Crimes and Punishments: Sherlock Holmes Preview (PC)

We've seen plenty of video game interpretations of Sherlock Holmes over the years, but they haven’t always been the most engaging or exciting affairs. With their new title Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, developer Frogwares are taking inspiration from modern adaptations of the character in order to give the Baker Street detective a more lively outing. This is Holmes writ larger than life, with gunfights, fisticuffs and pig harpooning. I'll get on to that last one in a bit.

There are six cases in Crimes and Punishments, with some based directly on the canon and others created specifically for the game. According to the developers the cases are separate from each other, so mistakes or decisions made in one won't affect your outcome in another. You can play these cases in any order.

The recreation of Victorian England is impressive

I was shown the Case of Black Peter, a murder mystery which kicks off with a man pinned to the walls of his cabin by a great big harpoon. After getting the call from Inspector Lestrade, Holmes' long-suffering police contact, we had a quick look around the famous Baker Street house. It's full of detail and character, cluttered with books, trinkets, objects from previous cases and the like. Frogwares are clearly lavishing a great deal of attention on fleshing out Arthur Conan Doyle's world, making it feel lived in and authentic. Upon closer inspection, which we didn't get much time to do, I wouldn't be surprised if there were plenty of Easter eggs for fans of the books to discover.

Conan Doyle's books contain plenty of examples of the world's greatest detective (seriously, he's much better than Batman) mocking up a disguise to suit a particular investigation, and it appears that Crimes and Punishment will be no different. Entering Holmes' room allows you to sit at his dressing table and try out some new looks, like a dock worker's garb for fitting in with those grubby commoners. I didn't get to see Holmes operating undercover, but the developers assured me that he will do so several times over the course of the game. There's also some cosmetic options for our hero, with various different pieces of headgear available. Is there a deerstalker hat? Of course there is.

Once you've dressed him up, our hero makes his way to the crime scene. Here you can interrogate witnesses and suspects, get a good look at the crime scene and root around for clues. You can pick up nearly every item at the site, examining it in fine detail from a first-person viewpoint. With so many items to interact with, it will be the rare detective that manages to uncover every single clue first time around. Once you've located a suspicious item, you'll occasionally play out a little mini-game to unlock more details. For example you might have to reform the symbol of a particular brand of tobacco from a ripped packet. It's important to get the basics of crime-solving right, and the game handles this side of things well.

“This man is dead.” Sherlock demonstrates his keen observation once again

It's hard not to draw connections between Crimes and Punishments and modern adaptations like the Downey Jr. movies and the very popular BBC interpretation of the character. The swashbuckling, fist-fightin' hero of the Guy Ritchie adaptation is present and correct. The case of Black Peter opens with a blindfolded Holmes blasting away with a pistol in his living room while a terrified Watson cowers behind the furniture, and culminates, depending on your choices and deductions of course, with a bare-knuckle brawl. During the case, Holmes and Watson harpoon a dead pig to demonstrate the strength required to pin a man to a wall with such a weapon. Slow and measured Jeremy Brett adaptation this is not.

Anyone who's watched the BBC's Sherlock will likewise instantly recognise the floating text device that pops up when you're investigating a character in Holmes-vision. Say you're quickly sizing up a gruff sailor type. Adjectives like “strong”or “loyal” might pop up around him if the chap's well built and has his old ship's name tattooed prominently on his forearm, or instead you might get behavioural traits like “heavy smoker” or “quick to anger” when Holmes notices his simmering, furious expression and tobacco-stained fingers. It's a clever way of giving you some sense of Holmes' extraordinary powers of deduction, and another sign that Frogwares want to make this a more cinematic and stylish experience than previous Sherlock Holmes games.

Once you've gathered enough clues and suspects, you can begin to match the details up in Holmes' head. This is the one mechanic that looked a little inelegant to me. You enter a synaptic model of the detective's brain, around which float the various clues, suspects and motives. To make a connection you move two seemingly corroborating facts together and produce a deduction, symbolised by a suddenly glowing brain cell; for example a “great big harpoon” as a murder weapon might match a suspect with “prodigious strength”. While I can understand the stylistic intention of representing the detective's incredible mind at work, it looks cumbersome and messy compared to the game's other mechanics.

Apparently it's not just London we'll get to visit

When you do finally make your deductions, things get interesting. There are typically several suspects, each of whom you can accuse of the crime. Interestingly, and in a deviation from the typical Holmes game, you can get these accusations wrong. Even if you choose the right person, you have the option of absolving them. While the case I saw appeared to be fairly black and white, Frogwares are interested in exploring the morality and ramifications of criminal cases. There will be criminals whose actions are understandable and relatable. Do you strictly adhere to the law, or should Holmes make up his own mind about the punishment they deserve? The developers promise that your decisions will affect the ending you get for each case. It's not simply a matter of collaring the guilty party, now you've got to consider the consequences of even the correct deduction. It's an intriguing shot of unpredictability that's rarely seen in video game adaptations of the character.

I came away from Crimes and Punishments with plenty of optimism. It looks like a lot of fun, a more rough and tumble version of Holmes that seems well suited to a video game adaptation. It's very pretty too, with tonnes of little details and flourishes that make the game's world feel rich and authentic. Okay, so the animations are a little robotic in those action scenes, but solid mechanics, lots of attention to detail and an interesting approach to resolving investigations more than make up for that. One to keep an eye on for fans of Sherlock Holmes and adventure games alike.

Most Anticipated Feature: Seeing just how many references and characters from the books turn up. Will we see Irene Adler or Professor Moriarty?

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