Upon my first dalliance with ‘Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments’, from Frogwares and Focus Home Interactive, I found myself more than a little befuddled.
The game itself comes from a software developer that has spent time with the material and, indeed, the Crimes and Punishments entry into the franchise saw something of a radical upgrade in visual fidelity in conjunction with a departure from the tried and tested gameplay that can be seen when glancing back at the Sherlock Holmes lineage.
Proposing to offer the player a more tactile experience, full control of our protagonists movements is offered up – and in a variety of perspectives. One can choose to experience the game through the eyes of our wily detective, alternatively those preferring an aspect in the third – person can also find their desires sated by the mere depressing of a key or button.
My aforementioned befuddlement was inspired by the peculiarities of the disparity between the game’s low budget trappings, arguably unforgivable corners that were lacerated in favour of being ‘economical’ with both time and finance (one assumes) – and the fact that, despite all of perceivable negatives, I found my time with the game, and the six cases I journeyed through, to be nothing short of enjoyable. An agreeable experience of a high, if not quite the highest, order.
Ok, that level of prose is unsustainable, allow me to continue at my usual guttural level…
After a short stint playing as Dr. Watson, players quickly find themselves in control of the infamous Holmes and a case is immediately presented by the ever present LeStrade. Gameplay, as you might imagine, is primarily made up of investigating the crime scenes, unearthing clues, interviewing witnesses and interrogating suspects. However, before you venture out from your Baker Street residence, you can choose your clothing, hairstyle, hat and facial hair (presented to us as disguises – which is a refreshing and appropriate take on character customisation). These may help influence the reaction that non-playable characters have to Holmes’ arrival at the scene.
Once out in the world and on your first case, you can see that a lot of work has gone into pushing the game’s visuals to their limits. Though the budget constraints can be seen in the occasionally stuttery world, overall the visuals are quite impressive. The game does borrow some ideas from the more modern interpretations of Holmes’ adventures, but the visuals are the more traditional Victorian-era London. The facial features of most of the key characters are fantastically realised (LeStrade looks a bit weird) and even some subtle expressions are readable – especially in the interrogations. It’s far from perfect, but exceeded my expectations.
Sadly, once you start moving around the gorgeous environments, something feels a little off. Playing on PS4 and in third person, Sherlock just feels a little too big for the room, movement feels a little sluggish in places. However, I found switching to first person mode actually made things fit a little better and spent much of my time in this view (though the game creators pitch is that first person mode is ‘closer investigation’ – I’d stick with it for the most part). There was an exception to this – again the cause of much ‘befuddlement’. I spent part of my time playing on Vita through remote play. Weirdly, I found the first person more too twitchy through the Vita analogue sticks – and tried switching back to third person mode. This seemed to work and the game was immediately more playable on the Sony handheld. Why this should be the case I’m not sure? Was this by-design? I doubt it! However, my rule of thumb became: first person on PS4, third person on Vita – and my experience was far greater because of it!
The investigations themselves are where the game is at its best. It’s a remarkably sedate and cerebral experience. If you’ve spent a lot of time amongst the frantic fire fights of Destiny or the stealthy tension of The Last of Us (which pretty much covers what the TwinStick team have been up to this week – aside from me), you may find this change of pace quite appealing. You have time to explore, investigate and ponder your discoveries before making your next move.
A comprehensive log book helps you keep track of the clues you’ve found, characters you’ve met, conversations you’ve had and the links you may or may not have made as you piece each part of the puzzle together. Though certain tasks must be completed in order (i.e. you must have found object in location A before you can go to talk to a character about it in location B), there are also plenty of moments when you can choose to head to location C instead and explore a different path around your investigation.
In addition to the more usual find objects and clues visible in the crime scene, Frogwares has introduced a brand new mechanic (inspired by the BBC TV show) called ‘Sherlock vision’. Players can hit R1 and enter an enhanced view where more subtle clues become more visible and highlited in yellow. Even with this, its still possible to miss clues. Anyone who has played any of the games starring the REAL World’s greatest detective will immediately recognise the mechanic (Batman Arkham series’ ‘Detective Mode’ – I feel a Batman vs. Sherlock debate coming on).
By far the most interesting dynamic of Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is how the cases unravel as you explore. I confess, when I first started playing, I did have a certain feeling of this being a ‘by the numbers’ case and that if I just plodded through to the next objective, how could I possibly lose? This is far from the case. How you interpret the clues can have far reaching implications on how the case is ‘solved’. Each investigation can be ‘solved’ 3-5 different ways depending on what you discover and how you piece it together – there are up to 10 different endings per case!
To give an example – without spoiling anything – in one case, I had successfully pieced together both evidence and motive for a particular suspect. So compelling was the case that the game gave me the option to essentially declare the man’s guilt. Only, I still wasn’t quite convinced. The evidence for suspect A was all in place, in an attempt to explore and hopefully add to the evidence mounting against suspect B – who I thought the more likely – I’d accidentally uncovered evidence that proved B’s innocence. I COULD have wrapped the case up there and moved onto the next. But I persevered, reluctant to leave any stone un-turned and stumbled upon a third suspect!
You can see the evidence trail and change the assumptions you once held to unearth a new path through the trail, but you never quite no for certain who is guilty, some of it comes down to your own instincts – a dynamic I really loved. Similarly interesting is even when you are sure of a characters guilt, it’s still down to you, in role as the amoral Holmes, to decide what to do with the criminal? Have him arrested? Set him free? Accuse someone else? It’s actually a hell of a lot more nuanced than I’d originally imagined.
So though it may not always feel like you’re heading ‘down the wrong path’, especially given Holmes’ trademark confidence and swagger, there are plenty of opportunities to take a ‘different path’. With 14 different investigation mechanics – some cerebral, some observational, some skill based – there’s plenty to keep you engaged and plenty of opportunities to miss if you are less meticulous than our leading man requires.
When entrenched in the case, the game shines. As Holmes travels from clue, to theory, to experiment, to epiphany, all the way back to square one in some cases – you really get to live the life of Sherlock Holmes! However, it’s when you deviate – even slightly – from your objective that the game falls short. The voice acting of the key characters can be uneven at times, but overall does a grand job of keeping the story moving forward. If you decide to try and talk to peripheral characters, you’ll find a very empty world staring back at you. NPCs will either stare past you while sitting motionless – more part of the furniture than part of a vibrant, bustling world – or they will repeat a single short line of dialogue that is of no benefit whatsoever. The policemen within Scotland Yard had the same face, same line of dialogue -and the same voice – regardless of were you encounter them. No, it’s not game breaking, but it does stand out. It’s frustrating because even if they’d changed just one of these aspects, it wouldn’t have been so apparent. ‘Mr. Holmes’ is literally all they say. same voice, same tone, same line – even at crime scenes.
I found after this first case alone, the best way to approach it was to embody the ruder side of ‘Mr. Holmes’ and completely disregard all other people aside from the specific person I sought and move through each case with laser like precision (which was hard for me as I’m a natural explorer playing an investigation game…).
Overall, the time I spent playing as Holmes was hugely enjoyable and strangely compelling. The fact that the game’s shortcomings are quickly apparent, is counterbalanced by how quickly they are forgotten as you delve into clues, explore theories and set up experiments to gather enough evidence to ‘prove’ a character’s guilt or innocence. The fact that you can both accidentally OR deliberately finger the wrong person for the crime – and still progress just made it all the more interesting to play – and certainly adds some replay value (or at the very least, further investigation)!
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us is the finest game ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @vigilantesanta.