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 Frogwares, this Ukrainian developer company 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 Frogwares 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? The article has also been updated with a test of the Nintendo Switch version.
If there’s one thing that we can safely laud about Frogware, it’s the fact that they are total experts about every detail concerning the world of Sherlock Holmes. They have probably their facsimile edition of the Original Illustrated Strand Magazine well-kept where every Sherlock Holmes novel was published. They have also probably been countless times in the Sherlock Holmes Museum, Baker Street 21.b They have read every Sherlock Holmes novel 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 minor detail about the greatest detective of all time 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 wrong impression on me. It was a bad idea to 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, but it became more and more obsolete past the millennium. And while the later Holmes games have gradually changed, because of the first wrong impression, I wasn’t following them anymore.
The trailer of Crimes and Punishments, however, struck my attention. While the setting is still the old 1880s, the game takes some cues from Sherlock’s television series. What are those cues? Well, Holmes is more sarcastic and ironic than ever and also, the game has a darker, more realistic atmosphere. There are also some more exciting gameplay elements that I will elaborate on 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 exciting or sometimes even exciting, some of them feel 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, the 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 first time he starts the game. While we can choose between cases on the main menu, it only concerns those you have already played.
Use your brain, Watson!
The biggest challenge with detective type adventure games is the investigation part in the game itself. The old point’n’click gameplay is outdated by now, so different developers tried their hand at other solutions. Perhaps L.A. Noire was the most successful by merging a GTA type action/driving gameplay with the crime scene investigation and the interrogation of suspects. Heavy Rain used entirely different and revolutionary gameplay and interfaced with a branching storyline and several outcomes. Murdered: Soul Suspect was the less successful with its gameplay by forcing a paranormal investigation system that merged many ideas that seemed good on paper, but unfortunately, none worked in the game itself.
The excellent news with Crimes and Punishments is that while this new Sherlock Holmes title uses a system that is a 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 pieces of evidence, and people’s observation is actually a gratifying experience.
The sixth sense
And it’s a relief since Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous for putting together the whole picture from tiny 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 tiny detail of the suspects. It includes some physical information, the way they dress, or just a tiny envelope slipped in their pockets. We can either use those observations during the conversations (choosing the right questions carefully) or combine them with other evidence.
However, the best part is the way we can interconnect every bit of information and detail. In this area of the game, called “deduction space”, we can first link together two different clues, and if they are matching logically, then we can place those in the “big picture” where every information lies in the mind of Sherlock Holmes. While finding that information generally isn’t too hard, we still have to really pay attention to the events, story, characters, and 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 seeing 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 sometimes need to use objects, like a ruler or take part in mini-games like putting together an image or picking a lock. Picking locks in Crimes and Punishments actually get the trophy of being the most annoying ever – and I had my share of annoying lock pickings.
The other puzzle-like mini-game is a bit better. It’s a clouded, hazy, broken, 3D image of some idea that Holmes has about something like the origins of a cigar he just smelled. While it may sound attractive, it’s actually just frustrating. The good news? We have to interconnect every small section by turning and moving the hazy pictures in 3D. 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, Frogwares, fortunately, avoided using another dark and depressive representation of the 1880’s London – we will have plenty of that anyway in The Order 1886 when it is out next year. Crimes and Punishments instead use bright colours and authentic-looking milieus of 19th century England.
Frogwares took great care designing the apartment of Sherlock Holmes. I have been at the Sherlock Holmes museum at Baker Street 221b myself, but if you look at those photos, they look exactly the same. Every minor detail matches.
Another good news is that Frogware upgraded their graphical engine, which is using the Unreal Engine now. The graphics look noticeably better than in the P.C. version of the last Sherlock Holmes title: The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s safe to say that it’s on par with what we should expect from a PlayStation 4 game – as far as adventure games are concerned.
What I did miss, however, are more and more extensive areas. I understand that it’s a game made by using a relatively low budget, but I would happily stroll on the streets of a living and breathing 1880s 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.
Nintendo Switch experiences
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments was initially released for other consoles and P.C. The Switch version is a complete port of it. The visuals and graphics in 2022 are not spectacular, but for Nintendo Switch, it’s one of the best. The game looked great on P.C., which is valid on Switch. The environments are detailed and beautiful, with stunning colour depth and lighting. There are no blurry backgrounds or pop-ins like in other major ports. The domain you find yourself in is detailed and crisp – and it should be; you need clean graphics if you want to uncover clues to solve the case. The same goes for the frame rate: this is no lazy, half-baked port; Crimes and Punishments run at a fixed 30fps.
The only glaring negative is the loading time: unfortunately, it’s really quite severe and quite frequent, so Switch fans will have to take that into account.
Your ticket to Victorian England
Crimes and Punishments is an excellent adventure and investigation game with an upgraded graphics engine and 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 are needed for that). Still, if you are itching for another title with the famous detective as the main character, then Frogware’s next effort is certainly worth your time and a pretty penny.
+ Well constructed and fun investigation and system
+ Mostly interesting stories, cases and character
+ Nice visuals, extreme attetion to detail
– Some mini-games are annoying
– The first case isn’t the best
– Holmes moves strangely rigidly
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Genres: investigation, adventure,
Publication: 2014 September 30