Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is the latest game in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series by Frogwares Studios. While the game brings in mechanical innovations from other story adventure series, such as The Walking Dead, the biggest innovation to the Sherlock series are the moral choices that Sherlock faces. Whereas in previous games Sherlock only finds the guilty and sends them to their due sentence, Sherlock now has to decide whether to expose guilty parties or be sympathetic to their plight. In general, this is a very good game, and I can only hope that they maintain this formula from here on out.
The game is divided into six distinct chapters which are only loosely linked by a connected plot. Sherlock receives requests for help from Scotland Yard and private citizens which he must then solve using a variety of extraordinary deductive powers to gather evidence. For lack of a better term, there’s detective vision to help you pick up details that other people miss akin to Batman’s in the Arkham franchise. Minigames are played as you reenact crime scenes to test hypotheses and perform chemical analyses, and there are Quick-Time Events when Sherlock has to move quickly. You can form “character portraits” through Sherlock’s ability to notice character traits through a person’s appearance.
The most important mechanic is the Deduction system. As you accumulate clues by talking to people and finding relevant objects, the player can form deductions about the nature of the crime. This includes hypotheses about the crime and its motivations, and when you have gathered enough evidence, you can decide if a particular person is guilty and go after them. You have to be careful, though. Not all of the evidence will show up in the deduction system, and there are generally multiple plausible explanations. You have to spend time in the casebook and really go over the material to ensure you’re not jumping to the wrong conclusion. Overall, the mechanics make you feel like Sherlock.
I really appreciate the effort made to be faithful to the source material. Even though the Merry Men are presented as villains throughout several of the chapters, they are not presented as an overarching threat. There’s no over-reliance on Moriarty or some other criminal mastermind as in many of the adaptations, which I feel cheapens the episodic storylines. The stories are just mysteries as Sir Arthur would have presented them, albeit with a more activist Sherlock. We have six chapters that are, for the most part, very interestingly written and can stand on their own merits. I didn’t particularly enjoy the side plot of the Merry Men, especially given that its resolution was, in effect, tacked on to another chapter, but since I didn’t spend a great deal of game time on it, I don’t particularly care. It didn’t detract from the rest of the game experience.
Only the fourth chapter doesn’t really stand up to the others. All of the other chapters present the mystery in such a way that there are two or three plausible explanations even as you amass evidence. The second, third, and fifth chapters all require very close examination of the evidence, and it must be done independently of the Deduction mechanic. In the fourth chapter though, the mystery is over too quickly and you simply go through the motions of amassing the evidence to end it. Likewise, the moral ambiguity isn’t really there. It’s the anomaly in the game, and one slightly off apple doesn’t spoil the barrel.
Moral choice systems are boring when the choice is between being Florence Nightingale or a baby-eating mass murderer (I’m looking at you, Bioshock), but Crimes and Punishments generally makes the choices a lot more ambiguous. The people commit crimes, to be sure, but they’re not cardboard-cutout villains. I decided to play a big softie and absolve people whenever I could, but even as committed as I was to giving people the benefit of the doubt, some of them definitely left with me a sour taste in my mouth. Was I absolving a decent person who made a mistake, or were they playing me and walking away scot-free?
The gritty London setting and the occasional glimpse into the English countryside work very well, though I wish the environments were a bit bigger to explore. The only parts of the world you can really interact with are the parts related to the mystery, so the game never feels like an immersive experience in London in the 1890s. This is not that big of an issue because the mysteries are fairly riveting, but be aware that this isn’t a sandbox type of experience.
Now I’ll discuss some of the game’s shortcomings. I’d say you could power through all of these cases in around ten to twelve hours, which means that you’re done fairly quickly. I frequently complain that games are too easy, and Crimes and Punishments is no exception to this. The game prompts you whenever you need to use Sherlock Vision or Sherlock imagination for vital clues. As long as you’re not trying to rush through the game and explicitly ignoring cues, it would be hard to miss key evidence. The in-game role for Watson is somewhat lacking as well. Sometime he’s there to provide commentary, but he rarely responds to what’s going on around him and feels like a weirdly mute companion. Finally, some of the mechanics feel a bit under-utilized. You can change Sherlock’s outfit and appearance at any time to create disguises. However, you only need to draw on this twice in the entire game, making it feel as though it was slapped on as an afterthought.