Driving recklessly around an antiquated Los Angeles, attempting to solve one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time as a sharpshooting straight-arrow detective, was both a gratifying yet hollow experience. Cole Phelps was a persistently unlikable anti-hero, saving the day alongside a roster of 1940s overtly crass caricatures in a city filled to the brim with characters yet notably devoid of it.
LA Noire provided a tantalising glimpse at the future, the possibility of a critic-defying leap over Uncanny Valley into the realms of convincing human realism within videogames. For all its technical merits and plaudits earned though, the valley remained uncrossed, and the flaws in the gameplay once perceived as pinholes began to look like gaping abysses, filled with empty beer bottles and cigarette butts.
Trepidation will be the first feeling that washes over those who step into the shoes of the charismatic, twisted, complex Sherlock Holmes presented within Crimes & Punishments, a game which won’t avoid being perceived as Focus Home Interactive’s attempt to replicate the successes of LA Noire while skirting around the edges of its gaping pitfalls.
The natural push forth by them and Frogwares of their (to-date) successful Adventures of Sherlock Holmes franchise into the supposed ‘next generation’ has revealed new technologies used to great effect, with the enticing opportunity to claim the fabled progressive redefinition within reach.
Intriguingly, the use of Unreal Engine 3 as the means to acquire this redefinition may raise eyebrows higher still, given that developers are now utilising the newest fourth version… and yet, once the trepidation dissipates as the first chapter unfolds, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Crimes & Punishments’ step forward leaves it a step behind its peers. Surface level and beyond, this Sherlock Holmes adventure is easy on the eyes, and this is in no small part to the several years’ worth of work the development team have put in to producing an intensely detailed visual experience.
The Game Is Afoot
Focus Home Interactive claim that the game was heavily inspired by the BBC’s recent modernised Sherlock series, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the World’s Greatest Detective. That in itself should lure in a few ferociously devoted new-age fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, yet the game very much feels more in tune with the Robert Downey Jr.-starring adaptation, with the backdrop being the original dreary London town, complete with horse and carriages, lovable ragamuffins and a distinct lack of mobile phones by way of narrative progression.
The game’s own Sherlock Holmes – voiced impeccably by vocal veteran Kerry Shale – is less charismatic than Downey Jr. perhaps, but with a more aristocratic presence befitting the intended likeness to Jeremy Brett and his portrayal of the detective in the 1980s/90s TV show. The full effect of the quick-witted, calm yet authoritative Sherlock from the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series – both in the game and television series – is realised within Crimes & Punishments, as having access to Unreal Engine 3 has enabled Frogwares to create very convincing models with more realistic motions and actions.
While the facial movements aren’t quite as authentic as intended – expressions and mouth movements are awkwardly limited, resulting in some scenes slightly resembling a puppet show – the lighting and texture detail is mightily impressive, and for the most part, characters and environments look incredibly good. It helps a great deal with immersing yourself in the world (especially as this is a detective game, where you really feel the need to press your face against the screen to try and discover the essential minutiae) and playing super-sleuth.
Knowing The Methods
Without giving the game away, most cases have you travelling around both London and the UK, exploring areas for the significant little details, using your imagination – by way of a perspective-altering tool that delivers Iron Man-esque visual representations of crime scenes – and your deduction skills to determine the truth of each mystery presented to you. A vanishing train has you station-hopping to discover a mysterious crooked business plan; the death of a wealthy man has you exploring his mansion as both detective and – I kid you not – a dog, sniffing out clues and searching for explanations for the otherwise impossible.
Reaching conclusions comes by way of racing around different places, interrogating suspects and investigating crime scenes, studying items of interest and piecing together motives to determine who is innocent and guilty. This is where the comparisons to LA Noire can truly begin: interacting with people gives you multiple directions of inquiry through dialogue choices, with character profiling – a la Sherlock circa 2014 – and lie detection helping you obtain truths. More thorough investigations turn up more clues, and thus more leads to explore in conversation with people: the more you discover, the more complete your deduction tree is, allowing you to more accurately piece together series of events and provide a stronger overall deduction.
Whatever Remains, However Improbable, Must Be The Truth?
The title of this game – Crimes & Punishments – comes from the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel Crime & Punishment, which explores the ideas of moral conflict and wrongdoing justification. These two major motifs lend themselves keenly to Sherlock Holmes stories, in particular ones crafted within a medium almost unique in its ability to provide people with the ability to change the narrative direction depending on their own individual moral compasses. While the repercussions of your deductions aren’t as keenly felt as the juncture points where you’re asked to choose a culprit based on the evidence and either absolve or punish them, the lasting effect still remains, an effective reminder that even the World’s Greatest Detective is ultimately stating opinion as fact.
More so than ever, it’s important for videogames – as a potent tool for providing intelligent, purposeful, influential escapism – to provide players with the means to feel like their actions have consequences (good or bad) and to ensure that anyone who chooses to present their ideas as absolutes knows that no matter what, the final answer doesn’t always have to be the definitive one. Crimes & Punishments offers moral choice in plain terms but with devilish self-awareness of the medium through which it exploits those it presents these choices to: think before you act, but remember that the greatest of us are still fallible. The decisions you make will lead to an ultimate choice, and while you are given the power to say that you are right, you don’t get to say that everyone else is wrong.
Sherlock Holmes is debatably one of the greatest characters ever conceived, a complex unique person that represents the individual but offers the conflicting self-confidence and crippling social inadequacies and alienating qualities identifiable with universally. He’s a character we want to be yet know we shouldn’t, a brilliant mind trapped within a tormented soul, reckless and selfless in equal measure, admired but alone.
Crimes & Punishments at times proves to be a more effective representation of the character and his complexities than any other adaptation preceding it, and that is perhaps the highest praise I can offer this game. However, I must say that Crimes & Punishments is also an exquisitely packaged detective game in its own right, propelling the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes franchise forward a major leap.
It falls short of Hall of Fame status for on occasion showcasing the potential for further explorative depth in gameplay mechanics and human realism while never fully achieving it, but in several ways, Crimes & Punishments is a superb achievement that shows tremendous progress for its franchise and even for the detective game genre. It’s not just an impressive tribute to the various iterations of Sherlock Holmes across the years, but a conclusively defining adaptation.