It took me much longer to finally get to Frogwares’ now not even latest Sherlock Holmes game than I anticipated. I actually bought it back in Warsaw 2 years ago, but had to ask Steam to remove it from my account, because it was a region locked Polish and Russian version or something along the lines. Still have the box, though, which contained the full walkthrough (which I didn’t use, however). And after finally finishing the game my first thought was – damn, I wish I had played the game earlier.
I’ve played and finished all previous Sherlock Holmes games by Frogwares (with an exception of the tiny semi-related hidden object titles). The series were quite… uneven. To quickly sum up my opinion on those – Jack the Ripper, Silver Earring, Awakened and Testament were the best of the bunch. With Silver Earring and Jack the Ripper also having solid storytelling and stories, Testament being the most refined in terms of gameplay, but having dreadful storytelling and Awakened having a lot of tiny annoying things that distracted from a surprisingly interesting take on Lovecraftian themes. Two other games were not worth playing at all, unless all you care is puzzles.
Which brings us to Crimes and Punishments, which finally figures out how to make the Sherlock Holmes game work. First of all – the game decides to switch from one big case per game to several games, all of which are vaguely tied by themes, rather than by characters. Which makes every single case feel dense, interesting to figure out and also makes it so you never get bored of the same locations and characters. Second important change is how you approach untangling each case. Somehow, Frogwares figured out the perfect balance where you feel like you are playing this incredibly smart character of Holmes, yet still left the possibility of him making wrong decisions in such a way, where it still feels like “yep, this is still very Holmes thing to happen”.
In fact, gameplay-wise, this feels like the best implementation of “holmesian deduction” (which is a mix of deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning) – you let Holmes, the character, be smart and point out importance of things you, the player, find and observe and then you, the player, can chose the conclusions based on the findings. You always have a choice, but the choice is always within reason – mistakes can be made if you overlook some element or put more emphasis on a wrong element, meaning that Holmes will never look like a complete idiot even if you come to the wrong conclusion, since there will be a solid trail of evidence and facts to back it up. It feels empowering (you are goddamn Sherlock Holmes), yet still works really well as an adventure game with player agency and choice.
There probably are ways to improve the concept even further, and the sequel to the game even attempts to and fails miserably (but on that in a separate review), but the overall balance in coming to the conclusions, in analyzing the people you talk to based on their looks and actions, in analyzing the evidence, feels just right to be both a great adventure game and a great Sherlock Holmes story. Or stories, in this case. And the stories are actually great this time around as well. Granted, several of them are from the books, almost verbatim, in fact, but they are integrated in the game really well. Besides, the rest of the stories, written specifically for the game, are no less amazing.
The overall mood of the game, which opens with a dedication to the people who died during the 2014 revolution in Kyiv, fits this dedication in the best subtle possible way, touching on the themes of big and minor corruption is society, topics of what pushes the “little men” to oppose the law, and even uses Mycroft in one of the most effective, in how minor his role is, ways out of all Holmesian stories I’ve seen. The characters are spot on (which, unfortunately, also means that Watson is closer to his more stupid book personality) and the melancholic, yet hopeful, mood are also enhanced by another player choice element introduced in the game. The “morality” choice after each conclusion, which usually boils down to either letting the perpetrator go, due to all the circumstances of the crime, or arresting them, since they still are a criminal. It’s something that was explored in the original stories themselves (in fact one of them is in the game and might’ve been the motivation to make this a mechanic), and something that fits the complexity of Sherlock Holmes so well. The character, who can remove himself from pity and sympathy, but isn’t necessarily “heartless”.
If I were to point out things that don’t always work well, I’d say that some elements still feel a bit low budget, especially compared to the rest of the game. Some of the “puzzle mini-games”, that appear here and there (and can be skipped) can become a bit annoying by the very end. And also there are moments where it’s not exactly clear what the game means or expects you to do. All of this happens very rarely, but it does. It is also a bit of a shame, that the game doesn’t get a really memorable soundtrack, instead having something that just feels “okay” and “fitting” most of the time. And that some of the very interesting puzzle/crime exploring puzzles are never revisited.
But the game kept my interest so hard… I didn’t expect, after pretty good, but still very rough previous titles, to actually fall in love with Crimes and Punishments and all of its tiny little improvements, apart from the big ones I’ve explained. Like the loading screens that let you explore the facts you have gathered and come to some conclusions while you wait for the area to load. Or the really impressive switch to Unreal Engine 3, while still keeping all the high res, high detail design of the previous title. Or the actually great humor of some scenes (though, to be fair, there are also very low humor moments as well) and the phenomenal voice acting work of all the main cast… I was genuinely sad that the game ended when it did.
And that’s why I cannot recommend Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments enough – it’s the best Sherlock Holmes game to date, it’s a fantastic mystery/detective fiction adventure and it’s totally worth playing.