The legend of Sherlock Holmes is arguably much bigger than the character of Sherlock Holmes, although myth would be more of a pertinent description given that he is fictional. In recent times the harsh and terse nature of his personality has come through with the popular TV adaptation by the BBC and Steven Moffat. Even though that itself has become more clouded due to the absolutely gorgeous hunk of enthralling talented man that is Benedict Cumberbatch… What I’m a man, I can say it, right ladies?
But Crimes and Punishments, the new adventure by Focus Interactive and Frogwares does something that takes a literary starting point, grabs a lot of the old school TV characterisations, mixes them with the modern day artistic interpretations of Holmes’s mind and puts them in to an interactive detective story that will drive your moral compass around the bend. That’s one of the slightly out there things of this game, the inspiration from a literary source that isn’t even a Conan Doyle story, despite the game taking it’s characters, setting and tone from his books.
The title of the game comes from Dostoevsky’s similarly titled epic novel following Rodion Raskolnikov who balances his decision to raise himself out of poverty by murdering a pawnbroker and robbing her. Therefore giving him money to live and perform good deeds whilst getting rid of a fairly odious person in process. It’s this ethos that has allowed Frogwares to create a Holmes character that, whilst you are playing through him, is not the central protagonist of the game. And that is something that could and should make you a little bit uncomfortable.
Because the issue here isn’t that the game allows you to solve mysteries. It allows you to deduct and conclude on a selection of many possibilities. Whilst there is a right and wrong answer (which you can spoil if you want to) the game presents you with the strange juxtaposition, strange for a game of its ilk anyway, of having multiple different outcomes that you decide upon. The clues are presented to you and you deductions allow you to not only decide who is guilty of whichever case you are on, but also how you handle their potential incarceration; with the full weight of the law or with a lenient more liberal approach to the situation they find themselves in. What that also means is that you can be wrong but still complete the case.
The clues are very easily presented to you. They aren’t too hard to find and if you get frustrated it is very easy to just back off slightly and take stock. Most of the complex issues in the game are logic puzzles which are easily solved with a bit of time and patience, some of them involving chemistry, metallurgy and other things in Holmes own desktop laboratory. Some of the puzzles require some research in Holmes’s extensive archive and others are ones that need his expert view or the use of his imagination. The way you explore the scenes of the crimes and the people you interview very much lends itself to the more modern interpretation of Holmes, which, in the interactive form of a game, is entirely justified. Including the deduction screens allowing you to form the cerebral paths of choices with the clues you have discovered. The case book is easily navigated and isn’t a burden to the game experience either, although could be a little more encompassing and possibly even allow for a hint or two if you are getting a bit stuck.
From a character point of view, you spend your time in the ego of Holmes. He is, for want of a better term, a bit of a prick. He has the smugness of intelligence and an overly authoritative air, but at no times does he become insufferable. And as soon as you finish the first case, you realise that he is merely the vehicle for you to make those hard moral decisions. As a character himself he does use the crime scenes and Scotland Yard as his own personal playground. He feels he is above a lot of the general day to day process of the police and the slightly dim-witted Inspector Lestrade and a fawning Dr Watson, who would have been great as a character to give hints if you so desired. He is complete with his vices, at one point coming down from what appeared to be a very heavy opium trip, which allows you to see how he is operating way beyond a merely human capacity. His eyes, his perspiration and his slightly ragged appearance at times allow you to see that he is flawed, despite his genius.
The characters around Sherlock, despite the two fairly tepid interpretations of Lestrade and Watson, are quite alive and enjoyable to talk to and discover. And by discover I mean completely judge them. The look of the characters of course allows your immediate reaction to their mindset, personalities and history, a bit like LA Noire. But their speech and utter Victorian stoic tones make extrapolating what they say more challenging in your deductions. Victorian London and its areas are very nicely recreated in the game. Everything from the Verulanium ruins in St Albans, Kew Gardens and the offices of Scotland Yard. Even the many stations in the railway case are very atmospheric and lovingly created. But they all also have that quiet and slightly antiquated air that you’d assume from a Victorian setting. Yet the stories that occur in them are full of intrigue and adventure and exploration. Especially the case where you explore the Roman baths.
From that point of view, and of course I will not spoil a single thing in these cases, they are very well designed, breeding intrigue, and have multiple characters that could all be guilty. The dialogue is well acted enough without being too hammy or not engaging enough. The addition of Toby, Holmes dog, is a nice touch too with his GTA V-esque smell tracing ability, along with some little parts of the Holmes universe that doesn’t serve a story purpose but exists for the atmosphere. The characters aren’t as well animated as LA Noire but are good enough for the type of game this is. In fact to call this is simple point and click detective game set in a 3D environment would be disingenuous as the moral aspect of the game and the lack of progression importance on what is right and wrong clearly defines it as it own.
The only criticisms of the game that I have is that at times, and that maybe because of the nature of trying to explore absolutely everything on my part, is that the game can be a bit slow. As the puzzles become more trickier and the areas of exploration larger and more diverse you do end up taking more time to complete a case and, whilst the different endings do give you quite the replay value, it also puts you off a little because of the time you would need to sink in to it. Once you discover the run button with the right trigger/R2 it is a bit of a godsend because getting around at a walking pace is incredibly laborious. The soundtrack is nice, haunting and quite unobtrusive, but it is only really at the title screen that its noticeable and it would have been nice to have a little more in the game. The puzzles whilst challenging and as the game progresses become more challenging, also don’t seem to change much out of their three main types. Lock picking, chemical tests and the occasional logic puzzle. Some cases excel at it more than others which leaves the gameplay a little stale at times.
Crimes and Punishments presents a strange case for review because it is a successful game that you could argue doesn’t really have much depth out of its 3D adventure setting. Yet the success and point of this game is to challenge your perception of right and wrong and the moral choices you make. What kind of person are you to decide the fate of these suspects? A harsh master exacting the law to its fullest degree, a pacifist that sees the deeper side of the emotional torment in the cases or a flake who doesn’t want to get their hands dirty at all? In that way it is completely successful but does it make a game? Well we play The Sims in order to have this kind of perverse control of perceived life and this game in that way is no different. In fact it’s almost more perverse given that we discover a lot more and have a more intelligently formed decision about the characters and situations in the game. Which means that in this way, the game completely gets it right. It is pleasant to look at and enjoyable to play but is it open enough in its game play to be an amazing game? I’m not sure, I can’t decide. What I can decide though is that this game certainly sets a great standard for games of the detective genre and the shifting of moral choices directly in to your hands is the right amount of unsettling to keep me playing the game.
Crimes and Punishments in one way fulfils its remit of being a high definition 3rd person investigation game which could be classed as middling. But the mind games it plays with its deductions and moral choice dynamic lifts it above that in to an unsettling yet enjoyable experience.
[tab title=”Good Points”]
– Moral Choice system works well
– Good stories and characters
– Visually great recreation of Holmes’ world
[tab title=”Bad Points”]
– Can be a bit slow
– Support characters a bit tepid
– Puzzles don’t change too much
[tab title=”Why an 8?”]
Because whilst the game had the potential to be a lot lower score, it is a very good experience, visually well presented and the stories are enjoyable to play. Even if you spend hours debating the moral choices you make in deciding who’s guilty.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.