When I mentioned that I was playing a new Sherlock Holmes game to my girlfriend, her immediate question was, “Is Benedict Cumberbatch in it?” Begrudgingly, I had to tell her that it was not so, and suddenly her smiling face became a puddle of sadness within seconds. If this is your reaction, then pick that face up off the floor and put your misgivings aside. The developer, Frogwares, has been able to deliver an entertaining adventure game that relies heavily on building an incredibly atmospheric and believable Victorian world while also staying true to the central character’s personality traits. He may not look like an otter, but he is certainly Sherlock Holmes.
The demeanour of Holmes is one that bounces around a spectrum of cold, arrogant, bold, dangerous and ultimately happy during his cases, especially if they are of the more murderous variety. His eccentricities (or maybe insanities) come off perfectly here, as the game opens with Sherlock firing bullets at vases while blindfolded, and he even releases a horde of bees into his flat. The frantic arrogance of Sherlock is very true to his original form, and while it may seem old fashioned or derivative, I found it satisfying to be able to recognise even the smallest hint of his many characteristics.
Speaking of his characteristics (segue), one of those is intelligence; indeed, how could you solve cases without that, and an interesting clue/deduction mechanic? I don’t think you can, so luckily one of those is provided. Searching crime scenes and other locations for evidence will give you clues that are added to your deduction log. It is then up to you to decide which deductions are true or false, to come up with a logical conclusion. Now, I didn’t have much difficulty here with choosing the right results for each case, but because multiple conclusions can be reached, doubt will creep into your head as to which one is true. This isn’t a hindrance by any means, as it gives the sense of a real investigation, where clues need to be analysed more thoroughly to come up with a positive result.
While investigating, mini games also play a part in solving riddles or experimenting with evidence. Some of these work well, especially those centred around chemistry, as you perform tests with archaic Victorian apparatus on plants, artefacts, poisons and such. But unfortunately in the final cases, lock picking becomes the main puzzle used to enter every door, cupboard, wardrobe, safe, cubby hole and desk in the land. There are others as well that drove me to frustration: yes, I’m talking about you, arm wrestling. Trying to predict my opponent’s moves was ridiculous, and I had to beat him twice to progress the story. Why twice? Because he was a sailor? Maybe he’s just a sadist. Luckily there weren’t too many like this, but difficult mini games seemed unnecessary during a fairly relaxing, and story-based, adventure.
The cases feel varied and are thoroughly enjoyable, and not once did I think that any of them were lacking in intrigue or detail. You will be dealing with missing trains, murdered husbands and corruption within a neo-classical Roman bathhouse, as well as a plot involving a bicycle riding elephant (you’ll figure it out). The mysteries and the large cast of characters make each case distinct, but there is perhaps too great of a distinction between them. They are all separate entities. No case follows onto another and a loading screen is the only thing that links the stories. This creates quite a bit of disconnect, which could have been prevented with the inclusion of an over-arching plot. Every case is brilliant in its own right, but that loading screen is somewhat of an anticlimax after reaching a successful conclusion.
There is also a large amount of variety in the locations in which you will be sleuthing. While cobblestoned streets and grandiose Victorian salons are abundant within the game, visits are also made to botanical gardens, underground tunnels and foggy moorlands. The visuals here are top-notch, and realism is added to every nook and cranny. Water shimmers glitteringly in ponds and fountains, light pours realistically through branches and shrubbery, Sherlock and his supporting cast show emotion through facial expressions; blemishes, scars, and minute clothing articles can be viewed in sublime detail.
The Victorian aesthetic has been used to great effect here. Rooms and buildings feel like they are truly from the nineteenth century, and the attention to detail on various items and furniture across each level is outstanding. The Victorian obsession with the exotic is also evidenced throughout, and I couldn’t stop myself from just wandering around the Roman bathhouse that I mentioned earlier. It’s the longest I’ve ever stopped to look at a mosaic.
As well as providing us with a setting that looks distinctly Victorian, the sound design has been utilized perfectly. Fires crackle from behind hearth grates, owners shout to calm down their disobedient dogs, and the bustling of Baker Street makes the game feel truly alive, and with a good pair of headphones, it was easy to get lost in such an immersive world. The voice cast is also convincing, apart from that one guy who was hired to be every policeman in the Greater London area. Now I enjoy the nasally sound of “Mr Holmes” every time I pass a bobby as much as the next man, but it did take me out of the experience a little.
Another immersion breaker consisted of some lip synching issues with a few characters, though maybe this could be a symptom of a failing in the Victorian diet; a vitamin D deficiency or something. Maybe. Also, I don’t understand why pre-made fonts were used on documents and newspapers, when every other item is beautifully hand-crafted. It wasn’t a huge problem here, but it did stand out within a game that has such an impeccable visual aesthetic.
One final gripe would be that Watson doesn’t appear to be the most useful companion while on cases. He seemed like a lovely man in the cutscenes, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t enjoy an A.I. character stumbling around after me and getting caught on every blade of grass from Westminster to Doncaster. I watched him bump into the same fence post five times before he stopped moving altogether. Controlling Holmes in third person also had a number of technical hiccups. His character model moved around in a clunky fashion, like a rusty Tin Man stumbling through an obstacle course. Playing in first-person is definitely the way to go here, as it feels like a smoother experience and you will be relieved from having to look at an incredibly stiff detective.
It may be Benedict Cumberbatch-less, but Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments delivers a beautifully made murder mystery game that includes a faithful portrayal of an iconic character. Lack of a greater plot aside, it contains oodles of sounds, sights and substance, that will transport you to the nineteenth century, and into the well polished boots of a deerstalker-wearing genius.