Detective games can be a royal pain in the ass. Piecing together mysteries is fun - that’s why the genre is so popular in TV, film, and literature, not to mention our obsession with true crime - but mysteries in video games often disappoint, as players are railroaded into the proper solution. Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, on the other hand, is not so much about making the correct deduction so much as your deduction - and about the consequences of being wrong.
Crimes and Punishments is the tenth Holmes game by Frogwares, so they're pretty familiar with the guy by now. This, the first in the series to be built in Unreal Engine 3, adds pretty polygons to the mix - though occasionally its first or third person movement is a little wonky, as is the case with many indie games made in this engine. (It is, at least, nowhere near as god-awful as last year’s Deadfall Adventures.) But the character animation is passable and the environments well thought out and detailed - important when you’re traipsing around them looking for clues, talking to people and piecing together cases.
The cases themselves are genuinely involving mysteries that prostrate themselves before Arthur Conan Doyle’s style (and in some cases, specific stories). As you’d expect, the murders are the tastiest Tootsie Pops to lick your way to the centre of, but there are non-murder cases as well, suitably strange so as to arouse Holmes' interest. These stories (and they are stories, plural - there’s not much of an overall arc) start out simple, but quickly become far more complex. Or sometimes all the clues and conspiracies are just red herrings, and the answer is as simple as a jealousy killing. Each brings with it a host of characters, from desk clerks to millionaires to drunks. Though many are of little consequence to the stories they populate, they all come with little character details - revealed through close inspection - that make them individuals. They’re voiced in a joyous range of accents from around the United Kingdom, which helps mitigate the occasionally stilted writing.
But no character is as richly-drawn as Sherlock himself. Frogwares' depiction of Holmes is traditional and obsessively faithful to Doyle. He’s coldly intellectual to the point of being a sinister dick; he does not suffer fools readily; his seeming disconnect with society belies a wry sense of humour and a strict - if unorthodox - moral code. Most of all, Batman can go cry in a cave - Sherlock Holmes is the world’s greatest detective, and he’s got the actual detective gameplay to prove it. (I’m looking at you, Arkham Origins.)
And it is detective work that comprises the gameplay in Crimes and Punishments. There are two phases to solving each case: investigation and deduction. Underneath the shiny Unreal Engine graphics, investigation is more or less a point-and-click adventure, with minigames relevant to Sherlock's skills sprinkled throughout. You’ll question people; inspect them visually to make character judgements; conduct science experiments and re-enactments; don disguises; and do some old-fashioned searching for clues. Some of these minigames are annoying - like an arm-wrestling sequence with confusing controls - but most of those are skippable, if you just want to get on with the story.
The deduction phase offers the real brain workout. Deduction literally puts you inside Sherlock’s brain, pieces of evidence appearing as synapses between which you must make connections. If you’ve sped through your investigation, you’ll have less to go on, making deductions harder; if you put the time in early on, you can corroborate your theories more convincingly. To a degree, it’s still a multiple-choice quiz, but it’s a complex one, informed by your ability to critically evaluate information. Each piece of evidence can lead to multiple conclusions, and each case has multiple solutions.
And that's the most refreshing aspect of Crimes and Punishments. Unlike most detective games, which don’t allow you to progress without getting everything precisely correct, this game allows you to be wrong. You can miss clues, or even make entirely the wrong deduction, pinning a crime on an innocent person. Most intriguingly, when you make your deductions, you also get to make a moral decision about your suspect. You can turn them into Scotland Yard, or if you think their crimes were morally justified, you can lie to the police and set them free. Then, you've got to live with the consequences. That’s different to most games of this sort and well in keeping with the Sherlock Holmes character.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is a member of an unsung breed of games: the kind that rewards critical thinking and judgement over twitchy reflexes, strategy, or putting the right pegs in the right holes. Even self-styled detective games nowadays don’t reward those things, and most don’t have this much character either. So if you’re looking for a change of pace from today’s increasingly stupid gaming landscape, you can’t go too far wrong with Sherlock Holmes. Just bring a cup of tea instead of a Red Bull.