By William Chandler
Something made me take a sixty dollar chance on a random Sherlock Holmes game that I’d heard extremely little about prior to release. Well, actually… Boredom. It was probably just boredom. But it wasn’t long after booting the game up and methodically picking my way through the first case that I realized it was an extremely solid adventure game with a great deal of charm and not the ill-fated, franchise abusing drivel that I’d assumed. Chalk that one up to complete ignorance.
It was then that I’d done a bit of research and found that this turned out to not be much of a chance at all, as Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is actually the seventh primary game in a long running series about the titular detective on Baker Street, which has been the flagship franchise for primarily Ukranian developer Frogwares since the series’ inception in 2002. Then my brain decided to dredge up this old youtube video that I’d seen ages ago which poked fun at the fact that Watson, in the 2007 release Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis, has no walking animation but instead appears to just creepily teleport alongside you, eternally transfixed on you with his steely gaze.
So, I actually had been familiar with the series in passing. And during this research I read that these games had pretty much always been quite enjoyable little adventure titles. I dunno, man. I guess I’ve just never been the guy eagerly eyeballing the list of upcoming releases under the “niche adventure games” category.
The presentational quality is decent enough but, judging by the earlier games in the franchise, has seen a pretty drastic increase in some of the latest titles. That said, there are certainly still some quirks. Tonally, Crimes and Punishments is all over the place. The menu screen features Holmes in the foreground of a moody backdrop of rain or a fireplace while seemingly appropriate orchestral music booms in the background and the game sometimes embraces the tone set by this initial impression, but it is interspersed with a feeling of silliness that often comes from the sheer idiocy of those around Sherlock.
Inspector Lestrade is portrayed here as not even a basically competent officer of the law and, at worst, a lazy and bumbling moron whose position of authority raises many questions about those in charge of promotions at Scotland Yard. Even Watson is not saved from the apparent brain damage that has taken hold of the cast of Crimes and Punishments, as he is often merely along for the ride and very rarely says or does anything even remotely useful. I suppose I’m a little too used to the 21st century BBC representation of Sherlock Holmes where they make the detective seem smart by showing how decently intelligent everyone around him is, and then showing the fact the he’s so far beyond even that. This game attempts to accomplish the same by simply making everyone stupid which doesn’t really feel right.
So that renders much of the dialogue from the supporting cast dry right off the bat and I was initially put off by some cheesy lines but it wasn’t long before I’d gotten past that and really grew to appreciate the dialogue because the VO delivery is… Well, it isn’t quite great. But it has heart. There’s a stilted line here and there but it all works for the most part because the performances make the characters so damned personable. Much like a television show, it wasn’t long into the game until I was just accepting the characters for who they were by shaking my head and internally saying “Oh, that’s Lestrade for you. So silly!” like some culturally out of touch person watching The Big Bang Theory. Sherlock Holmes himself, however, is strikingly well written and is presented here precisely as one would imagine him, complete with some extremely well done smugness in much of the VO work.
That said, it is the cases where the writing really shines, and appropriately so. There are six cases in all and each one takes about two hours to complete on average, with some of them running a bit longer or shorter. Cases often play out like a combination of more classic adventure games and LA Noire. Much of your time will be spent walking around various environments and gathering information or clues pertaining to the case at hand, however, it never really feels like a pixel hunt. As a pretty thorough player I almost always managed to find all of the relevant intel on my first sweep of a scene and this is partially thanks to some pretty smartly designed locations which often guide the player in the appropriate direction without ever really being too obvious about it or making a location feel inauthentic, which does wonders for the believability of the world. There’s also a somewhat silly “Sherlock Vision” that points out some minutiae in the environments that may lead to important information, so, even though the concept is ridiculous, it gets a pass for being helpful.
The rest of your time is spent participating in minigames of various types that range from an interesting mechanic where you draw conclusions about a person based on deductions made from their appearance, lockpicking, searching archives, piecing together a timeline of events, to interviewing people and calling them out on their bullshit in order to get the truth. And these are just a few of the recurring ones. Crimes and Punishments presents a shocking amount of variety in its mechanics which ensures each case feels lovingly hand crafted and does an excellent job of preventing boredom, provided, of course, that you actually find enjoyment in its recurring mechanics to begin with. Which I decidedly do. Investigating the scenes, talking to people, making deductions, and slowly piecing together each case was consistently fun and the methodical nature of it made it all the more satisfying. Hell, a couple of the cases even managed to subvert my expectations with how they played out, which is a difficult thing to do in a game where you are asked to analyze every single detail to an excruciating degree.
Not every minigame proves to be as enjoyable, however. Lockpicking is repeated ad nauseam and honestly stopped being fun after a sudden spike in difficulty which required a level of patience hardly seen after the second lock, much less the tenth. In addition, there are a number of one-off minigames where the mechanics either lack the polish to perform as intended or simply aren’t fun. Hell, I can even recall some parts that were unfortunate enough to have both of these problems. A particularly frustrating experiment involving ice, salt, and a thermometer proved to be annoyingly more complicated thanks to a lack of any kind of instruction, and a sequence of quicktime events that allowed me to climb a wall were repeated far too many times thanks to an issue where my controller inputs were delayed due to a low frame rate.
Speaking of which, an apparent lack of polish extends to both graphics and game stability as well. The game looks decent enough and many of the textures are striking in their detail, but none of the characters look particularly good, and the uncanny valley is featured prominently. Considering that it only looks okay, there really is no reason for the game to perform as poorly as it does. While never seeming very smooth, it wasn’t until the third case and its extremely large outdoor environments that I began to see the frame rate dip into, I swear, the teens and even the single digits. This is never truly acceptable in a retail release and I could only really shake my head and laugh in amazement that someone somewhere thought that this was okay to ship. Fortunately, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments isn’t the type of game to require pinpoint accuracy or an instantaneous reaction time.
These issues only serve to endear the game to me in the end, though. Everything about Crimes and Punishments screams that it is a labor of love. Frogwares fully grasps its subject matter and appears to have grandiose intentions for the franchise regardless of how small the production budget may actually be. What we get is a game that is rough around the edges but perhaps better for being so.
Always interesting and charming, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is a game that rewards a patient player with a thoughtful, if sometimes overtly silly, tale of moral ambiguity as it pertains to ideals of justice.