Reviews

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments Review – It Was The Butler In The Kitchen With The Knife, Right?

 

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Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Frogware
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Sherlock Holmes has had an impressive rise in popularity once again thanks to the massive success of Benedict Cumberbatch’s manic and intriguing depiction of the character in the BBC’s Sherlock. This is much to the benefit of Frogware who have been producing Sherlock Holmes games for some time, although they stick to the more traditional depiction of the character. Having not played one of their games before I entered Crimes and Punishments unsure, but optimistic, and was rewarded with something great.

The first thing that should probably be made clear is that this is a far cry from Cumberbatch’s take on the character. Holmes here is far less manic and offensive to those he meets, speaking in a more civil manner. That’s not to say he is completely normal: he is still excited by the thrill of the puzzle, has a bit of a drug thing going on and is clearly as brilliant as ever, but he’s not the flamboyant nutcase portrayed most recently or the action-hero that Downey brought to the big screen. Nor is he a completely traditional. The Sherlock and Watson shown here demonstrate traits taken from many iterations of the work.

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Rather than a narrative that spans the entirety of the game Crimes and Punishments opts for separate stories contained within each of the six cases that Sherlock tackles, therefore we must approach talking about the story simply from the perspective of the writing quality rather than the overall narrative arc. The big problem the game faces is stiff, awkward dialogue that rarely captures the more flowing, graceful speech of the original text, and thus renders almost all the people you meet during cases as forgettable. Sherlock himself is well enough acted, and indeed the acting throughout is of a decent quality, but even Watson lacks any real personality. In fact Watson is an almost continuous presence throughout the game, but it feels somewhat pointless as he rarely adds much to a case, only offering the occasional comment, usually in the form of poorly concealed exposition. Thinking back through the cases I solved there’s no memorable people who really gripped me, but rather it’s the methods, locations or mysteries themselves that stick in the mind.

Perhaps that’s fitting, though, because the people who designed the cases themselves did a damn fine job of creating puzzling scenarios that keep you guessing and calculating until the very end. The mysteries you encounter never venture beyond standard territory in regards to using tried and tested whodunnit techniques, but the writers have ensured that solving them feels challenging and most importantly makes you feel like a detective actually solving a case using your wits. As you build your case evidence can often be interpreted several ways and the true perpetrator/s difficult to pinpoint with completely surety. It’s the little things you find yourself really having to pay attention to throughout the adventures, as more often than not the minute details will help you accuse the correct person or people. Admittedly evidence sometimes seems a little too ambiguous to the point where figuring out the correct answer feels more like luck, but that’s rare. For the most part cases are smartly written and challenging in a hugely satisfying way.

But the best thing about Crimes and Punishments is that you can fail in your endeavours. Clues can be interpreted wrong and evidence missed entirely, leading you to wrongly accuse someone of murder or theft. Detective games are one of the hardest genres to do properly, and the vast majority compensate by making things too obvious and removing the ability to fail. Largely this is due to the developer’s fear that the player won’t be able to keep up, and therefore some people will be left unable to complete the game. Murdered: Soul Suspect suffered hugely from this, while L.A. Noire allowed for failure but also used a nebulous emotions system that left a lot of players baffled. The fact is that in this genre, the developers have to careful not to insult the intelligence of the player, while ensuring that they can keep up. That Crimes and Punishments allows for failure and for players to completely misinterpret the available evidence is a brave and completely admirable step.

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There’s no consequences for accusing the wrong person, either, which is an aspect I’m somewhat divided on. On one hand you can hold down the spacebar and the game will show you if you were incorrect in your assertion, but even if you were there’s no in-game repercussions past your own innate sense of guilt, which may not exist if you refuse to check if you were right or wrong. ON the other hand I admire the decision to avoid such repercussions because that’s more realistic – once the case is closed, it’s closed.

You’ll even be given the chance to make a moral choice at the end of each case, deciding when to absolve the guilty party – meaning perhaps speaking on their behalf or even letting them go entirely – or bringing the full force of the law to bear. Obviously your choice depends on how you’ve read the evidence and view the ethics of the situation at hand, but regardless of which way you opt to go the ability to choose one over the other doesn’t add very much to the game, again largely because there’s no sense of consequence. You make an arbitrary choice, and then never think of it again.

Investigating a case is pretty simple stuff which naturally focuses around discovering clues with which to build your theories. Witnesses, victims and people who just happen to be in the area can all be questioned, with more topics becoming available upon the discovery of new evidence. You can even interrupt them at certain moments in order to utilise a piece of information. Finding items of interest in the environment is as simple as wandering around and clicking on things when they pop-up, but when examining something such as a desk with numerous objects you’ll get a close-up view and a cursor which lights up when hovering above something that can be checked out. In many ways it’s like playing a point and click adventure.

Certain clues get added to a swirling pool of descriptive sentences and in order to form a deduction from them you must match two of the twirling sentences together. You can’t actually fail, here, and as incorrect pairing is marked in red and there’s no penalty for simply trying to match together every clue. However, it’s where deductions get added that the true magic occurs. Here discovered deductions are shown as a sort of neural network, a visual representation of Sherlock’s brilliant mind at work. Some deductions  simply get added to the pathways, waiting to be connected to others snippets of information in order to fill in the details, but other pieces will let you pick between one of two possible ways the evidence can be read. As you pick and choose new paths are formed within the neural network, creating potential conclusions to the case based on how you think evidence should be interpreted.  It’s here that you feel like a true detective, muddling your way through the evidence available in your casebook and in the deduction interface in order to create a picture of what happened so that you can pick out the right way to interpret the case, and as said it’s to the developer’s credit that determining the answer is challenging.

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Take something as simple as three glasses sitting on a table, with a bottle of wine and a decanter next to them. Two of the glasses merely hold remnants on the wine, while the the third holds evidence of wine with beeswing. With these clues the deduction screen allows for two options: do the three glasses indicate that there were three people present, or does it show that there was two people present, with the third glass simply being used for the dregs? Your knowledge of the case is what will sway your judgement.

Outside of joining clues and coming to dramatic conclusions the developers have used many different mini-games and ideas to try to keep the gameplay feeling fresh and interesting, creating a mixed bag in terms of quality. The two most common of these mechanics are designed to reflect Holmes’ ability to pick up on small details in order to create a bigger picture. Whenever you talk to a person for the first time, for example, you can enter a special mode where time stops, allowing you to examine them and locate things such as grass stains, wedding rains and clothing quality in order to form a character portrait. The second is Holme’s detective vision, letting you see certain items or other things that you would otherwise miss.

Other ideas periodically used include a mini-game where you have to unlock doors or other things by rotating cylinders so that the drawn lines match. You’ll even get to do a few experiments along the way, such as mixing up a chemical solution or even attempting to throw a harpoon through a pig carcass. An archive back at Baker street also lets you research topics, granting documents that can then be used when talking to specific people or simply as reference material. For the most part these are enjoyable if hardly inspiring tasks. A brief foray into arm wrestling is a low point in the game, as is the concept of Holme’s placing a certain aroma by manipulating pieces of a floating picture to form a complete image. Thankfully the majority of the mini-games and other distractions can be skipped with a tap of the spacebar.

One mechanic does get surprisingly underplayed: disguises. Meander into Holmes’ room within Baker Street and there’s a wardrobe of disguises plus a makeup area, and between the two you can make Sherlock look radically different. Presumably it’s mostly meant as a customisation suite for players who want to make Sherlock in their own imagined image, but there’s a memorable moment where you must don a sailor’s disguise, at which point Holmes’ brilliant changes his accent. It would have been nice to see this sort of thing utilised a more throughout the game.

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Graphically the game suffers from stiff animations, but on the flipside everything else looks surprisingly lovely and detailed. It’s likely because each case only features quite small environments to explore, all of which are rather static, but the developers have packed a lot of detail into this game, especially in regards to Sherlock and Watson’s apartment, a faithful recreation if ever there was one. Just take a moment to peruse the screenshots and you’ll see what I mean. Special mention must be made of the facial detail, most notably during the interragation scenes at Scotland Yard. The audio design is slightly more mixed, with some aspects sounding quite good and others almost laughable, such as the strange drinking sounds used during a pub scene which almost literally made me cringe, but for the most part the sound is acceptable.

The game’s nice visuals do seem to have come at a slight cost, however. To travel to other areas during a case you need to open up the casebook and click on the appropiate location, at which point your thrown into a loading screen that can last a while, usually around 20-30 seconds, sometimes shorter or longer. At first it’s no a major problem, but you need to travel around quite a bit during an investigation and over the course of the game the long loading times begin to annoy.

The age-old problem of invisible walls also plagues the game. Some are understandable, such as how you can’t simply go wandering off down the road into town during an investigation or follow train tracks for miles, but others aren’t, such as how you’re hemmed into the cobbled paths in the botanical level. Even the more understandable invisible walls manage to irritate more than they should by how restrictive they truly are. Yes, I shouldn’t be able to wander miles off-course since this isn’t an open world game, but refusing to let me venture even 10ft away from the designers rigid template shatters the illusion of Sherlock’s world.

As beautiful as the game can look the lighting engine does need some serious work. If you’re inside or outside it looks fine, but transitioning between the two is ugly as the game seems to switch from one mode to the other instantly, creating a strange effect as you step through doors.

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Another technical hitch is that Sherlock feels awkward and cumbersome to control when simply walking around, and has an annoying habit of getting caught up on the scenery. Jogging is a tad easier, but the best way of mitigating the problem is to switch into the optional 1st person view, a nice inclusion by the developers.

Crimes and Punishments is doubtless my most pleasant surprise of the year thus far. Yes, the smaller gameplay elements around the primary systems are all fairly dull and the game does suffer from some stilted dialogue and equally stilted animations, but this is one of the few examples of a detective game that actually makes you feel like a detective, asking you to pay genuine attention to the clues at hand in order to deduce the correct answer and then having the balls to let you fail.

The Good:
+ Feeling smart.
+ The eureka moments.
+ Looks rather nice, actually.

The Bad:
– Most of the minor gameplay elements are meh.
– Some clumsy dialogue.
– Invisible bloody walls.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
On a technological level Crimes and Punishments is a heavily flawed game in many regards, but it’s willingness to create genuine mysteries that challenge players more than makes up for that.

 

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