Crimes and Punishments: Sherlock Holmes Review: Elementary

crimes-and-punishments-sherlock-holmes-headerThere are many licenses that I wouldn’t want to be put in charge of but Sherlock Holmes would likely be at the top of the list. There is a great disconnect between the cognitive abilities of Sherlock Holmes and me, for example. He can look at a person and some clues and quickly deduce what happened as new evidence arises. Translating that ability to video games has apparently been quite a challenge for developers who have only seen mixed reviews, at best, for their Sherlock Holmes adventures.

For their latest trip to 221B Baker Street, Frogwares takes mysteries in the style of the classic Conan Doyle adventures and updates them with some of the tricks that have become popular on BBC’s Sherlock. Is that enough to make Sherlock Holmes a hit in the video game space to go with the recent explosion of popularity on TV and the silver screen?

While Crime and Punishment is not a book I’ve ever read (or thought about reading, to be honest), the name is appropriate here. There are six cases for you to solve over the course of the game. It plays a bit like a Conan Doyle anthology of short stories rather than one large mystery. Considering that very few Holmes mysteries were full length novels (only four Holmes books were actually novels), it’s not a shock that the game would be presented that way. Coincidentally, the first case you’re handed is an adaptation of The Adventure of Black Peter from The Return of Sherlock Holmes anthology, though a number of elements changed so it plays out better for a video game.

Each of the six mysteries play out over the course of 90 minutes to two hours long. My gameplay clocked in at about 11.5 hours though HowLongToBeat.com pegs the average time around 14 hours so your mileage will vary. That’s because each case has multiple solutions and conclusions. Why are those different? Because in addition to solving who done it and how they did it, there’s a moral choice element that allows you to throw the full weight of the law at a murderer or you can let them off lightly depending on the circumstances. With each case having at least three different solutions (and the game won’t tell you if you’re right or wrong unless you ask) and two moral choices per solution, you’re looking at over 40 or 50 final conclusions over the course of the game. So if you got a case wrong, there’s definitely some replay value. Slightly less so if you only want to see the alternate ending to a case (though you can do that right from the concluding screen at the end of a case to save you 90 minutes).

I actually liked that the game gave you a little freedom with solving and resolving each case your way. Normally, you would be forced into choosing the right solution and the fail state is getting it wrong. There is a wrong answer but you aren’t penalized for getting the wrong answer. Holmes is always right after all. Like I said, you can see if you were right after the case but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. It fits the Holmes character of always being right but I don’t think that Holmes is always right, even when he’s wrong, is the best way of setting up the game.

So as you would expect from a detective game, a crime is committed, almost always a murder, and you are tasked, either by Inspector Lestrade who needs some help or out of personal interest, with solving the crime and saving the day.

crimes-and-punishments-screenshot-03You start each case at Baker Street, often with a bit of fun banter between Holmes and Watson, before going to the crime scene. When there, you can investigate the crime scene and question witnesses and suspects. The case always branches off to a few more locations with more evidence and persons of interest. Your job, obviously, is to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to determine the who, how and why of each case.

While most evidence is found by walking around a crime scene and clicking when a “hey, this is evidence” pop-up comes on your screen, sometimes you have to engage some of Sherlock’s special powers. He has his own Sherlock Vision which is similar to Assassin’s Creed Eagle Vision and Batman: Arkham’s Detective Mode. This is what allows Sherlock to see things that no one else does at crime scenes. Unfortunately, the game goes very easy on you and tells you when to activate Sherlock Vision. There’s no point to turning it on when you don’t have a prompt in the top-right corner because you won’t see any of the normal evidence highlighted and won’t be able to select it. It’s a nice idea but far too limited in its execution.

Another nice touch is Sherlock’s imagination power. Rather than having Sherlock telling you what happened, you can envision what happened and see a crime or event play out in front of you. Remember the ghost power memory remnants reading from Murdered: Soul Suspect? It’s like that only Sherlock is using the evidence and his deductive reasoning to see what happened which makes it a lot cooler than a supernatural gimmick.

crimes-and-punishments-screenshot-01The other cool trick is the integration of another Holmes trick. The one ability that awes everyone is Sherlock’s uncanny ability to read people like books. You get a little insight into that in Crimes and Punishments. When you engage in dialogue with a suspect or witness, you can freeze time to scan over a person and pick out certain features of their person. Each feature you highlight comes with a BBC’s Sherlock-esque text pop-up that walks you through what Holmes sees and the meaning of it. I did this the other day at a farmer’s market so I’ll walk you through it. A man was selling baking. His hands were dirt covered and callous. One can deduce that he does a lot of manual labour and works outside for the most part. He’s a farmer while his wife does the baking. It is logical that he grows some of the ingredients for the products on sale. Basically, it’s that with the progression from observing to conclusion played out before your eyes with a summary in your casebook.

There are a number of minigames that are part of your crime solving. There are various experiments that Sherlock performs to learn about evidence he finds. There is a lockpicking minigame for both locks and safes. There a couple of literal puzzle minigames in which you can form an image to help Sherlock read more into evidence. Each of those minigames can be skipped without penalty so you can continue with your case. The only thing that you miss out on is an achievement for completing enough of these minigames in a row. There are also some QTEs at the end of certain cases that can impact the fate of the person you’ve accused but don’t change the solution or moral choice.

The real heart of the crime solving and detective work is in Holmes’ trademark deductive reasoning. While Sherlock makes sense of all the clues as presented, it’s up to you to make sense of what they mean.

crimes-and-punishments-screenshot-04To make sense of the clues, there is the deduction screen. In this screen, you can combine clues together in order to create various conclusions to deduce. It’s kind of like a mind map and that’s an appropriate analogy because the screen looks a bit like a brain neuron map firing off and connecting as various deductions are made. As new evidence arises, you can combine new clues and change your deductions. As you make more and more deductions, new experiments, minigames and investigation areas open up. Eventually, all your deductions come together to point you toward one guilty suspect.

The deductions really serve two purposes. First, it’s what Holmes does. This, more than anything else, puts you right in Sherlock’s shoes. Secondly, there is seldom one single smoking gun piece of evidence that fingers the who, how and why. Getting two of the three usually pretty straight forward. There always the final portion that you have to deduce from all the various pieces of evidence gathered over the course of the case. It’s often hard (it’s very easy to misinterpret a piece of evidence and it throws off your whole case) but right or wrong, the process of going through all the deductions was very fun and very rewarding.

Making deductions to get you to a final solution, right or wrong, was the highlight of this game. I loved the mental acrobatics I did in my head to get a case right. For some people, it can get frustrating. Me? I thought it was unbelievable fun.

Apart from the above noted issues, there was one big one that might sour your experience. Loading is plentiful and load times can go from seconds to minutes. Even zooming in to read people needs a couple of seconds of loading. Cutscenes require a bit of loading. Switching from walking to questioning requires a quick load. Going from location to location can take minutes. In those travelling load screens, you’re in a handsome cab (a horse-drawn carriage) which gives you time to look at your notebook and conduct your deductions. It helps pass the time but if there’s nothing to review, clues to combine or deductions to make, it doesn’t help.

The game runs on the Unreal 3 Engine which I would normally expect to look a little dated but I thought that this looked really good. There are some late last-gen games that look better than Crimes and Punishments but considering what you would expect from a $40 AA game, it certainly looked at the top end of visuals for that spectrum of games.

Usually, I equate Unreal 3 games with blurry textures but there was no such issues in Crimes and Punishments. All the textures were sharp. The faces were very well rendered which is sort of important when you’re doing the Sherlock Holmes reading people trick. You need to be able to see those details.

crimes-and-punishments-screenshot-05Most importantly, everything was put together as if it all belonged to the same plane of reality. My biggest complaint is that interactive objects often look different than the rest of the objects in the world. When you’re playing a detective game, that sort of matters. The often lighter coloured or more detailed objects give away that you can interact with them. No such issues here. It sort of a cheat if you can distinguish interactive objects with background objects and textures. Frogwares got that right and it plays right into the detective theme of the game.

The visuals weren’t perfect though. I found a whole lot of variance in framerate during the game so I’d hazard that this wasn’t particularly well optimized for AMD hardware but little outside of EA and Square Enix games put AMD first so I’m kind of used to it. I found that the framerate was capped at 60 FPS without vsync and yet I still had screen tearing. I’m not really sure what was going on but the whole game just screen tore something fierce. It wasn’t helped by the fact that fog and long draw distances would plummet the frame rate to near 30 FPS. So I could have vsync’ed to 30 FPS or watched it yo-yo between 30 and 60. There wasn’t really a winning option there.

On the whole, the voice acting was pretty good, especially among the recurring characters. For a fan of the old Sherlock Holmes radio dramas, it was easy to pick out some familiar sounding voices. Though it clearly wasn’t him, this Watson was pretty close to Ralph Richardson’s Dr. Watson from the 1950s. I couldn’t place the Holmes actor but I would say he’s pitched a bit higher than John Stanley’s Holmes from the late 1940s. And try as I might, I can’t find the Lestrade voice actor from the Rathbone/Bruce era of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes but Frogwares pretty much found themselves a dead ringer there.

The money spent on the lead voice actors (and the graphics) came at a price. First, some of the one-off characters that you meet throughout the six cases aren’t up to the standards of the lead characters. That’s to be expected but that’s still a bit disappointing any time you hear it. Secondly, the music is all pulled from a free creative commons website. Not that there’s much music that you’ll notice playing during the game. Apart from the theme at the start of the game, the opening sequence and the quiet deduction screen theme, I couldn’t remember hearing any music in the game. Maybe in keeping with the radio theme I identified, a little bit of travel music to bridge us between locations would have helped pass the time on the loading screens.

Conclusion

crimes-and-punishments-screenshot-02Having just played Murdered: Soul Suspect, I was quite surprised that both games were considered to be in the same genre. One is these games is actually a detective game while the other was just a point-and-click game that called itself a detective game. Guess which was which?

I don’t play many detective games but if there were more like this, I would be inclined to play them. I thought Crimes and Punishments was a great hybrid between Holmes doing the work and you doing the solving. While Murdered did all of the work for you (except clicking on the clues), this felt like a detective/puzzle game that made you a part of the mystery rather. After all, there’s no fun playing a game where you’re being talked at.

Rating: 8.0/10

Crimes and Punishments: Sherlock Holmes was reviewed on PC (Windows) but is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The review code for this game was provided by Focus Home Interactive. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and how elementary you thought these mysteries were.

Cross-posted from et geekera. For more from et geekera, follow us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+Tumblr, Steam and RSS.

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