and analytical mechanics of Crimes & Punishments.
An example of this shift is shown in the game’s opening segment, where a blindfolded Holmes is indiscriminately firing a revolver toward a collection of vases, forcing Watson to shift between cover points. Later, the game presents interactive sequences which such as puzzles which range from the obvious to the obscure as well as bit which demonstrate Holmes’ pugilistic skills and Watson’s marksmanship. Mercifully, players who don’t appreciate these kinds of interactions can opt to skip these brisk bits.
Far more time will be spent in Crimes & Punishments procedural elements, where players can interview witnesses, scour the crime scene, and sporadically interacts with three-dimensional piece of evidence, scrutinizing the item for any clues that might help to implicate a suspect. Largely, investigations are quick yet rewarding, with just enough red herrings to muddle an obvious implication. Periodically, players are prompted to press a button to enter detective vision, which highlights key elements, thereby simulating Sherlock’s prodigious ability to perceive critical particulars. Similarly, during conversations the master detective can create a profile, effectively freezing time to examine for incongruences between the verbal and the visual. Sharp players might be able to catch an interview lying, which proves to be unfalteringly rewarding.
Gather enough evidence and you’ll be able to point the finger at a suspect, using an on-screen flow chart with simulates the logic inside Holmes’ head. Given the game’s Dostoyevsky-esque moniker, it’s not surprising that you can name an innocent person, which is a nice departure from the binary logic of most interactive procedurals. And while the developers implied that an erroneous acquisition would influence the game world, in reality, there’s little variance in behavior from NPCs and characters like Inspector Lestrade. One of Crimes & Punishments’ other problems stems from a lack of unity; beyond the rare piece of dialog that foreshadows the final crime, there’s little cohesiveness to the game’s succession of six criminal acts.
Naturally, there’s other niggles that might irk players. Largely, cases offer a bit of guidance- once Holmes can gleaned a crucial clue, he might say something that signals players it’s time to move to another location on the map screen. However, there are instances where players will expose an indicator, and the title won’t suggest moving along, potentially squander a player’s time. Performance wise, Crimes & Punishments’ greatest transgression are frequent and protracted loading times, which tend to disrupt the game’s attempt to immerse players.
Despite some small quibbles and the game’s tendency to focus on details rather than the larger picture, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments succeeds by offering one of the best interactive interpretations of Doyle’s celebrated detective. Not only does the game do a commendable job at replicating the tension of sense of discovery of its source material, but through interactive elements the player really feels like they’re the brains on 221b Baker Street.
Sage’s Take: Detective genre fans are likely familiar with the feeling of having their deductive flow foiled by plot lines which provide only one possible outcome pe case. Typically in detective games, there is only one right answer, and the plot must necessarily point the player in the right direction so they arrive at the correct conclusion, typically by dropping increasingly more obvious hints until there can be no other answer. In most detective games, the case is closed only when the correct conclusion is reached.
This is perhaps the most significant difference between Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments and other titles of the genre. One of the most notable mechanics of the game is the synaptic space in which the sleuth’s deductive decisions are made. Throughout the course of each case, clues and evidence are accumulated in a space which depicts neurons for each idea or potential decision, and synapses which link ideas together. Players choose the deductions they find most likely, and each choice reconfigures the synapses to lead to a different conclusion. As a case nears its end, players can review all possible conclusions they have reached and pick the one they find most likely. While there is a right answer for each case, players will only know if theirs is correct by pressing the space bar to check their conclusion against the “right” answer. Checking a conclusion against the “correct” one is optional, and it is entirely possible to move forward in the game without knowing if the choice made has accused the wrong suspect of the right one.
Players can also choose whether to condemn the suspect to the awaiting agents of Scotland Yard, or to take a more understanding approach and absolve the criminal after confronting them. Absolution usually amounts to the criminal leaving the country, with a warning from Sherlock that he will be watching them. Supposedly this choice affects future interactions with certain NPCs, but the impact seems to be minimal if there is one at all. However, the choice does have a notable impact on the ending cut scene of each case, and players can choose to replay the ending with a different conclusion and moral choice before moving on.
Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be drawn in the dedication to detail. References to the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can be found in every stage of the game, from the details in the decoration of the flat at Baker St. to references from Watson about other cases the duo has solved. The game also provides impressive detailing of the characters and environments, from the stubble on Sherlock’s chin to the scuffs on a suspect’s shoes. The movement is also very smooth though players may find running and movement to be a bit halting or stunted at times. For the most part though, Frogwares has made good use of Unreal Engine 3 for rendering the game.
The game shines in other aesthetic areas, as well. The game succeeds in capturing Sherlock’s personality; he can be arrogant, but also compassionate, and his quips and observations make him an amusing and enjoyable character to play. The voice acting is very well done. And the mystery writing is solid and feels similar to Sir Arthur’s stories. The game even mixes some red herrings into the mysteries, and these false leads are written well enough that they seem plausible and non-obvious. The story line is separated into six different cases, and while there are some common thematic threads running through the game, for the most part the separate stories are only connected in that they are the next case to be worked on by the great detective. Still, the cases are intriguing, and require no previous knowledge of Sherlock Holmes in order to understand or enjoy what’s happening.
Unfortunately, there is a downside at the crossing of false leads and the player’s freedom to pursue alternative deductive reasoning options. Sometimes the game supplies evidence which ends up being irrelevant, and this can lead to some interesting but incorrect conclusions. This on its own would be an intriguing element, but often the game doesn’t adequately explain why the seemingly important, but actually irrelevant, evidence was at the crime scene. This can lead to a feeling of frustration as the player has to just take it on faith that such evidence was actually useless all along, and pulls players away from feeling like a great detective. However, this feeling is mostly alleviated by the challenge of the deductive reasoning and the mini games, which will likely leave players with a sense of accomplishment when they come to a correct conclusion at the end of a case.
Where the game really succeeds is in the game-play mechanics and the detective skills. Crimes & Punishments feels very streamlined in its play. Loading screens take place in the carriage which shuttles Sherlock from crime scene to other sites, and players can access the deductive space or case notebook while in the carriage, bypassing the loading screen time altogether. Players can also fast travel any time they need, allowing for quick access to Sherlock’s laboratory or archives. The detective also has a suite of skills at his disposal that are reminiscent of some of the Arkham Asylum skills, but with their own slant. Sherlock’s “detective vision” allows him to catch tiny details which others will have missed, and they show up as a trail of clues leading to the important evidence. Sherlock also has an “imagination mode” which gives players a glimpse as to what might have happened without revealing too much. This tool is interesting but unfortunately is not utilized very often. Sherlock also has the ability to go into a character assessment mode when talking to people, allowing him to catch details and craft deductions about their backgrounds and occupations, much like the mechanic employed by Cumberbatch in the British Sherlock series.
Most of the deductions players can make follow sound reasoning and evidence. Players have the great detective’s knowledge and skills at their disposal and are tasked with employing their own observation and perception to find clues. The game often displays hints designating which detective skill the player ought to be using but thankfully leaves it to the player to find the actual clues. Another nice aspect is that players need not actually find every clue for every case in order to come to a conclusion. However, in some cases it will only be possible to reach the “right” conclusion if all of the clues are found.
The other major part of game play in Crimes & Punishments are the minigames. Some of the minigames repeat, such as lockpicking, but most are novel when encountered, and they increase in difficulty over the course of the game. Players have the option of skipping these puzzles if they find them too hard or if they want to focus purely on the challenge of deductive reasoning, but the minigames definitely add an immersive and enjoyable element to the plot. Mixing chemical reagents, researching poisonous plants, and putting together ancient molds serve to put the player in the mindset of the world’s greatest detective. It also adds to the challenge level of game play, which is nice since the game lacks the option to increase the level of difficulty overall.
Crimes & Punishments is a definite recommendation for fans of detective genre games. Players are likely to encounter enough challenge to engender a sense of accomplishment, and whether players enjoy detective games in general or more specifically the character Sherlock Holmes, the story lines are engaging and entertaining. While there are some aspects that can be a little confounding, overall Crimes & Punishments delivers in all the right places.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments was played on the PC and PlayStation 4 with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive/Maximum Games
Release date: September 30th, 2014
Price: $39.99 PC/$49.99 PS3, Xbox 360/$59.99 PS4, Xbox One