Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments
First posted on 30 September 2014. Last updated on 26 February 2015.
When adventure game developer Frogwares released The Testament of Sherlock Holmes back in 2012, Arthur Conan Doyle's seminal characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were in the midst of a revival in mainstream popular culture. The resurgence has shown no signs of slowing so far, and Frogwares has continued to embrace the Sherlock Holmes series by releasing the seventh title in the series only 2 years after the previous installment. Available on all major gaming (both PC and console) platforms, the release of Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is a strategic move for Frogwares that I hope will pay off nicely for the series in the future. In a long overdue move, the cases in the game are actually based, in varying degrees, off of Doyle's original stories about the famed detective as well as Doyle's other fictional works.
As hinted in its name, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments has ties to the classic novel Crime and Punishment by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Published in 1866, Dostoyevsky's novel centers around the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by its main character, Rodion, who hatches a plan to murder a corrupt pawnbroker and use the resulting money from the robbery to perform good deeds in order to morally counterbalance his crime. Additionally, he postulates on whether or not it is ethically acceptable that certain individuals in a civil society have the given right to commit murder. It is in this vein that Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments delivers its cases: there are no "innocent" victims, and there are no "unsympathetic" villains. Each case offers enough evidence to convict many—if not each—of the presented suspects, based on the player's interpretation of the clues in the case. Furthermore, the player is given the option to convict or absolve each criminal, shedding light on the crime to make the situation either morally unforgivable or ethically justified.
While Frogwares has clearly taken influence from Dostoyevsky's work, it has also taken a few leaves from Telltale Games' development bible. The game is episodic in nature (a first for the series), featuring 6 individual cases rather than a single large case that ties smaller crimes together. At the conclusion of each case, the player is presented with a morality chart indicating the percentage of other players who have arrived at the same conclusion as well as the percentage of those players who have chosen to punish (or absolve) the criminal. This system, by allowing enough ambiguity in the interpretation of the facts of the case and the guilt or innocence of the suspects, permits a level of replay that has not been seen in other adventure games. Unlike the model used by Telltale Games that relies on mostly superficial player choices to deliver different gaming experiences, the system adopted by Frogwares in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments theoretically allows for a different culprit with every playthrough—even though each case in fact still has a "correct" intended solution (indeed, in a particular memorable moment in my own playthrough, I was able to solve a case a quarter of the way through the episode because I had acquired enough evidence to charge the only suspect I had yet found).
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments also features several changes in the otherwise formulaic gameplay first established in earlier games of the series. These changes seem to be incorporated for the purpose of stimulating echoes and parallels to the immensely popular BBC television crime drama Sherlock (also based on Doyle's work). In the game, Holmes sees clues quite literally written in front of his eyes, assisting him in reading the clues or suspects presented to him. Previous games utilize the deduction board, which has now been discarded in favor of a mind map (represented by a series of interconnecting neurons) which allows Holmes to think through his cases. With this new system, Holmes must literally string together pairs of different clues and deduce their meaning—a game mechanic remarkably similar to that also used in the official game to the hit television series from The Project Factory (Sherlock: The Network). Some characters have even been introduced into the game simply because they are present in the comparative show. While I cannot argue against the addition of Mycroft Holmes who is an important part of the series' lore, I question the inclusion of Holmes and Watson's landlady, Mrs. Hudson, whose only role in the game is to bring guests to the famed 221B Baker Street, announce their presence to the consulting detective, and then just leave. Additionally, Holmes himself has changed character. He is now more sarcastic and insolent than his previous incarnations. Conversely, the writing in the game is more humorous than the writing in past games—Holmes and Watson will often make jokes even in the midst of the most dire situations.
That is not to say Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments lacks unique merits. Built on Unreal Engine 3, the game features graphics at a level of details beyond those in all previous games of the series. Backgrounds are lush and vibrant, environments are more detailed than ever, and the characters finally have a shade of realism and accurate lip syncing during dialogs. While I call out the developer for copying a bit too much of the television show, I also cannot deny that incorporating such elements into the game has revitalized the series by placing the player more into the mind of Holmes than ever before. As befitting a Sherlock Holmes game, the puzzles encountered by the player are still challenging but without being frustratingly so. Further, the player is given the option to skip most of them if too much time passes, thus allowing the story to continue without perpetually getting stuck in the game. There are plenty of small references in the game to Doyle's original stories to keep Holmesians happy. Several dialogs in the game also reference Frogwares' previous Sherlock Holmes games.
Alas, all of these changes have come at the expense of other parts of gameplay. Most notably, the puzzles in this game are not particularly varied in nature when compared to those in previous games of the series. Whereas The Testament of Sherlock Holmes features puzzles ranging from lockpicking to chess puzzles to ciphers, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments includes puzzles consisting mostly of cylindrical maze locks and piecing together 3D line pictures. Only every once in a while will the player be tasked to reconstruct the sequence of events at a crime scene. Moreover, whenever Holmes and Watson travel to a different location, a transitional scene showing them traveling inside a carriage is shown as the game loads in the background. It must be noted that, whenever the game loads, both the animation and sound in this scene get very choppy. Given that there is a lot of back-and-forth traveling in this game, the lengthy load times are unwanted and can be very distracting.
Ultimately, notwithstanding a few minor annoyances, I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience playing Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. Together with The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, I feel that Frogwares has succeeded in giving this long running series a much needed reboot. While I find the makeover to fashion the game to be more like other popular media interpretations of Doyle's work to be a double-edged sword, I believe that Frogwares can fine-tune this approach in subsequent games of the series to make this reboot more of its own.