I love Sherlock Holmes. From the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories to the modern Cumberbatchian iteration, I can’t get enough (apart from the Robert Downey Jr films. Just…why?). So I’m a tough crowd to please, especially when it comes to games, the seemingly perfect medium for playing detective. Thankfully Frogwares, the Ukrainian games developers who brought us The Awakening and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, have almost completely nailed it. Bar a few piffling faults (which I can’t overlook because Holmes never disregards the details) this is as near a perfect Sherlock Holmes game as you can get. And if they continue in this vein, things can only get better.
Of course you play as the titular detective himself (there would be no point otherwise; who wants to be Watson? It would be like choosing to be Robin instead of Batman) and there are six unrelated cases to play through, each taking place in and around a very authentic Victorian London. However the developers have taken note of Holmes’ newfound popularity and integrated some modern twists into the gameplay.
The game is a traditional graphic adventure with standard point and click mechanics. Some of the controls do feel a bit clunky and inaccurate at times – Sherlock Holmes always seems to move elegantly and swiftly on TV but when I’m controlling him he looks like he’s spent too long in the opium den. Clues and evidence are pretty easy to find so you won’t spend hours trawling across all corners of the screen in case you’ve missed something. When something important is located deductions will be available.
Ah the deduction screen! This is where your collected evidence resides, the words floating enticingly around waiting for you to match them up. When you’ve successfully matched two items that make sense together, a nerve sprouts and grows in Holmes’ brain. These will grow and connect, forming conclusions. It’s up to you to decide which truth is the right truth and how much the accused should be punished. This is where Crimes and Punishments revels in its ingenuity. You really get to be Sherlock Holmes. Not only do you decide from the clues you’ve gathered who is guilty but you must decide why they committed the crime, which in turn allows you to decide whether they should be turned over to the remorseless justice of Scotland Yard or whether they should be allowed to go free. Holmes has always maintained that he serves the truth, not justice (nicely referencing Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), and this is held up nicely in the developers decision to let you call the shots.
If you’re someone who likes to know instantly if you’ve made the “right” choice then you’ll be disappointed. It’s easy to play through all six cases without having your actions validated until the end. There are references to the previous cases as you progress through such as letters from people you’ve absolved and newspaper articles. With each case being separate I really felt like I was playing through authentic short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle, though the claim that these are all new cases is a bit over enthusiastic – anyone who know their Holmes literature will recognise a few ideas and even if you’re not schooled up on the stories, you will probably be familiar with the beats and subject matter.
The deduction screen isn’t Holmes’ only method of solving crimes. His casebook is invaluable because it contains a record of everything, from clues and evidence to conversations. You really can take your time piecing together everything and going over all the facts carefully.
Sherlock Talent mode allows you to slow time in order to analyse a subject, á la Cumberbatch, with notable points appearing and being logged in your/Holmes’ brain. This also comes in handy at crime scenes where you can discover hidden clues that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Imagination mode gives you the chance to visualise your theories and replay what might have happened at the crime scene. Both are brilliant devices; not completely original as some of you might be remembering a certain other great detective who’s employs similar methods but it works best here, with the World’s Greatest Detective (and I don’t say that lightly; nobody loves Batman more than I do but Holmes was the first).
As well as collecting clues, analysing evidence and scrutinising people in a slightly terrifying way, there are also puzzles to solve and various quick time events to overcome. The puzzles vary in complexity, as do the cases themselves, and can range from conducting chemical experiments from your makeshift lab in Baker Street (ignoring Watsons health and safety tips about wearing masks and gloves and other such nonsense – he’s only a doctor, what does he know?) to picking locks by rotating a cylinder until the lines match, a lot harder than it sounds. You can skip any of these puzzles though I found I was so into the game I kept going until I got it right. The QTE’s occur mainly at the climax of a story when trying to apprehend the criminal. I hate QTE’s and I feel Holmes would have handled the situation much better if he was able to outsmart the criminals in a different way. A couple of unnecessary deaths could have been avoided (my bad!).
But it says a lot for the game that I felt remorse if I thought I’d messed something up yet was willing to accept my actions as though they’d really happened and go with whatever came next. The stories are so compelling and fun to play through that I just couldn’t wait to get on and see what the next one was.
It helps that the game looks great. Frogwares have always made an effort to add authenticity and atmosphere to their Sherlock Holmes stories and these ones are no exception. The locations are individual in that they have their own ambience; there is a feeling of stories untold seeping through the mists of an eerily still lake and in the silence of an abandoned excavation site. You can become completely immersed in Holmes world…until you hit the “invisible wall” that so many adventure games suffer from. This is not open world and you do have a set path even if it’s not sign posted. Frogwares obviously have a limited budget but I hope one day they will be able to make a much more open Sherlock Holmes game. I imagine the results to be stunning.
The characters are exceptionally animated and you can clearly see the expressions on their faces, from nervous twitching and sweating to cocky self-assuredness. The animation here rivals that of LA Noire and I certainly enjoyed this more, as Crimes and Punishments know exactly what it wants to be and delivers. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of character movements. These feel a bit stilted though you can see the attempts to make them more lifelike.
Holmes spends a lot of time talking to people so you would expect, and hope, that the voice acting would be decent. I can confirm that it is more than decent – it’s pretty damned good. Holmes himself is voiced superbly, with a laconic drawl that is reminiscent of Jeremy Brett’s interpretation during the 90’s TV series. He always seems in control even when you’re doubting everything. Rather than alienating me from the character, as I feared it might, it actually brought me closer to him and made me evoke my own convictions with more confidence. If Holmes says he’s right, who are we to argue? The rest of the cast are voiced convincingly as well, each with their own mannerisms and distinctive characteristics. It’s what we know and expect but done so well as not to feel stale. Even Toby has a part to play.
The music is appropriately affective, weaving itself into scenes without any effort and bringing you more into the game. There is only one major let down that I feel could have been done better and I think it was the attention to all the other details that means this one has been overlooked. Poor Watson is pathetic. There’s no other way to say it. His voice acting is the poorest, his facial animations are the most wooden and he doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t even provide much of a partner for Holmes to bounce ideas off. The dog has more to do than Watson. It’s a shame because the original stories are all told by Watson and he is our link, our normal overawed link, to the mastermind phenomenon that is Sherlock Holmes. To see him reduced to little more than background scenery is disappointing.
And yet I’m glad I wasn’t playing as Watson and I’m glad I was able to follow my/Holmes’ lead instead of having to listen to his bumbling protestations while his inferior brain struggles to keep up. So I’m being quite contrary; in order to be true to the original source material (as so much else is) Watson should have more to do. But really Holmes is the star of the show and nothing should take away from that. Sorry Doctor. Maybe next time.
Other much more minor complaints are that the game suffers from a bit of slowdown occasionally but it’s by no means game-breaking and it recovers itself quite well. There are a lot of loading screens as you travel between locations. A fast-paced game this is not. It’s saved nicely though by the ability to review your casebook and deduction screen while traveling. Or you can watch Holmes sitting reading Crime and Punishment, a not so subtle reference to the games title and themes.
Reading back over this review one thing is clear – I’m a complete Holmes fan girl. My opinions are as biased as they come. But it only means I will scrutinise every detail thoroughly to make sure it’s done right. And my opinion is that this is the most technologically advanced and enjoyable Sherlock Holmes game so far. All the cases are fun and moderately challenging and all the Holmes staples are present in one way or another, with details of previous cases strewn across the apartment at Baker Street and classic characters making appearances, like Lestrade, Wiggins and Mycroft. This isn’t a fast-paced game by any means, more one that encourages you to think. You become immersed in the Sherlock Holmes mythos and the decision to make the player the prosecution, jury and judge only adds depth to what is already a rich lore. For fans of Sherlock Holmes, detective stories or traditional adventure games, this is for you.
MLG Rating: 9/10 Format: Xbox One / Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 / PlayStation 4 Release Date: 30/09/2014
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 1 week on a Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.