The world’s most famous detective is back with a great set of mysteries, peppered with a few mediocre cases—about the same hit ratio as Arthur Conan Doyle himself, really.
I snort cocaine. I play a violin. I wear a deerstalker hat. I solve cases with reckless disregard for my safety. I am a bit of a sociopath. I am commonly associated with the phrase “Elementary, dear Watson.” Who am I?
If you used your powers of deduction to ascertain that I am in all likelihood the famed detective Sherlock Holmes, then congratulations! You’re probably ready to play this game.
Victorian eye candy
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is the latest adventure game from Ukrainian developer Frogwares, and forgive me longtime fans for saying so but this is probably the point where I can say these games have moved from “guilty pleasure” status to full-blown “These games are legitimately good.”
The Sherlock Holmes titles coming out of Frogwares have always had a bit of that small developer jank to them, most aptly summarized by the infamous Creepy Watson. Yet over a decade spent making Sherlock Holmes games has seen the developer mature into a quite competent studio, with Crimes and Punishments legitimately one of the best adventure games this year. There’s a fluidity to the proceedings here, a level of polish, that just hasn’t been present in past titles.
In large part I think Frogwares has Unreal 3 to thank. This is the first game in the series built on the industry’s most prevalent engine, and let’s hope it’s not the last. Environments are stunning in Crimes and Punishments. Heck, I’d put them up against a fair number of AAA games, especially with the amount of period-specific set-dressing Frogwares has done. Scotland Yard police station is decked out in wanted posters, the local bar down in the harbor is a grimy sailor haven, and even the sleepy train stations outside of London are given a surprising amount of love.
It’s a level of quality even above the previous entry, Testament of Sherlock Holmes, and that was in itself an exponential increase in quality over 2009’s Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper. It’s really a stunning push Frogwares has made in the past five years.
This isn’t just graphics for graphics’ sake. In an adventure game like this, better graphics means better sleuthing, as wandering the environment and collecting clues is a large part of your task.
So what is the world’s most famous detective solving this time around? A handful of murders, a train disappearance, the theft of some plants— Crimes and Punishments acts much like one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s anthologies, throwing the player into a variety of cases that are unrelated save for the fact that Sherlock Holmes and trusty sidekick Doctor Watson are involved.
And just like one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s anthologies, the quality of this adventure game varies from case to case.
The typical set-up goes: Sherlock is called to the crime scene, investigates the area, speaks to witnesses, does a few experiments, speaks to witnesses again, investigates a secondary scene, makes some deductions, and then makes an arrest (or not).
That last bit is the big addition to Crimes and Punishments.
Sherlock’s heart grew three sizes that day
Over the course of each case you’ll collect a ton of data, which then floats around in something like a word-association cloud. Pairing clues together will earn you data points on a big deduction flowchart where you’ll, for instance, make a choice between “Whoever threw the harpoon through Black Peter is clearly a very strong person” or “Whoever threw the harpoon through Black Peter got a lucky shot.”
Each choice will lead Sherlock towards a different outcome, with what seems like at least three distinct suspects for each case. This system was also present in Testament of Sherlock Holmes.
No, the big difference here is that Holmes has grown a heart. Once you’ve completed your investigation and settled on a suspect, you’ll then have to decide whether to condemn or absolve the person in question.
After my first case I thought the system was shoe-horned in. “How could you ever decide not to bring someone to justice?” Frogwares treads on some very morally grey, very mature territory with these cases though, and there were two or three in particular where I just couldn’t bear to condemn the perpetrator based on the circumstances.
That’s not to say all these cases are great. Two of them in particular the solutions were telegraphed so hard that I’d solved the mystery probably half an hour before the game actually let me wrap up, mindlessly collecting the last few clues until it was time to make the arrest. Crimes and Punishments isn’t nearly as obtuse as the earlier Sherlock Holmes games, but the side-effect is that it’s also quite a bit easier at times.
And there’s still some of that B-game jank. The frame rate inexplicably stuttered for three or four minutes every time I booted the game, but then it would go away and run smoothly. The third-person camera is also clumsy and unwieldy, feeling more like tank controls than a modern third-person perspective. As a result, I played the entire game in first-person mode unless I was taking screenshots (seriously). Crimes and Punishments is also peppered with a fair number of quicktime events, some of which don’t even tell you which buttonto press.
Also, there’s a lot of traveling between environments. This wouldn’t be a huge deal, except each of these travel sections coincides with a lengthy loading screen. Frogwares tries to mitigate this problem by letting you access your casebook and deduction screen while traveling, but it’s a huge pain when you go to your apartment on Baker Street to get one item, then immediately jump back into your carriage to travel somewhere else and each time you’re treated to a twenty or thirty second load.
But you know what? I stuck with Crimes and Punishments even through all those obscene load times, and not just because I was reviewing the game. There’s a genuinely great set of mysteries here, peppered with a few mediocre cases (about the same hit ratio as Arthur Conan Doyle himself, really)..
Add in the improved environments, the multiple endings for each case, and the moral choices, and it quickly becomes clear that Crimes and Punishments is the definitive Sherlock Holmes adventure—at least until the next Frogwares outing.