Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, developed and published by Frogwares in 2014, is essentially a collection of six murder mysteries where the player can act as Sherlock Holmes to find clues, interrogate suspects, solve cases, and decide whether or not to convict the guilty. Many facets of the production somewhat stop at being serviceable and can come off as being nothing special. However, beneath the game’s merely okay audio and visual elements, these mysteries can be quite engaging and worthwhile indeed.
To go further into the game’s aesthetic and visuals, I’m a little disappointed to say that Crimes and Punishments really only reaches a workable level of quality. Heck, even on the Xbox One, the game looks a little dated. The art direction isn’t exactly stunning, but every important detail is noticeable, which is what matters. Nearly everything has a realistic and dirty style to it that allows the game to remain visually consistent throughout its six cases. This grimy aesthetic is overall good for the morality-based and crime-centric game. However, beyond the beautiful architecture in Blood Bath, the game’s third case, nothing really stands out in the scenery.
Among the character models, every important character was decently distinct from each other, a must for a mystery. However, again, the majority of the models were only detailed to the specific points where it mattered for each case. Not the bare minimum, but nothing special either. Of course, providing insane levels of detail may have just confused players. The game makes a specific point to give you an overview of each character as you meet them. Sherlock (and the player) looks over the new suspect and gets a sense of their identity, occupation, and whatnot through their clothing, clean or dirty fingers, or some random object spilling out of their pockets. This is a decently entertaining minigame that helps the player feel more like a detective while also drawing attention to the distinctive aspects of each model. With this extra attention to minutiae, Crimes and Punishments is able to heighten the player’s perception of its detailed models, which allows each one to rise above its somewhat average design. This way, each model can appear more distinctive and important without being overly gaudy for the game’s tone. Adding more details than necessary could’ve hampered this activity, providing far too many facets to cover.
There is, however, one character model in particular that I love. That model is Toby’s, the faithful pup of Holmes and Watson. He’s just so small, dopey, and wrinkled. Not to mention the way that his ears just flop around when the player makes him run around. It can be difficult to stifle an “aww” when this goodest of boys is on-screen.
To go hand-in-hand with most of these visual elements, much of Crimes and Punishments’ audio doesn’t go beyond serviceability. The soundtrack is fine and never gets in the way, but it also never really gets to show off. Often, not noticing a soundtrack is a mark of good sound design, but it’s still a little disappointing to miss out on any particular feast for the ears. Furthermore, there aren’t many noteworthy sound effects either.
That being said, I do enjoy the sound of ruffled papers that shows up whenever you open the casebook or flip through it. There’s just something so satisfying about the sound of paper. It almost makes me feel like I’m handling some sort of book myself! I suppose that, if you don’t like books, then it might not be your cup of tea, but if you enjoy the feel of paper, you may want to at least open this game for the sake of flipping through the case files. Another fun effect would have to be what plays when you enter your clues and conclusions space. This audible fade transition just does a great job of getting across how the world just seems to fade out, leaving nothing but the facts of the case.
Beyond all that, Crimes and Punishments’ focus is clearly on dialogue. And it certainly does a fine job. Though not perfect, sadly. In terms of the acting, I was never stunned by any amazing moments. The best I can really say is that Kerry Shale, in his second time in the role, performed admirably as Holmes. He did a great job of capturing the man’s overly confident, probing attitude. As a side note, I found it hilarious that a man that portrayed an incredible amount of trains in the Thomas and Friends series would play the consulting detective through a train-centric mystery in the game’s second case.
The dialogue’s writing, however, was much more impressive. Primarily, the focus on the dialogue was making sure that the player understood each relatively simple character. At least, enough so that we could understand their motives. Occasionally, the dialogue will slip up and fail to provide either correct information or any at all. For instance, Sherlock will witness some piece of evidence and then his dialogue will overreach and state something as fact, even if the player is supposed to doubt that information. And, despite the rarity, that it happens more than once is a source of disappointment.
In terms of what a player will actually be doing, there are roughly two different modes of gameplay in Crimes and Punishments: walking around and playing minigames. Between the two, you’ll be doing a lot more of the first. And, for the majority of the cases, it will be perfectly fine. Going and selecting various things in the world is done quickly and painlessly. Holmes (as well as Toby and Watson, whom you play as in brief segments throughout) can both walk and run in a third-person view as well as a first. And no matter how you go around, you won’t be running into walls or anything of that sort.
However, in the game’s second case, Riddle on the Rails, many of the locations have far too much useless space. Especially the stations. So empty of importance, yet brimming with rooms and corners to check. Combine that and a somewhat boring case, and I was turned right off in my first casual time through the game. Stopped playing for weeks.
Beyond that, these general sections of the game also include two sorts of alternate visions: Imagination and what is essentially Batman’s Detective Vision. In the latter, Holmes can notice small details in a golden glow, which is nice, even if it occasionally feels unnecessary. Imagination Vision is a bit more gimmicky, allowing Sherlock to see what happened (or might’ve happened) earlier. And, considering that it usually just leads into some sort of imaginary contraption or minigame, I am left wondering why the player has the option to use it anytime. Is it just so that we don’t forget about it when it’s not important?
Then there are the minigames. Puzzles, lock-picking puzzles, reordering events, etc. They range from the easy and monotonous to the difficult and obtuse. Luckily the former, including the reordering of events as well as finding specific mention of a particular symbol or name, tend to be over quickly, and the latter is rare. Everything in the middle is actually quite fun. Lock-picking especially happened to be one of my favourite minigames. It is a simple puzzle where you have to connect some lines and whatnot, but that simplicity rather works, keeping it easy to understand without hampering each lock’s difficulty. Another fun puzzle has to be the knife mould one from Blood Bath, where you have to connect many blocks together. What? I enjoy connecting meaningless shapes. It’s fun.
But that’s enough about the small puzzles. As previously stated, Crimes and Punishments features six mostly standalone cases to run around in and solve. Half of them are adaptations of pre-existing tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though some are looser than others. *cough cough* Riddle on the Rails *cough cough.* And the other half are brand new mysteries!
Some of these cases are honestly pretty good too. Particular favourites of mine include The Fate of Black Peter (adapted from “The Adventure of Black Peter”), The Blood Bath (original case), and The Abbey Grange Affair (adapted from “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”). And, save for Riddle on the Rails (loosely adapted from “The Lost Special”), the other cases aren’t too shabby either.
Most of the cases have engaging mysteries that will have you working to uncover them. Blood Bath in particular, with a classic mystery of a locked room and three suspects, is fun to puzzle out, with three suspects that each have an actual motive and a variety of knives. Many other cases in the game give their innocent suspects motives that don’t really align with the timing of the crime or their later actions, so it’s nice to not have story structure spoil the whodunnit’s answer.
Abbey Grange is of particular interest, however, in that it manages to be fun and engaging despite the fact that its central whodunnit is just the most paper-thin case I have ever seen. The correct answer is, roughly speaking, plain to see from the first series of investigations. However, discovering the exact series of evidence and the proof that shows what all went down is certainly enough to engage you throughout this rather short case. I’m glad it was included, despite how it seems that it was only included because its original ending tied in nicely with the game’s morality-centric case endings.
Speaking of those moral choices, I found them to be a nice, if mild, touch. It may, however, have been nice to see more of a general focus on that idea and perhaps show a variety of moral judgements in how to pursue clues and whatnot. However, the endings are different enough and the moral choices also influence what letters Holmes may receive at Baker Street. These aren’t major touches, but they work and often leave a lasting impact on the emotionally-invested. Or maybe I’m just a softie.
All that being said, there is one more large criticism to throw at Crimes and Punishments. Figuring out the correct conclusions to the game’s cases can, sometimes, be a big hassle. Admittedly, if one goes by the “it must be whatever we discovered last” rule, they should generally be fine. However, many cases do not offer reasonable clues that directly point at one suspect over others, and if one misses a key point of dialogue, they might not be able to figure out the true answer without outside help. Particularly egregious in this is, sadly, my favourite case, Blood Bath. Primarily, figuring out the murder weapon is due to a document and a line of dialogue. Then, figuring out the murderer is a study in figuring out which suspect would and could, theoretically, do some other thing that is indirectly related to the crime. Ultimately, that is just guesswork based around their basic character profiles. This can be annoying, but at least the game allows players to avoid sticking with the wrong conclusions by allowing them to turn back time to before they apprehend their supposed criminal.
For me, the mark of a good mystery is in how enjoyable it is the second time around. Being able to see all of the little pieces of the puzzle as they are laid out is so much nicer when you have the whole picture in your head. And, once again, Crimes and Punishments does an alright job of it.
Not every case will grip you on a second playthrough, but Black Peter and Abbey Grange remain a pleasure to play on subsequent playthroughs for their plots, Blood Bath as well for its puzzles. However, if you weren’t a big fan of a case the first time around, I wouldn’t recommend going through it again. It can be a bit of a slog to walk around and pick up clues if you have neither a desire to solve a mystery or an emotional engagement. Thankfully, the game offers you the ability to replay any case you want after completing them, so you won’t have to slog through anything you don’t want to. Not to mention the fact that you can try out different endings if you’d like, though those can simply be repeated at the end of even your first time through the case.
Overall, the mystery is what counts in a game like this. Therefore, above a variety of acceptable features that don’t stand out on their own, I’d have to say that Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is worth a playthrough. The cases are fun and engaging, even if they don’t all pan out in the clearest endings.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments (Reviewed on Xbox One)
Game is enjoyable, outweighing the issues there may be.
Worth a playthrough. The cases are fun and engaging, even if they don’t all pan out in the clearest endings. Could use more work to stand out though.