Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments comfortably walks the line between the point and click adventures of yore and Telltale's new school of choice and morality. It offers up episodic tales where players must gather evidence, often in that classic adventure game style of clicking on everything in the environment. At the same time, it skips much of the laborious inventory management and trial & error puzzles that plague those games in favor of something more modern. The endgame of each case culminates with a brilliant web of evidence that allows the player to choose who they find guilty, and even better, how they will act on that guilt.
This new Sherlock also bears no resemblance to the new BBC show, and I think that's worth noting. This is old school, 19th century Sherlock, more “faithful” to the original tales than "loosely inspired by". It's an important distinction because, based on the box art, publisher Focus Home Entertainment would like you to believe that Sherlock is some Max Payne figure out for revenge with a pistol, and that this game's rendition of Watson fights crime with an ax. Neither are true. This is a classic Sherlock Holmes tale through and through. I don't fault them for trying to appeal to a wider audience, but it's important to know what you're really getting into.
If a mysterious train robbery, or a murder at a botanical garden don't sound exciting, you may find yourself dozing off mid-investigation. There is a subdued tone to Crimes & Punishments that’s hard to deny, and it isn’t helped much by the wooden acting of its cast of characters. I give props to developer Frogwares for taking the time to update their engine, and it shows in the character models and rich, evocative environments. But the performances leave something to be desired in this post-L.A. Noire, post-The Last of Us world. I often found myself wondering if I was building evidence against a character because they looked guilty, or because the stiff animation wasn’t doing them any favors.
Beyond the animation, there is a general lack of response to the controls in the game, as if I were playing it through a streaming service or Vita Remote Play. Holmes is near-impossible to control in third person view, and I’d often have to press a button twice to get the appropriate response. Thankfully, the game never asks much of you in terms of response time, but this didn’t aid my first impressions of the game. A little more polish could have gone a long way, but I still found Crimes & Punishments to be a welcome break from my usual gaming habits once I got over some of the rough edges.
It wasn’t until the end of the first case that I started to see the appeal. As you go from location to location collecting evidence, the clues are added to a pool of potential associations within the game’s “Deduction” mode. Creating matches between two pieces of evidence places them within a web of possibilities that lead to a final verdict. Nodes with enough evidence attached to them will contain deductive choices — “Did a suspect have motive or didn’t they?”, “Were they telling the truth or not?”, “Was it possible they could create a poison with their knowledge of chemicals?”, and so on. Your deductions within this screen allow you to build a case against one of the suspects, whether they really did it or not.
Your moral choices within this system are two-fold. For one, you can absolutely arrest the wrong person, and the game leaves it to you to make the call based on the evidence. The result of your accusations usually help to make the truth clear, and a final case screen allows you to “spoil” the answer or return and modify your conclusions. In addition, after pinning the crime on someone, you can choose to have them arrested or give them a chance to right their wrongs. In at least one case, the guilty party was only trying to help a victim, killing a dangerous person in the process. Suddenly my decision to accuse them or absolve them wasn’t so black and white.
The cases are rarely straightforward, and it’s the writing alongside the various complexities and choices that make this take on Sherlock Holmes shine. Sure, you spend most of the game clicking through environments, solving hit-or-miss puzzles, and backtracking through a handful of locations with new evidence, but the Deduction system gives the routine gameplay a lot more meaning. Each new piece of evidence builds on the story, revealing potential motives as you dig further.
Within the first twenty minutes of one case I was allowed to pin the crime on a suspect with very little motivation to kill someone, yet the game still gave me that option. It wasn’t until an hour or two later that I realized how much deeper the story went, yet it was always in the back of my mind that I could get an easy collar and move on to the next case. That’s not exactly Sherlock Holmes’ style, but it’s certainly a style of morality I’ve never seen at work in a game before.
It would be easy to give Crimes & Punishments the typical “for fans of the genre” recommendation, but I think it aspires to and accomplishes more than that. Sure, it has some rough edges, and not every case is a home run, but the Deduction system makes it all worthwhile. It doesn’t just allow you to be Sherlock Holmes, it allows you to be your own Sherlock Holmes. Even if that means you go down as the worst detective in London’s history, it’s still your choice.
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