In my mind, 2012's The Testament of Sherlock Holmes was Frogwares’ finest hour in their long history with the Great Detective, so they now have their work cut out trying to match it. But the Ukrainian developers have never been ones to shy away from reinventing their games, and in Crimes & Punishments they’ve taken a radically different approach from those that preceded it. This time around, not only have they overhauled the game engine (again), they’ve overhauled the very nature of their successful sleuthing franchise. The changes are numerous: gone are the tricky brainteasers and traditional point-and-click adventuring, and in their place we have a more narrative- and investigation-based adventure à la L.A. Noire or The Walking Dead. The result is another entertaining offering that for the most part addresses the small issues with Testament, but in so doing creates some new ones that haven’t been seen before.
Instead of just one story to play through, Crimes & Punishments is presented as six separate cases with only a token storyline running throughout to vaguely tie them together. In fact, if you didn’t know better you’d swear this game had been released episodically. Yet after firing up the first case, even with all the changes you’ll find yourself on very familiar ground: namely Baker Street. The mystery kicks off with the sound of gunfire and, assuming the role of Watson, you’ll need to manoeuvre your way to Sherlock at the front of the room, who seems intent on shooting you. For any fan of the recent Sherlock revivals, this won’t be cause for alarm, as Holmes is merely testing himself with a blindfold on. This is one of several nods to the new adaptations, including more bombastic opening credits, which aim to appeal to newer players.
What’s immediately obvious in this opening scenario is the upgrade in presentation. Crimes & Punishments is an extremely slick package. The real-time 3D graphics have had a major upgrade even from Testament, which was already an impressive looking adventure. Improvements come from enhanced shading around objects and vastly improved facial animations, meaning the characters’ lips finally sync with what they’re saying. The level of detail in the environments is exemplary; from a recreation of Kew Gardens (complete with buzzing insects) to a Victorian circus and a gorgeous Japanese villa, all the way to the last case in a murky backstreet, the locales have never looked better. Characters also look more realistic, complete with wrinkles, skin blotches and moles. Within cutscenes the animations are impressively lifelike – I can imagine an awful lot of motion capture was used – and whilst the in-game animations aren’t quite as good (doors open by themselves, with no animation of Sherlock opening them), this is a minor niggle in an otherwise flawless appearance.
I was critical of Testament’s sound design as one of the weaker points of that game. Thankfully Frogwares have put a great deal of effort into this aspect. Whereas before the dialogue often felt stilted, here the voice-overs are consistently strong, not only from the leads but the supporting characters too. Dialogue flows naturally between characters, and even Watson is less prone to strange intonation than he was previously. Similarly, the music, whilst still the same piano and string arrangements, is now used to better effect, punching dramatic moments and enhancing the atmosphere of certain scenes. These weaknesses seemed like small gripes in the previous game, but seeing (or rather, hearing) them rectified here shows what a difference it can make to the overall polish.
If Testament focused on not knowing Sherlock’s motives, Crimes & Punishments is the antithesis. This time around, the gameplay is wholly focussed on what the player can deduce using Sherlock’s keen observations and insights. Where earlier games went heavy on the puzzle-solving, this game emphasises investigation and deduction. As a result, many of the game mechanics have been adjusted accordingly. You’ll still be controlling Sherlock with the mouse and keyboard (or gamepad), and there’s still the option of controlling him from a first- or third-person perspective, but there’s sadly no point-and-click mode this time, and you won’t be picking up items to use. Instead, you’ll spend most of your time interrogating suspects and pawing over crime scenes.
You can move freely within each location, but there are now no complicated interaction options. If Sherlock walks near something that he can do something with, you’ll usually only get one option, which you select by left-clicking (usually examine or talk). These interactions are clearly signposted by, for want of a better word, “flags” appearing above the item, making it very difficult to miss anything. This streamlining of Frogwares’ usual format to make things snappier and slicker extends to the conversations as well: dialogue options include just a couple of lines, although there are few red herrings. Also, examining everything in a given scene will usually trigger a new cutscene or a monologue from Sherlock of where he should go next.
Each case opens with a particular event that Sherlock must investigate, the first being the murder of a retired whale hunter who died under mysterious circumstances at his quaint cottage in Sussex. Sherlock can travel to various key locations from the outset, like Baker Street and Scotland Yard, with other areas being added as the investigation requires. Travel is handled through a map, with a simple left-click on a location initiating a cab journey to it. This is a nice sequence that, whilst clearly hiding a loading screen, also allows you to open Sherlock’s journal and assess the clues and testimonies you’ve received so far.
As you arrive at the first murder scene, you’ll be introduced to the various new gameplay mechanics. The first is Sherlock Vision, in which the screen turns monochrome and anything unusual – that only the brilliant Holmes could see – is highlighted in orange. The effect is similar to the inspection mode in games like Heavy Rain or Arkham Asylum. Moving nearer to the highlighted area allows Sherlock to examine it in more detail. Whilst this ability is new to the series, it ultimately only leads to close-ups of such things as footprints, shelves, desk drawers and books, similar to how previous games worked already, allowing you to measure things or use a magnifying glass to look for unusual items.
Another addition to Sherlock’s powers of deduction is the Imagination Mode. This allows Holmes to add ghost images to the scene, conjured up from his imagination, that help piece together the previous events that happened there, whether it’s missing items he knows should have been present or missing parties’ movements before the events. This is something new to the series, and is used to great success when trying to imagine the sequence of events that led up to the murder. Much like in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you’ll see several ghost images that you must number in the correct order to build up a picture of what has occurred.
Both features act as immersive elements more than anything else, as they put players inside the brain of Sherlock, seeing things from his perspective. They're also an excuse for the developers to add in small subtitles to the environment, in keeping with the recent TV adaptations. An icon appears in the top right hand corner of the screen if there’s something that can only be seen in either mode, so there’s no fear of overlooking anything.
There are other methods Sherlock uses over the course of his investigations, some of which are the closest this game gets to traditional puzzles, whilst others are minigames. They’re too numerous to mention them all and you won’t find anything challenging here, but highlights include piecing together an image in Sherlock’s head of what a smell might be, or skewering a pig to ascertain if a weak man could throw a harpoon. You’ll even need to disguise Sherlock on several occasions to make sure he has the right outfit for the job. Locks form a sort of tumbler puzzle where you must match the sections together, and you’ll even need to hammer at the left mouse button to beat a guy at arm wrestling. Some are better than others, but they aren’t used repeatedly, aside from the lockpick puzzle, so if you find one unappealing you’ll likely not encounter it again. They do, however, add up to give a nice variety to the methods with which you can get to the bottom of each case.Continued on the next page...