Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments (PC)

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Frogwares has been making Sherlock Holmes adventure games for over a decade, but it wasn’t until 2006’s Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened that the series really began to generate some buzz outside of the usual PC gamer circles. Newer entries like Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes branched out to consoles, providing an entirely new audience for the established series. With each title Frogwares has continued to make improvements and provide original narratives along with their own spin on many of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is their most ambitious yet, as the developer has made the jump over to Unreal Engine 3 and added a slew of new gameplay elements. Is it a step in the right direction for an adventure series that has already managed to achieve a fairly dedicated fan base?

One of the biggest differences between Crimes & Punishments and its predecessors is the lack of an overarching narrative. Rather than following one specific case over the course of the game, this title provides six separate cases for players to solve. There is a little bit of extra narrative in between them and some common elements, but for the most part everything is self-contained and once you’ve solved one the next is completely different. It’s an interesting idea, as it allows each situation to dive down into the nit and grit without having to be concerned with fitting into a larger narrative. This approach also makes the game feel episodic in nature, much like many of the dramas on television that go for the “mystery of the week,” and I do believe that this could make Crimes & Punishments appeal to a wider range of gamers than previous Sherlock Holmes titles that Frogwares has developed.

While the motivations of the characters vary wildly from one case to the next, the gameplay mechanics play out in generally the same manner. Players typically start off at Holmes’ residence on Baker Street, where he is in the middle of some type of off the wall experiment (much to Watson’s dismay). They receive word of a murder or other crime that Scotland Yard would like their assistance with, and set off to survey the crime scene. You use a map to travel between locations, and can access Sherlock’s notes at any time to keep track of important people they’ve met or dialogue from different conversations. Once you’re at a location, there are plenty of options for exploring and discovering clues that will help you figure out exactly what happened. It is possible to move around in either third person or first person, and items can be inspected by hovering over them and then pressing the mouse. Many items can be zoomed in on and rotated for additional details, and Sherlock Holmes is able to use “Sherlock Vision” in order to try and notice clues that would otherwise be hard to catch.

Each of the six cases may have the player investigating in this manner, but there are different puzzles in each one to overcome. These range from putting the pieces of a cube back together to beating a sailor at arm wrestling while wearing a disguise. Frogwares has not only managed to provide a decent amount of variation to the puzzles, but they also found a decent balance between sections that have slight action elements and pure brain teasers. Each puzzle also fits with the narrative, and players who aren’t usually into this genre will be happy to know that it isn’t just one slider or switch puzzle after another. There is even a case where you get to briefly control Toby, Holmes’ dog, and use your sense of smell to try and discover more clues. It’s not that often where an adventure game has you doing genuinely different things from one area to the next, and that works in Crimes & Punishments favor.

Some people aren’t overly keen on any adventure game that features quick time events or precise button presses, and Frogwares had made sure to be fair about this element. This is true of all of the puzzles, as while I didn’t find most of them to be completely unsolvable it is possible to skip anyone if you decide you’d rather just continue exploring and seeing more of the particular case you are playing through. Yes, this does remove a considerable amount of challenge should you choose to utilize it (and it does keep you from getting all the achievements). But I actually think it’s a good inclusion, as it makes the game a bit more accessible to those that may not delve into this genre very often. I also found that during some of the button mash centric sections, particularly the arm wrestling, it was nice to be able to move forward rather than get stuck and become frustrated with the mechanics.

Once you’ve thoroughly explored a location and feel you have enough clues, it is also possible to question witnesses and then make conclusions as to who committed a murder or what happened at a crime scene. During conversations you can quickly press Q when the button prompt appears to dig deeper, using evidence collected or observations made while observing their appearance to prompt the witness to reveal more than they initially wanted to tell you. But it’s the ability to string together clues and form conclusions that is so appealing. As you collect clues, you can a screen that represents Sherlock Holmes’ brain. Clues can be combined to build synaptic connections and create theories of what might have happened. Make enough connections, and eventually you can choose who you think committed the crime and what action to take. Frogwares leaves these choices entirely in the hand of the player, and what’s great is that you could pin the crime on the wrong culprit and the game will let you do so. It is possible to see what is considered the canon ending, but if you decide the evidence is convincing enough to convict someone else then you can choose to do so and Crimes & Punishments will simply continue on. Sherlock Holmes also has various moral choices, as he can condemn the wrongdoer or absolve them of their crime if he feels they were justified in their actions, and some of these choices are reflected in how characters treat him in later cases.

All of these elements really make you feel like you are Sherlock Holmes, more so than ever before. The ability to not only be potentially wrong about who you convict but also put their fate in your hands makes the narrative that much more compelling. Each of the six cases were a lot of fun to solve, and as you might expect they often seem simple on the surface but there is always much more happening as you dive deeper and discover more clues. Though some may be disappointed with the lack of a main narrative driving the game forward, I thought that this was the closest an adaptation has gotten to making one feel like they are living a day in the life of this famous character.

With the move to Unreal Engine 3 comes a massive leap forward in graphical quality, and this really helps to draw the player into each of the mysteries. Each of the locations is quite detailed, and there were a number of times where I stood still for a little bit just to take them all in. The character models are also much more detailed than before, and while they’re not quite the absolute best that I’ve seen the faces do look much more realistic compared to 2012’s The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. Frogwares has made the most of the engine, bringing the bright colorful gardens and seedier back alleys to life throughout Crimes & Punishments. All of this impressive detail comes at a cost though, as the load times are a major issue. Whenever you travel to a different location, you get a clip of Sherlock Holmes traveling via carriage. This is meant to distract from what is an obvious loading screen, and you can access your notebook while this is happening. At first it seemed neat, but as you progress you’ll run into situations where you have to travel between several different locations after only a couple of minutes. This means you’ll be greeted with that same loading screen, and it disrupts the overall flow of the game. I’m normally fairly lenient on load times, but it really takes away from the experience. There are also some occasional framerate issues and sometimes Sherlock will stop dead in his tracks after clicking on an object, though these weren’t quite as big of a problem.

Based on what I remember from previous Sherlock Holmes games, it does seem like the voice actors have reprised their roles. The delivery of the main cast is spot on, as Holmes has a considerable amount of dry wit, and Watson’s actor does a great job of expressing his frustration at some of the situations he is put in. Frogwares games have always been based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories to an extent, so if you’re more familiar with some of the more modern Sherlock Holmes interpretations the personality of the characters here may be a bit different than what you’re expecting. The supporting cast does an adequate job of displaying emotion and making it a little difficult to tell who’s guilty and who isn’t, and there were never any performances that felt like they were simply phones in. I did really like the background music, especially the song that plays when you’re piecing clues together, as it really added to the overall mood.

The sheer amount of loading does take away from the experience and there are some performance issues related to the new engine, but Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments was still a truly engaging experience for the 11 hours it took me to complete it. Frogwares decision to place ethical choices in the hands of the player and give them the opportunity to stick with their conclusion, no matter what it may be, really helps the game to stand out. I would like to see them try and iron out some of the kinks with the engine if they can while maintaining the same level of detail next time around, as the increased production values and variety of gameplay elements give this one much more mainstream appeal than some of its predecessors. It doesn’t quite stand as one of my favorite PC games of 2014, but it does come close to that upper tier and is absolutely worth the asking price. Whether you’re an established Sherlock Holmes fan or are just looking for an enjoyable adventure title, this one is worth diving into.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments on Green Man Gaming

Crimes & Punishments

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