Do you want to be just or do you want to be kind? Are you a man who prizes the law above all else? Would you let a murderer walk free if it might serve the "greater good"? What kind of a man are you? These are the questions that are asked of the player when it comes to stepping once more into the shoes of Sherlock Holmes in Frogwares latest game in the ongoing series.
The gentleman detective may disappoint purists in this title, coming across as an amalgamation of Conan Doyle's original and the various popular incarnations seen across the screen over the last few decades. The accessories and affectations of Rathbone's Holmes are mingled with the calculating character of Moffat and Gatiss' recent reinventions, not to mention Sherlock's rather antagonistic relationship with his brother, Mycroft.
If there is less of the original Holmes' character to be seen in this game, it is because Frogwares has made the player the curator of Holmes' intellect and intuition, delivering the power of moral decision-making and deductive reasoning over into our hands. The Holmes of Crimes and Punishments is something of a blank slate in terms of judgement and ethical character, and it's up to us to fill in the gaps in a game that explores the consequences of the detective's findings and the processes of deduction in greater detail than ever before.
There are six cases that form the meat of the game in Crimes and Punishments, each of them unfolding with a series of twists and turns and opportunities for investigation depending on the player's thoroughness. Crimes and Punishments is, in many ways, an old-school point-and-click adventure game at heart. You survey crime scenes and areas of investigation, interacting with various points, persons, and objects of interest, collecting evidence, interrogating witnesses and suspects, and uncovering clues that may then be paired together to form deductions.
Frogwares have pulled several stylistic techniques from the most recent TV incarnation of the great detective, using the rapid appearance of floating text to denote Sherlock's exceptional gift for profiling. The process is somewhat slowed down here, as players are invited to comb the faces and bodies of NPCs, looking for a blurred checklist of idiosyncrasies and personal details that might then be used to poke holes in contradictory statements and attempts at equivocation. When such a moment occurs, there's a little quick-time event to denote a window of opportunity, and then players must choose from a list of evidence in order to catch the other person in a lie.
Sherlock has other gifts at his disposal too, not least an incredibly visual imagination and an ability to see things that others might easily miss. Frogwares have managed to gamify both, and work them into the investigations of the cases at hand. Presented with enough evidence in certain circumstances, players can tap the L1 button to recreate certain scenes via Sherlock's imagination, that then give rise to potential opportunities for further study, and possibilities to be tested out. In one case, for example, Sherlock visualises the possibility of a cross-fire shootout rather than the simple double homicide in an alleyway as initially supposed. By utilising the evidence at hand combined with a mental reconstruction, new areas of interest are presented for scrutiny, and the investigation takes on further branches of possibility.
Similarly, there will be times when an eagle-eyed approach is required, and tapping R1 will reveal an anomaly in the environment -- a little detail that might well have been overlooked (often, in fact, the absence of an object) that might spark a new conversation option with a suspect or witness. Some pieces of evidence will lead to new avenues of discussion, others might require experimentation or deeper study back at Sherlock's desktop lab at Baker Street, some may need to be correlated with the extensive archives that Sherlock has at home. It's in these moments that the game begins to shine, having players cross-reference information, or perhaps engage in minor puzzles to mix reagents and fix broken pieces of evidence.
The puzzle elements in this game are not particularly taxing, but they do serve to break things up nicely. There are lock puzzles aplenty, having players rotate certain parts of a lock to create a through-line that remains unbroken. Occasionally, Sherlock will come across something etched into his memory. Instead of retrieving the information from a Mind Palace, however, the information is stored in scrambled line drawings whose perspectives must be shifted in order to make a full picture once more.
But by far the best aspect of the game arrives when the game demands that you become Sherlock Holmes rather than simply having you follow the investigative process. Too often, the game holds the player's hand, instructing exactly when the powers bound to L1 and R1 will be needed, making it obvious when there are important pieces of information still to be found (there are certain plot beats to every case that cannot be overlooked), and spelling things out to ensure smooth narrative progression. That all makes the individual storylines run smoothly, opening up the cases involved, and creating a wonderful, if somewhat passive, narrative experience. The interrogation QTEs, for instance, cannot be failed, you just repeat them until you get it right. Too often, you're reminded that it's Sherlock, not you, who is the genius -- and you're just walking a line of investigation that's already been written.
But when you finally amass the clues and start piecing things together, that's when the game really comes alive. Because there's risk involved. Because you can fail and get it wrong and send innocent people to the hangman's noose.
And that's rather thrilling.
Of course, you can't actually fail at piecing clues together -- the game will just cross out matches that don't work if you try them -- but many of the clue pairings will create two opposed points of deduction that you must choose between using the information you've picked up during your investigations and your reading of events. It's possible to miss clues, and therefore miss certain pairings that might mean you miss out on a deduction possibility entirely. Similarly, there are several occasions where it's possible to leap to conclusions rather early on in a case, and point the finger at a suspect before even half of the potential research has been conducted.
The deduction board itself is a wonderful creation -- a twisting mess of synapses by the end of a case that glow red and blue as you flit between different conclusions. The paths from corresponding slices of information slither into larger cellular masses delivering motives and means, before further feeding into pulsating golden nodes of conclusive possibility: this is the culprit!
But the game is not done there, for then you make your moral choice: do you absolve or do you condemn? Do you look at the context or do you look only to the law? What kind of a man are you?
Frogwares have created a fantastic adventure game, one stuffed to bursting point with detail, a wonderfully recreated Victorian setting, and brought to life in superb fashion thanks to deft plotting and an array of well-written characters invested with solid performances. That the game let's you get things wrong (and that it allows you to choose whether or not you want to know if you did) elevates it from an interactive piece of sleuthing fiction to a detective experience that goes a long way to involving the player -- making us and Holmes one and the same. When Crimes and Punishments manages to bring the two together, it becomes an outstanding game. If there is a criticism to be made, it is perhaps that I would have liked to have seen more of that freedom to fail. Additionally, I could not help but feel a little let down by the interrogations, and I'd love to see Frogwares incorporate some of the better elements of L.A. Noire in to proceedings, and maybe have a crack at reading the behaviour and studying the actions and demeanour of NPC suspects.
We need to talk about loading times, too. There's plenty of to-ing and fro-ing in this game as you flit between scenes of interest, Scotland Yard, and Baker Street, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. But the half-minute-long journeys do a fantastic job of ruining the pacing, making excitement and anticipation dissipate completely. It's nice to be able to open the casebook, to go through the evidence and fire up the deduction board, but I could probably count the number of times I actually needed to do that on these journeys on one hand. The rest of the time it was just out of boredom. It's a small issue, but it really takes you out of the moment -- the same could be said of the plethora of invisible walls, and the occasional problem that you run into when you can see an object of interest that you know for certain is a piece of evidence, but have yet to complete the necessary background task that'll allow you to actually pick it up.
But I don't really want to get caught up in such niggles because for the most part I've adored my experience with Crimes and Punishments. Kerry Shale's Holmes is brilliantly suited to this game's purpose -- providing us with a Sherlock Holmes who is no longer simply the amoral, ruthlessly obsessive detective we have seen before. This Holmes is a character still thrilled by the prospect of a seemingly unsolvable crime and other challenges to which he might bend his intellectual powers, he is still a rather aloof character, prone to wild swings between energy and lethargy, but we are much more a part of him now than ever before, and we must help him choose sides.
Games involving Sherlock Holmes have always been cerebral affairs of the head, but as with the more modern interpretations of Conan Doyle's greatest creation, this game makes a fine impression by also dealing with his heart.
- Some cracking plotting and well-written characters
- The feeling of becoming Sherlock Holmes is outstanding
- Drawing clues together to form deductions is immensely satisfying
- First-person option adds to immersion
- Multiple outcomes for each case depending on how you choose to determine the nature of the evidence at your disposal
- You are given the freedom to fail
- The game often spells out a little too much
- Ugh, loading times
- Some annoying little technical niggles
- Arguably not one for the purists
- No Creepy Watson
The Short Version: A cracking adventure game, possibly the best Sherlock Holmes game that Frogwares have given us thus far, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments goes a long way to making players feel like we are are Holmes rather than simply playing a game about him. There are little niggles here and there, but frankly if you enjoy your detective mystery games, it would be criminal to overlook one of the best we've had in ages.
Platforms: PC | PS4 (reviewed) | Xbox One | PS3 | Xbox 360
Publishers: Focus Home Interactive