Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments / 7th of October 2014
It’s only since being retold for modern audiences, thanks to the brilliance of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, as well as the much maligned Guy Ritchie, that I’ve come to adore the tales of Sherlock Holmes. But don’t tell that to Frogwares, the adventure game focussed studio has been delivering Holmes games since 2002. And to put that in perspective, that’s around the same time Rockstar were amazing us with the first 3D Grand Theft Auto, and when Spiderman games were actually good.
Anyway Frogwares’ latest offering Crimes and Punishments is the developer’s first foray onto Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and truth be told it’s a damn good one, for the most part. In fact my only problem with the game is the very same reason Holmes’ various incarnations had never appealed to me beforehand. You see my disregard for all things Holmes had been down to the humdrum nature, not of the man himself, but of the supporting characters, something the recent versions had managed to address. In them Doctor Watson was no longer a dithering sidekick, and inspector Lestrade now appeared a capable and believable face of the police force.
The reason I bring this up is because sadly Frogwares have restored the supporting cast to how they were often portrayed in earlier adaptations, namely a collection of witless buffoons. Inspector Lestrade for example, hangs onto every word uttered by Holmes and acts upon his conclusions without question like some evangelical fanatic, while the poor doctor Watson sits somewhere between a terrified nervous wreck and a man who exists in a world sixty seconds behind everyone else on screen. It’s a far cry from the modern interpretations I was referring to and yet further still from the original works. Thankfully if you’re already a fan of Sherlock Holmes then it’s easy to disregard these weak characters and the, at best workman like dialogue, and get on with solving the case. However if you happen to be one of the four people in the world as yet unfamiliar with Sherlock Holmes then I would suggest you don’t take Crimes and Punishments portrayal of the supporting characters as canon.
Putting that aside however Crimes and Punishment is a great game to play, Frogwares have honed the Sherlock Holmes gameplay for years, and it shows. This particular iteration has Holmes tackle six, more or less, isolated cases and the decision to break the structure up in such a way is an inspired one. With each case taking between an hour and two hours to solve it’s easy to pick up, get stuck in and then wash your hands of it without getting bogged down in an ever expanding narrative, something the previous were guilty of.
The solving of the crimes themselves has also been refined making the whole experience of uncovering clues, conducting re-enactments and solving puzzles thoroughly enjoyable. The typical process of deduction often involves using a Batman-like detective vision to identify clues in the surrounding area, conversing with witnesses and suspects, and identifying distinguishing marks or items upon a specific individual. It’s a well-designed mechanic that’s near identical to the way Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock mercilessly breaks down a characters recent history in the BBC adaptation, and one that effortlessly conveys Holmes’ brilliance. Like any game intent on giving the central character near-superhuman abilities these mechanics serve to empower the player without making the game feel too easy.
Once you’ve gathered sufficient clues and interrogated every suspect the game then asks that you come to some rather diverse conclusions based on the evidence presented. Conducting experiments that play out as excellent logic puzzles or enjoyable mini-games allows you to assess the significance of each piece of information, which then come together nicely to form possible conclusions based on the evidence. The way the game presents these options will allow you to finger whichever suspect you think fits the crime, while the matter of whether you were in fact correct is never explicitly stated. This may sound like a problem but thankfully Frogwares have crafted the evidence well enough to allow you to perceive it’s meaning in a variety of plausible ways.
On top of this Holmes can even condemn or absolve the criminal in question and purposely mislead the hopeless Lestrade should you feel the crime was understandable. Such an approach is undoubtedly preferable to the likes of L.A. Noir’s tactic of shouting at players for their stupidity before contriving a nonsensical way for the storyline to progress. Although if you’re still not satisfied the game kindly offers to let you replay the final moments of the case and select a different outcome from a number of directly opposing alternatives, though in truth it’s better if you avoid being made aware of any mistakes and saunter on in blissful ignorance, assured of Holmes’ infallibility.
Frogwares’ games have for some time existed in a rather awkward place within the videogames market, they’re not triple-A, big budget releases, but neither are they downloadable indie games from a small studio or handful of individuals. Instead they’ve occupied that middle ground and have often felt poorly built and clearly restricted by their budget. However Crimes and Punishments has proved to be an excellent detective adventure game that rather than succumbing to its limitations, it manages to hide them and distract you with clever, inventive and rewarding gameplay. If you’ve never before picked up one of Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games, then this may very well be the best time to remedy that. So long as you can forgive the rather hopeless supporting characters - and the fact that this particular Holmes has a face resembling a prototype Kevin Spacey - then you’ll undoubtedly have more than a good time playing as the world’s greatest consulting detective.