There’s one question to which perhaps even the well-known, razor-sharp minded detective wouldn’t have the answer: how on earth that it’s Frogware, an Ukrainian and Irish developer company that makes the only noticeable Sherlock Holmes games – and since 2001 to that already? However, another question is even more “elementary” indeed: how well does the latest adventure and investigation game from Frogware succeed to capture the scope of what such a game should achieve in 2014 about the greatest detective of all times? You will have the answer to the latter, my dear reader, let’s just read the review, shall we?
If there’s one thing that we can safely laud about Frogware it’s the fact that they are total experts about every details concerning the world of Sherlock Holmes. They have probably their facsimile edition of the Original Illustrated Strand Magazine well-kept where every Sherlock Holmes novels were published. They have also probably been countless times in the Sherlock Holmes museum, Baker Street 21.b and have read every Sherlock Holmes novels and seen most of the movies. (Including Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with Robert Downey Jr. of which you can read the review right here). I am sure that they are true experts since every little details about the greatest detective of all times is oozing from this title. Now does that makes Crimes and Punishments a good game?
The devil in the details
I have to confess that I wasn’t a big fan of earlier Sherlock Holmes titles from Frogware since the first few games made a bad impression on me. It was a bad idea to simply use a point’n’click interface and the general gameplay elements of the old adventure game genre. It was maybe great back in 1992 when The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes – which was using a bona fide point’n’click gameplay – was published in but past the millennium it became more and more obsolete. And while the later Holmes games has gradually changed, because of the first bad impression I wasn’t following them anymore.
The trailer of Crimes and Punishments however struck my attention. While the setting is still the old 1880’s the game takes some cues from the television series Sherlock. What are those cues? Well, Holmes is more sardonic and ironic than ever and also the game has a darker, more realistic atmosphere. There are also some more interesting gameplay elements which I will elaborate later.
The case of the unrelated cases
There are six cases in total in Crimes and Punishments. They are not related at all it makes you feel like really reading a Conan Doyle book containing short novels. While most of those six cases are interesting or sometimes even exciting, some of them feels like an episode from a generic detective TV show set in an 1880 setting. There are also some differences between the characters regarding how well developed or interesting they are. The developers at Frogware tried their best to use well-fleshed and believable characters and while they have mostly succeeded, some of them are a bit boring. It’s a pity that the first episode is perhaps the less interesting of the six in which we have to investigate a rather generic murder case where only the way the murder was done stands out. (The victim gets harpooned.)
Fortunately latter cases are more exciting. Since the stories are not related anyway, perhaps it would have been a good idea to give the player the possibility to play whatever case he wants to play first the very first time he starts the game. While we can choose between cases at the main menu, it only concerns those which you have already played.
Use your brain, Watson!
The biggest challenge with detective type adventure games is how they put the investigation part in the game itself. The old point’n’click gameplay is clearly outdated by now, so different developers tried their hand at different solutions. Perhaps L.A. Noire was the most successful by merging a GTA type action/driving gameplay with investigation of the crime scene and the interrogation of suspects. Heavy Rain used an entirely different and revolutionary gameplay and interface with a branching storyline and several outcomes to it. Murdered: Soul Suspect was the less successful with its gameplay by forcing a paranormal investigation system which merged many ideas which seemed good on paper, but unfortunately none of them really worked in the game itself.
The good news with Crimes and Punishments is that while this new Sherlock Holmes title is using a system which is bit similar to Murdered, Frogware succeeds where the developers of Murdered had utterly failed. Same as with Murdered we take an active part in the actual detective job, but in this game putting the pieces of the puzzle together from conversations, physical evidences and the observation of people is actually a very enjoyable experience.
The sixth sense
And it’s a relief since Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous about putting together the whole picture from extremely small details. It’s the first game where this extraordinary ability is part of the actual gameplay. Instead of just listening to conversations and choosing the appropriate answers we have the opportunity to examine every small details of the suspects. It includes some physical details, the way they dress, or just a small envelope slipped in their pockets. We can either use those observations during the conversations (we have to carefully choose the right questions) or combine them with other evidence.
The best part however is the way we can interconnect every bits of information and details. In this area of the game, called “deduction space” we can first link together two different clues, and if they are matching logically than we can place those in the “big picture” where every information lies in the mind of Sherlock Holmes. While finding those information generally isn’t too hard, we still have to really pay attention to the events, the story, the characters and their motivations. All in all perhaps it’s the best simulation of the work of a detective which I have seen so far. It’s like entering the very mind of Sherlock Holmes and see it in action.
Of course gathering information and evidence on the field and at crime scenes is also part of the game –those are the backbone of every adventure and detective title. What’s still a bit more annoying are the mini-games. We need to sometimes use objects, like a ruler or take part in minigames like putting together an image or pick a lock. Picking locks in Crimes and Punishments actually gets the trophy of being the most annoying ever – and I had my share of annoying lock pickings.
The other, puzzle-like mini-game are a bit better. It’s a clouded, hazy, broken, 3D image of some idea which Holmes has about something like the origins of a cigar which he just smelled. We have to interconnect every small sections by turning and moving the hazy pictures in 3D. While it may sound interesting, it’s actually just frustrating. The good news? We can skip those by pushing a button. (But then you’ll have the dirty feeling of cheating.)
London, Victorian era
Concerning the visual aspect, Frogware fortunately avoided to use another dark and depressive representation of the 1880’s London – we will have plenty of that anyway in The Order 1886 when it will be out next year. Crimes and Punishments is using instead bright colours and authentic looking milieus of the 19th century England.
Frogware took a great care designing the apartment of Sherlock Holmes. I have been at the Sherlock Holmes museum at Baker Street 221b myself but if you take a look at those photos they look exactly the same, every small details matches.
Other good news that Frogware upgraded their graphical engine as well which is using the Unreal Engine now. The graphics looks noticeably better than in the PC version of the last Sherlock Holmes title: The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s safe to say that it’s on par what we should expect from a PlayStation 4 game – as far as adventure games are concerned.
What I did miss however are more and bigger areas. I understand that it’s a game which is made by using a rather low budget, but I would happily stroll on the streets of a living and breathing 1880’s London. Instead of that what we see all time is Holmes is sitting in his carriage and reading his notes every time we are going somewhere. On the plus side: we can consult those notes (by using the notebook and the deduction space of Holmes during travels.
Your ticket to the Victorian England
Crimes and Punishments is a nice adventure and investigation game with an upgraded graphics engine and some well-designed, innovative gameplay elements. Maybe it’s still not the definitive AAA Sherlock Holmes experience of this console generation (a bigger budget and bigger development team is needed for that) but if your are itching for another title with the famous detective as the main character than Frogware’s next effort is certainly worth your time and pretty penny.
+ Well constructed and fun investigation and system
+ Mostly interesting stories, cases and character
+ Nice visuals, extreme attetion to detail
– Some minigames are annoying
– First case isn’t the best
– Holmes moves strangely rigidly
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Genres: investigation, adventure,
Publication: 2014 September 30