As a long time fan of most adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, I was quite excited to play the newest game, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes And Punishments, by Ukrainian developer Frogware Games. They took inspiration from various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes and combined them all into one interesting package. Furthermore in this game the player doesn’t merely follow along as Sherlock solves the cases, rather the player is the driving force and makes all the investigative choices.
The main goal in Crimes and Punishments to solve a series of six cases through investigation, deduction and the careful application of deduction; anything else really couldn’t be considered a Sherlock Holmes game. In most games things start off easy and get more difficult and complex, but Crimes and Punishments didn’t follow the formula. The first case is definitely not the simplest case, I’d actually place it about middle of the road in complexity. However, it did do a great job of introducing many of the mechanics involved in gathering information and coming to conclusions. Thinking back, it was nice to have a fairly complex case right upfront and getting the more simple cases later were a nice break after intense cases.
Interviews are one of the primary ways of gaining clues and finding insight into the cases. For every character who is interviewed Sherlock also builds a “Character Profile” in his Casebook. The player is given a slice of time slowed down to look over the interviewee and make observations. There is a blurred list at the start so it’s easy to know when all the clues have been found. To find these clues it’s a simple matter of mousing over the character, though as simple as it is there were a few times where I knew I had just one more clue to find but it took me a bit to find it.
Sometimes while questioning a subject there will be follow up questions, for instance when we know someone is lying. When this happens an extra option pops up, on PC it was press “Q”, then a list of clues to choose from appears. Often the correct clue is something gathered during the character profile, so doing those first is always a good idea. I was a bit disappointed to discover if the wrong clue is selected I was just told to try again. In most other aspects I was able to make wrong choices and deal with their consequences.
For the most part there is very little hand holding in this game. There are prompts to explain how a skill works or what might be useful, but how you work through the case is up to the player. Additionally there are many puzzles throughout the game to solve; from picking locks to mixing the correct solutions to testing something. Sadly, it is possible to just skip any of the puzzles or challenges and the game acts as if you had solved it. Which is good if a player were to really get stuck… but being able to skip all of that stuff really makes a large part of the gameplay pointless.
It is quite possible to interpret the clues in a case and come to almost any conclusion, which truly let me feel like I had a really important role in how everything played out. For example in the first case Peter Carey is run through with a harpoon. Sherlock and Watson set-up an experiment to see how difficult it would be to harpoon someone into a wall. The result shows, quite obviously, it’s a fairly difficult task to accomplish. On the deductions page the two ways to interpret this information is either it was done by someone with strength and skill or someone got very lucky. Either way will change how all the evidence fits to conclude different people are innocent or guilty.
However, I was not able to come to illogical conclusions which makes sense for a game about Sherlock Holmes. Any deductions which conflict will be highlighted in red and won’t be used in forming a conclusion until the conflict is resolved. Additionally once a deduction is made it isn’t set in stone. I often went through and made every possible combination of deductions just to see what the different possibilities are. I found this particularly helpful for the hardest cases because it often boiled down to what scenario seemed the most likely to me.
After each case is solved the “punishments” part comes in and the player has to make a moral choice about the crime. Was it cold blooded murder or was extenuating circumstances? Does the murder deserve to hang or is some other arrangement possible? Not only did I get to pick which option I thought fit the crime best, but I got to see the outcomes of my choices and their consequences. This added another layer to the game which also opens areas for personal introspection. When it comes to making moral judgements many games would take the opportunity to preach about what the “right” choice was; Frogwares happily decided to avoid trying to push particular value system.
Concurrent with the main storyline there is a bit of a side story which comes to the fore near the end of the game. The side story deals with the concept of if people have a right, or even an obligation, to rebel against people in power if they perceive the people in power to be corrupt. I was not expecting the storyline to go there, but after I reached the end and thought back over the whole game I realized the hints had been there the whole time.
This is another area where Frogwares could have used Crimes and Punishments to push a certain agenda, but again there is no preaching. When the time comes the player is completely able to make whichever choice they want and live with the consequences. There is a ton of room for personal introspection into real issues which are actually relevant in the today’s world. Not many video games seem to be able to successfully delve into those areas, and this one manages it brilliantly because anyone not interested in that sort of experience wouldn’t be forced into it.
The most impressive technical aspect of Crimes and Punishments was the quality of voice overs and animations during dialogue. Each character who was directly interacted with (about 4-5 per case) had a different voice with a bit of a different accent. Even Sherlock would have different accents when he disguised himself as someone else. It was really impressive, and all the conversations felt fluid and natural. The dialogue animation wasn’t perfect, corners of lips and eyebrow movement were often a bit off, but it was still very well done. Even on the close ups the characters skin looked like there was actual depth to it.
One downside to the flow of the game was that there are a lot of loading screens. Most aren’t very long, but some of them certainly didn’t feel necessary. There were, however, two nice consolations for the loading screens when moving between locations. The first is the loading screen is actually an animation of Sherlock (and anyone else traveling with him) in a carriage. Particularly entertaining about this, aside from it just feeling real to the story, Sherlock would often be reading either the Casebook or a copy of Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. The second nice thing about the traveling loading screen is during them the casebook and deductions page are both available to be used, so the waiting doesn’t have to be empty time.
There is a lot of area in the game which is fully explorable, but there are also a great many invisible walls which diminish enjoyment just a bit. Most of the invisible walls make sense and are clearly there because this isn’t a fully open and explorable world. Others seem pretty random and pointless. For example in one area there is a little pond in the middle of a garden. I thought it seemed logical to be able to just walk across it, but sadly there was an invisible wall blocking the pond off. I could walk all the way around it, but I just couldn’t stick a single toe in.
I played the PC version through Steam and I didn’t have any real issues with graphics or sound. There was one minor glitch the first time I went to Scotland Yard, but it cleared up quickly and never happened again. Additionally, the music and environmental sounds worked really well together to set the mood and FPS was consistently smooth.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is a very strong and intriguing game with a lot to offer. It does have some minor drawbacks such as the load screens and invisible walls, but those inconveniences are really minor when compared to the strong storytelling and the important role of player choice. This game works well for someone just looking for a fun game of solving crimes and equally well for someone who is looking for more of an intellectual challenge and perhaps to delve into their own moral code a bit.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments will be available on September 30th on PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC.