Mention the words “great detective” to anyone, and there is a better then average chance the first name that comes to mind is Sherlock Holmes. Even a Church of Batman devotee like myself is hard pressed to name one who is both as brilliant, and as influential as the London-based consulting detective (ok, as it turns out I can name several influential sleuths, but the likelihood of you knowing them begins to dip depressingly the further away from Benedict Cumberbatch we go).
Having established his already legendary status, I'd love to throw out one of those fantastic transitions detailing his introduction to the world of video games. Unfortunately, Frogwares, the developer of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, beat me to that punch by about 12 years. In fact, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, the very game you came here to read about, is the seventh game featuring the super sleuth and his partner, Dr. John Watson.
By this point, you would have to assume that Frogwares has mastered the art of putting the player in the role of Sherlock, and you'd not be wrong. While it doesn't eschew the most basic tenants of adventure gaming, namely the pixel hunt, the majority of the game is spent being Holmes. Conversations start with Holmes observations, allowing you to scan the individual in question and form a character portrait from their quirks and flaws. Nothing is out of his realm of notice, whether it be a jailhouse tattoo or the tell tale dirt stains worn by a gardener. Each and every piece of information feels relevant, and by the end of your first case, that of a retired sea captain unceremoniously harpooned in his own shed, you'll be picking out the relevant pieces of info without the need of the UI's blue halo.
Sherlock's fantastic observation skills also extend to the general environment, allowing you to pick up on details that were missed by everyone else at the scene. Presented by a darkened environment where the important info is highlighted in yellow, the detective's thoughts appear as you narrow your search on whatever you're looking for. It's small touches like this, thoughts ticking off in the environment, that really make you feel like you're doing the work. The game ruins the feeling slightly by popping up a symbol whenever one of these scenarios is available instead of letting you search and discover on your own, but given the fairly detailed environments, be informed rather then having to assume is the kind of quality of life mistake I can easily forgive.
Feeding further into the idea of being this master detective is the Deduction system. Given form as the neurons in Holmes's brain, each relevant clue forms a connection. Create enough connections and eventually you reach a conclusion. It's left to the player to determine whether any given conclusion is right, and a few of the six cases end in what I felt was a fairly obvious fashion, there were a couple that gave me more then a little pause, especially when the conclusions presented manage to be both fantastic and yet oddly logical in nature. Upon choosing a conclusion, you are then presented with the Punishment side of Crimes and Punishments.
Called a moral choice, you determine whether to condemn or absolve the criminal. In almost all cases, condemning the guilty party equates to handing them over to Lestrade and Scotland Yard, while absolving could be as simple as letting the guilty party go if you agree with their reasoning, or turning the information over to you brother Mycroft as a bit of a political maneuver. While the cases have a “correct” answer as far as determining who the culprit was, there is no right or wrong moral choice, and if you're not satisfied with the one you made, the game gives you the option of going back to the point where you made it and choosing again. It also does not call out specifically if you were right or wrong in your choice of criminal, though it, again, gives you the option of finding out with a simple touch of a button.
Where the presentation of Sherlock's thought process, from the beginning of the investigation through to their conclusions, is Crimes and Punishments' strength, the rest of the package is rough around the edges. Offering you the choice to move around the environment in either first or third person, the choice lies less in preference and more in which option you feel stutter and stops less. I played the majority of the game in third person, and walking around was a chore and a half. Sherlock's body seemed to turn on its own sometimes, forcing me into wild camera adjustments to try a find a particular clue. On top of that, searches are often bogged down by numerous and repetitive “context clues.” For example, one of the later cases takes place in a city garden, and while completely visible to any one who looking at them, the names to each of the buildings are highlighted as you walk by them, prompting a quick button press where Sherlock, in a voice that sounds as annoyed as I felt, reads off the name on the sign. Sure I could have not clicked on it, but this is an adventure game, and maybe something would have been different with this sign, because surely the developers couldn't attach the same type of message to every sign.
There are also some missed beats when it comes to the bits of fan service included in the game. Toby, the best nose in London and all around awesome basset hound, makes an appearance in a couple of cases. While I enjoy that he was included, the act of awkwardly walking around the environment following a scent trail is abysmal, and their only saving grace are the changes in the wording of certain mechanics, like barking to have Sherlock open doors, though even this is a bit inconsistent.
Those annoyances aside, Crimes does fall prey to a number of adventure tropes, though some are handled far better then others. . As I mentioned earlier, there is a bit of a pixel hunt to moving around the environment, but it fits well with the narrative of a thorough detective inspecting a crime scene. You do have an inventory, where you collect clues and trinkets found during your investigation, but they're not really interactive, though many do lead to a few specific mini-game type actions. Most are couched as experiments Sherlock performs to test his hypotheses, and while none are abhorrent or even overly difficult, the option to skip each and every one of them is available at the push of a button. There's no real penalty for skipping, aside from missing out on a few trophies, so if you find yourself getting stuck, or even mildly annoyed, feel free to push through without worry.
I would be amiss, though, to not mention what is quite possibly my favorite lock picking mini-game of all time. Taking the form of connecting a series of lines across a set of cylinders, I found them to be, outside of the moral choices, the only mentally taxing part of the game. I say taxing, but I mean it in the best of ways. Each lock was an absolute joy, and I offer a hearty huzzah to whatever group of designers was responsible for them.
Outside of some long load times and frame rate issues, Crimes and Punishments actually looks pretty good. The character models carry themselves well, and aside from a few instances where Lestrade falls completely into the uncanny valley, its easy enough to see the performances behind the graphics. The voice actor behind Sherlock pulls off the role quite nicely, and while I would have liked to have seen a little more from Watson, the two are comfortable enough with each other that the pair comes off as natural rather then forced.
In focusing on the cerebral side of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments manages to rise above its adventure game roots, presenting an excellent take on a classic character that, while propped on a foundation of less then interesting tropes, manages to feel fresh and captivating. While the physical act of moving around the environment left a lot to be desired, especially when a good portion of the game is spent looking for clues, it shouldn't be a deterrent to any fan of the great detective or adventure game fans in general. Trust when I say that missing this game would be drawing the wrong conclusion indeed.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!