For over a decade, Frogwares has been fiddling with the adventure-game formula, and their latest, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments, allows you to walk not just in Sherlock Holmes’s shoes, but to see through his eyes and live within his brain. There’s perhaps a bit too much hand-holding for the expert puzzle-solver (a choice of difficulty settings would have been optimal), but for the most part, this collection of six cases—some original, some adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories—lead to a satisfying conclusion.
To begin with, the Unreal Engine 3 is well-designed, and thanks to its higher resolutions, and the addition of a new “detective vision” that helps players focus on overlooked evidence, gathering leads is less of a pixel hunt and more of an intuitive affair. This is particularly useful when examining the 3D models of suspects: For instance, when trying to find incongruities, it helps to actually see bruised knuckles or soiled shoes. And considering how often you’ll be manipulating objects in a virtual space, it’s fortunate that the streamlined mechanics are no longer so clunky and laborious. (Of course, it also means that the failure to properly rotate cylinders during lock-picking sequences is now entirely yours.)
Gameplay improvements also aid and abet the developers by giving them more room to focus on evoking the proper Victorian atmosphere, an admixture of gritty, often gory corpses and their well-dressed potential murderers. An elegant bathhouse serves as the backdrop for a locked-room mystery; the harpooning of a former captain leads Sherlock to a butcher’s shop, so that he might gauge the force needed to impale a pig. The variety in these scenarios is a large part of Crimes & Punishment’s charm, for there’s always a new puzzle-solving mechanic at hand, always a new scene to investigate.
In truth, Crimes & Punishments perhaps does too well in emulating the sensory feel of being Sherlock; upon finding myself unable to stop playing while a case remained unsolved, I better understood the detective’s obsessive, almost addictive approach to criminology. Time flew by while hanging out with Wiggins, Watson, Mycroft, and Lestrade; given all the layers of intrigue, the Case of the Missing Day was easily solved. It’s fun to see what images can be evoked from the faintest whiff of a cigarillo, to test substances in an ancient molding of a dagger, and to follow complicated formulas for assembling chemical reagents. At one point, the game allows you to play as Holmes’s faithful dog, Toby, as he tracks down an elusive scent. There’s even an Imagination mode, which allows the player to visualize and interact with missing objects, working backward to make sense of conflicting narratives or to deduce how a train might have disappeared just yards from its station.
Most engrossing, however, is the inclusion of the so-called Deduction area, a multi-tiered think space in which you can see clues, once you’ve paired them up by relevance, actually firing off synapses in Sherlock’s mind, creating a mental map of neuron clusters that lead to a logical conclusion. Though much of this connective process is automated, the actual ability to toggle between various motives and to choose which pieces of evidence to admit rests on the player’s shoulders, and each case has at least four distinct conclusions/endings. What’s more, taking a cue from Dostoyevsky’s titular tale of morality, the game not only tasks you with choosing the correct culprit, but with then revealing (or covering up) their crime.
The rest of Crimes & Punishments isn’t always as enjoyably ambiguous, and despite some of the expansive environments, can come across as a too-linear affair: deduction on rails. But over the last decade, Frogwares has been steadily eliminating the impossibly bad elements from their games, and what remains—not at all improbably—is the closest anyone’s ever come to an authentic Baker Street experience.