Review: Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments

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Designing a game around the world’s greatest detective is not an enviable task. No, I’m not talking about Batman–Rocksteady has cracked that case with the Arkham titles. I’m talking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Nevermind the BBC’s modern take on the genius detective, Frogwares’ almost annual video game adventure series and traditional take on the deerstalker wearing mastermind is back on the case with a compelling mix of six mysteries in Crimes & Punishments. By breaking Crimes & Punishments into different tales, Frogwares provides gamer sleuths with a snackable approach to solving crimes.

While each mystery is complete unto itself similarities in the process carry through between cases. Stealing a bit from the modern BBC TV show, there are moments in the game where Sherlock is able to examine suspects through a camera that pans up and down a person allowing for clues to be picked out from their physical appearance. Picking up on tattered and patched clothing, dirt and stains, scars, sweat, or specific jewelry all allow observations to be made which help frame a character’s position in life and potential ties to a crime. Additionally, each crime allows Sherlock to reference his vast library of newspaper clippings, encyclopedias and other tomes of historical relevance. A final method of crime solving is the use of Sherlock’s chemistry lab.

New to the series is the ability for Sherlock to flash into two distinct visual modes. One mode is Sherlock’s imagination, in which ghostly figures play out the various steps to the scene of a crime, and players must correctly place which action is made in the correct order. Other times the imagination mode lets players see how a crime scene may have developed, which allows Sherlock to deduce where to look further for clues. Imagination mode isn’t used in every mystery, but offers a fun and unique spin on the normal pixel hunt common with adventure games of this ilk.

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Detective mode, which feels a bit more common, ties in with Sherlock’s legendary keen sense of observation. At any point the visual mode can be switched to detective mode, which filters everything into a black and white sheen, and anything that is worth examining stands out as yellow. Detective mode feels lifted directly from the Batman: Arkham games (or the Eagle vision from the Assassin’s Creed), but also feels perfectly justified, because how else do you convey just how sharp an observer Sherlock really is without offering such a mechanic? Walking around in a black and white world looking for anything that stands out in yellow can be a bit dull, but the game will prompt with an icon on the screen indicating when the mode should be used.

For every clue that is collected, Sherlock can go back to his notebook to review everything he has discovered. Any clue that warrants additional scrutiny has an icon indicating how Sherlock should go about his investigation. Clues that are to be used in the course of dialog have a talking icon over them. Other clues have a book icon meaning they should be further researched in Sherlock’s library. Still other clues have an icon with a beaker to indicate that they should be studied in the chemistry lab. If a player is stuck on a case, reviewing the clues will always give an indication of what to do next. And if the icons over an object aren’t enough of a hint, a different page in Sherlock’s notebook more explicitly defines what his next course of action should be. What is great about this iconography system is the fact that it is helpful without being overly “hand holdy.” The icons aid the investigative process in a clear and intuitive manner, but they don’t spell out exactly what needs to be done to the point where the game feels like its solving itself.

I haven’t spent any time describing each case, but that’s because each case is really well designed and more fun to play without knowing what to expect. That being said, I will say that I was not disappointed by any of the cases. Each one is unique, and while they share methods for solving the cases, the locations and characters involved are all developed specifically for each mystery. Some cases will see Sherlock return to Scotland Yard more than once, each time providing different interactions with clues, dead bodies and suspects. Other locations include countryside train stations, dark back alleys, ancient Roman ruins, and a seaport salon.

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Dialog is key to a good Sherlock mystery, and the voice performances are above par from what players may expect from other adventure games. Nothing feels campy or phoned in, and the comradery between Sherlock and Watson is both deadpan and humorous while deftly nudging players in the right direction for finding the next clue.

I’ve saved the best aspect of the game for last. Of all the things that I’ve mentioned so far, the newest and my most impactful feature in Crimes & Punishments is the deduction web. As clues are collected in each case an associative web is presented allowing for Sherlock to deduce one option or another. For instance if John Smith is a suspect for murder the web clue may offer two choices as to why he is a suspect: either his wife is cheating on him and that is his motive, or he was framed by someone else. Each option is potentially correct as long as all of the rest of the clues line up with a given theory. When a theory is selected but all of the other clues don’t line up, those clues in the web turn red. If a case doesn’t offer enough clues to form a connection, then the associations may not line up correctly. If this happens the game potentially allows Sherlock to head down a path of deductive reasoning that sets the wrong suspect as the perpetrator. This element of jumping to wrong conclusions is something that I’ve felt has been missing in Sherlock games for a long time.

While the ability to incorrectly identify the wrong suspect is new, the game also adds an option of how the accused suspect should be treated. The moral punishment that the game offers up is just as fascinating as the deduction web itself. Take my example of John Smith being a suspect for murder. If all of the clues show he was framed, but for whatever reason Sherlock was unable to figure out who did the framing, Sherlock has the option in his final accusation to choose whether to lie to the police and let John Smith be apprehended without ever offering up clues that he was framed, or Sherlock could confront Smith and say that he knew he was framed and will let him go as long as Smith agrees to never return to London.

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Moral choices and playing with the outcome of a particular individual adds a fantastic quandary for players to mull over. It also incentivizes players to pay attention and find all of the clues and correctly attribute them to the crime. At the end of each case, the game shows players how well they did during their investigations. By indicating how many clues were found (and missed) the reveal also shows whether or not a player got the good ending or a bad ending. When I played through the game I intentionally didn’t view how I did until I had played through all six cases. I’m a sucker for finding every clue but was surprised to find that I had missed 3 clues during one of the cases, which ultimately meant I picked a bad ending. I had no idea that I had overlooked something and picked a “wrong” ending, which shows how well crafted the game is. Even when achieving the wrong outcome, the game still feels complete.

Crimes & Punishments is a game that I truly had a blast playing. While none of the puzzles are overly complex (if a player does find them so, the game allows them to be skipped), they are very natural to the context of the situation. Each case is well designed and offers a fun and interesting moral choice at the end. Visually, the game is impressive and takes full advantage of Unreal Engine 3, without making any of the characters look like hulking space marines. Frogwares have outdone themselves with this installment of Sherlock Holmes, and I hope to see future installments explore and further hone similar mechanics.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Six separate cases can be played in shorter sessions but still feel complete
+ Unique methods of collecting clues and interacting with suspects
+ Puzzles provide challenge without feeling overly complex
+ Morality system offers a dynamic spin on accusing a suspect
+ Wonderful voice acting
+ Case notebook offers hints without holding a players hand

Cons:
– Traveling between locations can feel tedious

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS4, also available for PC, PS3, Xbox 360 and Xbox One
Publisher: Focus Home
Developer: Frogwares
Release Date: 9/30/2014
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.