Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate alpha male. He may not be particularly strong, but he has the ability to crush any man with his incredible intellect – and in Crimes and Punishments, a PlayStation 4 adventure loosely based upon Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous short stories and the BBC’s more modern adaptation, he practically revels in the act. This is an often bleak game that portrays the titular detective as a genius, teetering on the edges of insanity. But while developer Frogwares has been confident enough to take the famous character in a unique direction, has it managed to build a good game around the psychopathic protagonist?
There are issues, but on the whole, the end result is good. The campaign comprises of six individual – but very loosely linked – cases, which take the hatted hero all around London, solving crimes that he deems worthy of his time. During the course of the 15 or so hour escapade, you’ll take repeated trips to police headquarters Scotland Yard, plant paradise Kew Gardens, and, of course, the hero’s upmarket home on Baker Street. While many of these environments are small, they are packed with period detail; from old newspapers and telegram machines to the furnishings and decorative ornaments, everything feels like it belongs to a cohesive piece of Victorian fiction.
That is all apart from one particular case, which delves a little too deeply into the realm of fantasy for our tastes. Without spoiling anything, you’ll find yourself quite literally raiding tombs, which partially detracts from the grounded universe that the Ukrainian studio at the helm has carefully crafted. Fortunately, it’s a very minor detour into the ridiculous, and Holmes is back exploring stately homes and moonlit back alleys before associate Watson can even ask a patronising question. It’s in these almost mundane circumstances that the game succeeds best, allowing you to focus on deconstructing evidence and eyewitness statements with your astonishing wit.
Some of the elements here have been inspired by the Benedict Cumberbatch show of the same origins, such as the white pieces of text that occasionally appear around people and in the world itself. This simple addition – itself inspired by PlayStation 3 exclusive Heavy Rain – allows you to examine suspects in slow motion, searching for clues about their person that will potentially help or, on occasion, obfuscate the formation of your case. It also gives the developer a chance to show off its character models, which are impressively rendered – even if they do suffer a little from the unfortunate ailment known as glass eye syndrome.
For as good as these non-playable personalities look, though, they can sound wretched at times. Sherlock and his right-hand man are generally well voiced – if a little too stately at times – but trying to replicate regional English dialects with non-native actors hasn’t served the Eastern European studio well here, as some of the characters that you encounter sound downright bizarre. We can certainly appreciate the attempt to reflect some of the different accents that can be heard around the UK, but the vocal butchery that occurs throughout the campaign will make you wish that the company hadn’t bothered – or paid just a little bit extra to get local actors to play the parts.
Still, it’s a small criticism in a game that’s otherwise incredibly well thought out. The conclusions to cases are tough, and will have you scratching your head at times – but are generally logical throughout. You’ll gather most clues through conversation – where you can even challenge some suspects when they lie – and normal investigation, but often you’ll need to combine these nuggets of information, after which hypotheticals will be fired your way. It’s then down to you to make conclusions based upon the information that you have, and either further the investigation or make an arrest, depending on what you decide. However, it’s important to note that it is possible to come to the wrong conclusions, and while you can check these details, the game will carry on if you make a mistake.
In fact, this is very much all about the protagonist plotting his own path. He’s an amoral investigator in this game, and that’s reflected by the fact that you can even select moral outcomes at the end of every case. For example, you may decide to send someone to the gallows because of their heinous crimes – or absolve them entirely should you feel that way inclined. These obviously adapt the cut-scenes that you’ll see throughout the story, but also pave the way to alternative endings. We tried tweaking a few different parameters and got largely similar outcomes, so these don’t appear to make wild tweaks – but are appreciated all the same.
Similarly pleasing is the variety that occurs on a case by case basis. While the mechanics don’t really change, you’ll certainly find yourself working in different ways. For example, one particular section really emphasises the detective’s chemistry skills, giving you a variety of minigames to solve. While these are never outstanding, they change up the pace, and give you something different to do. The same can be said for the lateral thinking aspects of another brief, where you must analyse various outcomes in order to come to the right conclusion. Unsurprisingly, the only real downer is the ‘hacking’ minigame that appears in every mission, which is irritating beyond belief.
At least these only crop up on occasion, though – the back tracking is much more offensive. While it certainly makes sense that the protagonist would need to travel between different locations as new evidence comes up, it’s really not fun constantly moving between environments – even if the loading times are good. By the time that you reach the final case, you’ll be thoroughly exhausted with this format, and frustratingly, it’s the worst for it. For example, you’ll find items in a pawn shop which Holmes will acknowledge as useful, but you won’t be able to pick them up until you’ve travelled to a different location in order to trigger a cut-scene.
The irritation of the incessant back and forth is at least lessened by the game’s performance, which seems really well optimised for Sony’s next-gen machine. Entire areas only take a few seconds to load – giving you just enough time to flick through your casebook – while the environments that you visit definitely do look lush and incredibly detailed on the screen. There are a few performance hiccups in larger spaces, but nothing worth shouting about; in fact, it’s nice to see an Unreal Engine 3 powered title actually performing pleasantly on a PlayStation console, as the technology famously had flaws on the PlayStation 3.
You’ll feel like you’re playing as a psychopath at points in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments – but that’s part of what sets this adaptation of the iconic character apart. The star’s incredible intelligence is married with an almost perverse lust for murder, and the moral aspects suggest that it’s not necessarily justice that the protagonist seeks. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that these themes aren’t pushed even further during the course of the campaign, but it’s hard to complain about the content that is on offer. With six varied cases and some challenging crimes to unravel, this title will definitely test your powers of deduction – and as a consequence, it’s entertaining when you commit to the right conclusion. Poor voice acting and obnoxious back tracking let it down – but this is still on the right side of the law as far as we’re concerned.