Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments

Note: I’m not a game journalist, although sometimes I like to talk about games I’m enjoying.  Pitching me is inadvisable and will result in you being added to every one of my lists.  You’ll be pitched to the ends of the earth!

  • Charm for days
  • Production quality exceeds expectations
  • Excellent writing
  • Great stories
  • Not afraid of the dark
  • 25 solid hours of gameplay

I must confess to approaching Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments warily. It sounded like a clearance PC game from Target, packed in a jewel case without an electronic security tag. People in their late thirties live in mortal terror of becoming the demographic for such things, but I bought it at full price on Steam anyway, because someone in a hard-boiled detective fiction forum said it was excellent.  The Downloading bar got some pretty severe side-eye.

That recommendation, made by a fellow Robert Crais fan, who can’t be all bad, effectively put the kibosh on my social life for the next month. It turns out that Kiev-based Frogwares, one of the oldest independent game studios in the world, has been making games starring Holmes and Watson since 2002; they’ve sold more than 7 million units. These games are no joke, and there are eight (!) of them.

At a glance, Crimes and Punishments looks like a simple point-and-click adventure game on rails, but don’t be fooled: this is a game. You will be led astray; you will accuse the wrong person. If you want to succeed, you’ll need to pay attention; attention to detail becomes the action.  If you are accustomed to a yellow exclamation point telling you where to go, you’re in for a challenge.

The game world is not open by any means, but the sights and sounds of its settings make up for it– London in 1895 is a dangerous, beautiful place.  This is exactly the kind of game that should use the Unreal 3 Engine, and it looks and feels glorious. The music is gorgeous and never intrudes.  Special props to their doodad team: if you are the kind of person who appreciates a certain level of incidental detail– the type who noticed that only one brand of beer exists in the L.A. Noire universe– this game will scratch your itch for a meaningful variety of things on shelves to zoom in and look at.

Six separate cases comprise the game; the only common thread is a group called the Merry Men who are either heroes of the proletariat or a gang, depending on your point of view. The cases themselves are original but feel like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work– no twenty-first century mores are injected, and the crimes skew a little dark. Modern issues like domestic violence, gambling, police brutality and people being harpooned to shed walls are handled gracefully.

The plot relies as heavily on Holmes’ moral choices (condemnation versus absolution) as his clever deductions. Morality is explored in a very authentic way.

Our detective friend has many tools at his disposal, of course– a closet full of disguises, lockpicking (fun puzzles that can be skipped), archives, a little chemistry lab and Detective Talent vision, which works the way Witcher Senses should, revealing things an untrained eye would overlook.  He can tell a lot about a person by looking them over, provided you’re willing to help.  He also has a vivid imagination, which must occasionally be used to reconstruct a scene.  All of these things fall into the story perfectly, seldom breaking the immersion.

The actual crime-solving is conducted in a Deduction Space that looks like the inside of a brain. Clues can be linked together to create deductions, many of which will be incorrect but sound right. As evidence is uncovered and information is gathered, new clues are added. It’s a great system.

Crimes and Punishments won’t convert anyone who dislikes this type of game, but it’s a stellar example.  I was sad when it ended, as it’s easily the best adventure game I’ve played in years.  I look forward to binge-playing the rest of the series.

shapes of noses