Review: Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (Sony Playstation 4)

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Frogwares
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: 09/30/2014

Frogwares has essentially been keeping the Sherlock Holmes character running on consoles and PC since well before he became cool again, so it was about time for a change. While Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened was a veritable breath of fresh air for both adventure games in general and Sherlock in specific, the format of those games was getting long in the tooth by the time Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper came out, and while The Testament of Sherlock Holmes was fine enough, it was clear that it wasn’t going to impress anyone. Frogwares took a bit of time off after that to build the next game in a brand new engine, Unreal Engine 3, and to revamp the mechanics a bit. The end result is Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, which is a game that brings a much prettier presentation and many neat mechanics into the equation, which help to freshen up the experience a bit. However, for all of the positive that comes from a new engine and new systems, it’s not all sunshine and roses, and the end result doesn’t always manage to impress. Make no mistake, Crimes and Punishments is a much needed improvement over the last couple games, and it does a lot of things very well, but it’s still in need of some tinkering to get to a point where it’s a must-have experience instead of one that’s “for the fans” and little else.

Unlike in the prior games, you’re not investigating one uniform case this time around; instead, Sherlock tackles six generally unrelated cases, similar to how the old Ubisoft Law and Order games worked. The cases are almost entirely disconnected from one another, and only Sherlock’s normal cast of characters tag along from one case to the next, so in one case you might be investigating the murder of an old sailor with a massive spear, while another might have you investigating a murder that starts with stolen plants. This concept works as well as the “one uniform case” concept of the prior games did, because it still allows Holmes and Watson to be the stars, and their dialogue and personal interplay is excellent no matter what the case might be. Say anything else you like about the games, but Frogwares has Holmes down pat in their writing, and he’s exactly the sort of insanely intelligent but socially inept weird genius he needs to be at all times. Also, the revolving case concept also arguably works out better because it allows for more of Sherlock’s cast of characters to show up, if only for a little bit, and if you don’t care for the case, you can plow through it knowing another one will be along in an hour or so. On the other hand, however, the cases feel a lot more compressed and less complex (in some respects) than in the prior games, so those who loved the sense of extensive, involved cases may find that this game lacks on that part of things. Also, the lack of any kind of connecting threat leaves the game feeling flat when it ends, because there’s nothing that really ends the experience. It’s just “oh look, here’s the last case, thanks for playing,” and compared to the prior games it feels flat.

As you’d expect, Crimes and Punishments looks outstanding, and the new engine really helps to bring the game world to life. The characters, especially the important ones like Holmes and Watson, look dynamic, and there’s a lot of detail to the characters, which gives the game a lot of life, especially when you’re getting down to the most minute details about them during some of the minigames. The environments are also quite diverse, and several of them are quite expansive and open, which gives the game more of a detective work feel than its predecessors in many respects. On the other hand, some of the less important characters look less detailed in comparison, and you can occasionally tell when a character didn’t have much effort put into their design, especially in later cases, and the game often takes a long time to load larger environments. Aurally, the game is spot-on, however. The voice acting is as amazing as ever, and Holmes and Watson feature the same voice actors they always have, who are absolutely stellar in their roles and give the characters real charm and life, which carries a lot of the game further than it would go otherwise. The music, when it’s there, is quite fitting and sells the time period and concept well, and the effects, again, when they’re there, also do a good job of being thematically appropriate.

Whether you’ve never played a Frogwares Sherlock Holmes game before or you’re a huge fan, you’ll find that a lot of the experience is both easily accessible and all-new in Crimes and Punishments. The general gist is about the same, though: Sherlock is approached to solve a crime, and you’ll have to visit various locations and talk to various people to accomplish that task. This game is broken down into six separate cases, but they all more or less progress in that fashion, so you won’t find that the game deviates much from this basic formula. When you’re out exploring, you can move Sherlock around to the various points of interest to interact with them in either first-or-third-person views, depending on how you’re comfortable playing, as neither is inherently better than the other. You’ll find that there are various puzzles to solve as you go and items to find that have to be studied or used on other items, as is a standard in the genre, and these help you to build your case against whoever ultimately ends up being the culprit of the case. You can also interact with the various witnesses, experts and potential perpetrators of the cases, which takes the form of a simple interview session: you ask questions from a list, the person you’re talking to provides an answer, and you note it and move on with your day. In a broad sense, anyone who’s played an adventure game in the past couple decades should be able to figure out the basics of Crimes and Punishments fairly quickly, as it’s easy enough to understand and adheres to many of the basic concepts of the genre just fine.

That is by no means to say that the game doesn’t do its own thing, however, because there is so much here that’s new (both to the genre and to the series) that you’ll find it’s not just a retread of old ground. Sherlock himself has a bunch of new tricks he can employ that fit into the concept of how we expect him, as a character, to operate. For one thing, he has two “visions” he can use during detective work to solve potential issues; the first, described as something of a “sixth sense” by the game, allows him to find clues by highlighting them in gold, while the second allows him to mentally re-enact a scene when applicable. Further, he’s also capable of analyzing a person when he meets them; at the press of a button, you’ll begin looking over the person from top to bottom, looking for specific details about them and, when they’re assembled together, you’re given a general idea of the person that can be used as evidence. Further, this time around, when a suspect introduces a concept in conversation that might be a lie or needs to be expanded, you can interrupt them and throw down evidence to support your claims, which will open up more discussion and evidence. Investigation is a lot more interactive this time around, in other words, so you won’t just be finding objects and rubbing them together to see what works until the case is over with, as Sherlock himself will need to showcase some of those brains he’s famous for more than a few times as the game goes on.

This is actually a literal point, in fact, as instead of using a cork board to highlight evidence and suspects, you’ll instead be connecting neural pathways in Sherlock’s head to connect evidence. Each time you find anything relevant to the case, Sherlock files that piece of information away in his head, and you’ll have to hop in there from time to time to connect up data. When you connect two pieces of relevant information in his head, this will, in turn, drop a data point into what essentially looks like a Tron inspired brain map as a conclusion that you’ll use to put together the case. Different data points can be dropped in place, some of which are actually variable conclusions; you can pick one or the other, depending on how the evidence plays out, and they’ll ultimately help you build a case toward one specific logical conclusion. What’s interesting here is that many concepts can conflict with one another (which is highlighted in red), so you can actually end up assembling multiple different potential solutions to the cases as you go. This is by design, though; while there is only one “correct” solution to each case, there are several different “potential” solutions, and it falls to you, as Sherlock, to pick the correct solution to the case based on the evidence provided. That’s right, instead of their being one correct answer you always get to, now you’re given the tools to find the answer, and it’s up to you to get it right. Granted, the game will show you the particular result in question and then allow you to find out if it was correct, then try again if it wasn’t, so you can EVENTUALLY get to the correct one, but it’s at least a small step toward pushing the player to think about things instead of giving them the solution when they have all the pieces of evidence.

Outside of those changes, there are also a bunch of new mini-game events that pop up throughout the game to keep things moving as needed. You’ll still be interacting with Sherlock’s work table to test out chemicals as needed, though this is also expanded; in one case you’ll be mixing elements, while in another you’ll be figuring out how to properly make ice cream to make an ice knife, for example, so it’s not the same old silliness. Other mini-games that fans will be familiar with pop up here and there, such as guiding Toby, the best nose in Scotland Yard, to finding specific objects and track down the paths taken by criminals. More than a few are brand new, however, such as the lock picking mini-game that involves rotating tumblers to find a correct path, arm wrestling one suspect, and even one instance of turning multiple cranks to open the correct path through an ancient treasure trove. There are even a couple mini-games featuring target shooting, and a couple random active time events (ugh) that pop up throughout the game. Aside from the lock picking, the game generally doesn’t repeat its mini-games, so you’ll also find that you won’t be running into anything heavily repetitious, and they keep things interesting if nothing else.

You can generally get through the game in around ten to fifteen hours, depending on how good your deductive skills are, though sadly, once the game is done, as is often the case with these sorts of games, it’s done. If you choose to play a more purist route, you could always force yourself to stick to your first deduction (wrong or not) and go through the game again to try to get the correct one, but outside of that, nothing short of a love of the experience will bring you back for more. There aren’t any notable changes to the experience on a second go-round, and outside of a couple of Trophies you might not catch due to specific requirements, you’ll likely see everything you want to on the first try. There is something of a morality system in play here, which allows you to decide the fate of the person you’ve fingered as the culprit if you’re so inclined, so you could go back to check all of the possible options and responses post-case completion, but even then that won’t occupy much time unless you go for every single one. Even if you manage to miss a piece of evidence and can’t unlock the correct choice for a specific conclusion, you can still go back and find it eventually in that same session, so you’re generally not locked out of seeing a chapter through, no matter what choices you make along the way. The game is absolutely a fun ride while it lasts; you just can’t expect anything more than that from the game once you’ve completed it.

Beyond the lack of replay value, the bigger issue with Crimes and Punishments is that, as interesting as the new mechanics are, they don’t quite work as well as they should. The option for the player to come to their own conclusion is great, but there are several instances where the solution isn’t really better than any of the others based on the evidence, leaving you as the player to guess. This doesn’t work out as well as you’d expect, honestly, as the cases where the answer is logical end up with said answer being really obvious, while the cases where the answer is hard to come to end up leaving all of the options as logical choices, and in one case, the answer is a matter of location, not culprit, when the location honestly wasn’t emphasized as being important. Also, the game, due to its huge size, has become a chore to get through at times due to the sheer size of some locations, as hunting for evidence in, say, a massive outdoor Greek excavation site or a train yard ends up being frustrating due to the possible places said evidence could be hiding. In one case I spent the better part of half an hour trying to figure out why I couldn’t unlock the last possible option in a case, only to realize the game had dumped me out of a specific search before I’d searched all of the evidence, and while the last piece seemed to provide absolutely nothing of merit, it did somehow spawn the NPC I needed to talk to. Finally, while the majority of the mini-games work more or less as intended, there are a few that revolve around proper aiming and hitting/shooting an object in some way that absolutely do not, and I don’t think I’d be the only person to note I wouldn’t be upset if they never came back ever again.

All told, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is definitely a step in the right direction for Frogwares, as the improved engine helps the game a lot aesthetically and they clearly have some great ideas for the series, but there are definitely some elements that should be sanded off for the next go-round. The characters are as well-written as ever and the separated plot structure works well enough, but could stand some kind of unifying narrative, if only to give the game a proper ending. The game is visually excellent for the most part (even if some of the models clearly look better than others) and aurally excellent all around, and the core gameplay elements are easy enough to understand whether you’re a long-time fan or a newer player, coming from the revitalized success of the brand. There are plenty of differences and improvements, however, such as new investigation elements that play to the character and a variety of mini-games to keep things interesting, that give the game a real feeling of improvement and evolution beyond its predecessors. Sadly, the game lacks any real replay value, and the changes don’t always work; some cases simply don’t give you a good clue as to who the real perpetrator is to an extent that you’re not flying blind, the massive environments end up making hunting for clues a chore at times, and the first-person mini-games are horrendous universally. Frogwares is definitely going in the right direction, however, and Crimes and Punishments is a good first step toward bringing Sherlock Holmes into the next generation; while it’s flawed in spots, fans will love it, and it’s a good sign of things to come for the franchise.

Short Attention Span Summary:
If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, regardless of the media, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments will definitely do a lot for you, though it’s not without its hiccups. The writing is quite good though the separated cases leaves the narrative without the unity of prior games, the visuals are much improved over prior games though it’s obvious some characters are less detailed than others, and the audio is masterful throughout. The gameplay is simple enough to jump right into for fans and newcomers alike, but there are plenty of novelties, such as unique detective skills that feel appropriate to the character and mini-games here and there, that make the game feel fresh and different. There’s no real replay value to the product, unfortunately, and not all of the changes are for the best, as the open-ended deduction system either makes it very easy or nearly impossible to pick the “correct” perpetrator and the first-person mini-games are pretty abysmal. Still, what Crimes and Punishments does well more than makes up for what it doesn’t, and it’s definitely a good first step for the franchise into the next generation, one that speaks well of where it’s going to be headed in the coming years.