Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is probably the most literary game I’ve ever played.
I’m not saying that’s it’s the most artistic or thought provoking game, or even one with a particularly deep message. But as a game that tries to emulate a specific type of literature—namely, the short story anthology—Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is a resounding success that is only held back by some minor technical quibbles and a half-baked morality system.
Everyone’s favorite resident of 221B Baker Street is back, and this time, he’s solving a series of small, unrelated cases. Holmes and his partner Watson investigate a series of thefts, murders, and other cases that all end up far more involved than they originally seem. It’s actually the closest to cracking open a book of Sherlock Holmes mysteries that the series has ever been, as each of Crimes and Punishments’ six individual cases are a tight, self-contained tale. By only making each mystery Holmes tackles around one or two hours in length, developer Frogwares can use each case to hone in on a few particularly novel ideas—Egyptian artifacts, a domestic abuse case, a disappearing train—without having to stretch things out way past their logical conclusions.
While this anthology approach allows for the game to keep things fresh and novel without bogging itself down, it also ends up feeling like a series of disjointed tales. Crimes and Punishments starts on a random case without much introduction, and ends almost as abruptly. There’s a small narrative thread that gets called back every now and then—as Holmes learns of a group of would-be terrorists known as The Merry Men—but up until the very last case, this is mere background noise, and no other case delves into this group at all.
It’s a weird approach for a game to take, as few have tried to approach their stories as a series of vignettes, but for Sherlock Holmes, it works. He’s a well-known literary figure, with well-defined characteristics that are instantly recognizable to anyone who has passing knowledge of the private detective, and the cases in Crimes and Punishments are the most interesting they’ve ever been in the series. A slightly disjointed narrative is a small complaint when compared to the larger picture.
One thread that runs throughout the game is shared by the Dostoevsky novel of a similar name, and one that Sherlock himself reads during loading screens: Crime and Punishment. In the novel, the “hero” Raskolnikov kills an old pawnbroker and steals her money, justifying his actions by claiming that he can do good deeds with the money and offset the karmic debt he would owe by killing her. Something similar is at work in each of the cases in Crimes and Punishments: someone has been murdered, but there’s usually some sympathetic reason as to why that person was killed off. It’s your job, as Sherlock Holmes, to sort through the clues, piece together your mental deductions, and not only accuse the correct suspect, but decide whether to condemn or absolve them. In a surprising move, Frogwares lets you actually do the detective work, and each case is filled with numerous red herrings and dead ends to throw you off your investigative game. It’ll take all of your deductive reasoning to figure out who the perpetrator is in each case.
You do this by scouring each crime scene for clues, interrogating suspects, and then piecing the evidence together on a deduction map. Finding clues is mostly a pixel hunt—an adventure game staple—but there’s a Sherlockian twist. Certain moments require that you use your imagination and reason to get from one logical conclusion to another. It’s little more than activating a Batman-like “Detective mode”—simply hit a button and watch as Holmes’ reasoning appears on-screen in order—but it’s a neat touch, as you’re effectively watching the gears turn in Sherlock’s brain. Actually searching for each individual clue is pretty easy (as long as you’re aware of your surroundings), and Crime and Punishments helpfully lets you know when you’ve finished investigating an area. There’s a lot of back and forth as you traverse different environments, taking old clues and applying them to new ones, but loading is generally snappy, and the joy of piecing the evidence together outweighs the trudgery.
Actually putting that information to use is a bit more involved. Once you’ve found all the clues you need for a given case, you need to piece them together on the deduction map. This section resembles various synapses connecting in Sherlock’s brain, as you tumble each of the pieces of information you’ve gathered in your own head to form logical conclusions. Like finding clues, deciding on what to do with them is a fairly straightforward process, as you usually have only one or two conclusions to choose from for a particular clue, but coming to the right deduction at the end of the case is a bit more difficult. There are many logical suspects, each one with their own motives, but it’s up to you to pieces the evidence together to find the right one. It’s rare that an adventure game gives you so much freedom in how you approach your investigations, but Crimes and Punishments gives you the opportunity to form your own observations, and rewards you with the correct (or incorrect) ending based on your choices.
While the core investigation mechanics are great, the morality system comes off as unnecessary. When you make your final choice at the end of a case, you can decide whether to condemn the suspect to imprisonment (or worse), or absolve them and let them go. At first, this seems like a great addition, as each case is filled with multiple shades of gray. That person you were thinking about sending to a death sentence? Turns out the person they killed was actually pretty horrible, and you can decide their ultimate fate. Unfortunately, this goes nowhere. You get a morality ranking at the end of each case that changes based on how you decide over the course of the game, but it makes no real difference on the overall narrative.
Crimes and Punishments also has a few small graphical issues that keep it from being truly great. The game itself looks fine, but animations are eerily stiff, and many characters have a glazed-over, dead-eyed look that’s awkward at best and creepy at worst. It’s not a huge deal, and it won’t impact your enjoyment of each individual mystery, but don’t go in expecting a powerhouse in the graphics department.
By honing in on what makes Sherlock Holmes great and keeping things focused to a series of small, individual cases, Crimes and Punishments keeps things consistently interesting and inventive. The narrative may be a bit disjointed, but Sherlock’s latest outing is his best yet.