A classic work of literature can translate poorly into a video game simply because of the many nuances and tones of the story. Characters have to be multi-faceted and memorable, and situations cannot feel unnatural or shallow. Players have to be entertained like they were when reading the book, and the environment has to be familiar and complex. The classics have to be done very well and done with respect, or else they will be judged harshly. Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments breezes through the hurdles of a classic work transformed into a video game with unexpected charm and intelligence.
The game greets you with a cinematic opening worthy of a high-budget film, and then follows with an adrenaline-powered interactive scene which turns out to be a hilarious Watson/Holmes confrontation in which Holmes thinks he’s doing nothing out of the ordinary, and Watson thinks Holmes is insane. Nothing unusual about that. This sets up the relationship between the two friends perfectly. Holmes’ curious eccentricity and genius are the most crucial factors of the Sherlock Holmes canon, and Crimes & Punishments achieves this in a very appropriately subtle, yet spot-on way. Watson, too, is perfectly portrayed as the trusty, wary, and helpful companion to Holmes no matter what odd situations the detective insists on getting into.
Through all your adventures together, there is always witty banter between them in places you would least expect it. You go along thinking this is a serious game with serious investigations and then Holmes will say some tactful underhanded comment that makes you laugh out loud. The other characters you meet in your investigations are portrayed just as well, with superior voice acting and personalities that make it feel like the world is very real. You have to observe and judge everyone’s character carefully to solve the cases, as was important in that time period. Your best tools back then were your judge of character and your wits, and this game lets you use those tools in a natural way.
In investigating a scene, you gather clues by looking around for items, documents, and any other evidence Holmes’ keen eye can spot. Some clues are only seen using Holmes’ “sixth sense” ability, like the faint floral smell from a cadaver’s lungs, or a small piece of paper barely sticking up from a floorboard. Sherlock Holmes imagination and deductive prowess also give him the “modus operandi” skill which can show actions of suspects at the crime scene, enabling you to further unravel the mystery. Sometimes it seems as if Holmes has super powers because he is such a genius, but the game does a great job at showing the realistic train of thought behind each “power” he has. Characters comment on his seemingly supernatural capabilities, but you get to smile and appreciate just how smart he really is because you’ve seen behind the curtain.
Once you gather a few clues, you can get inside Holmes’ brain to build the synaptic connections between his grey cells, lighting them up once you decide on certain possibilities based on the situation. I absolutely loved and appreciated this innovative new way to play an investigative mystery game. It felt so much more natural than other games I’ve played in which there are distinct “find the clues” portions and separate “decide what happened” parts, and the decision is more based on what clues you found (or even how many you found). The two aspects of finding and deducting play hand in hand. Keep in mind, that is the great thing about Sherlock Holmes. He is so esteemed by his community and by the police at Scotland Yard, he can basically decide whatever outcome he wants based on his moral views and deductions of the situation, and he has the ability to smartly mislead the police or a converse with a suspect he chooses to make a deal with. His, or rather your, interpretation of the events goes.
The most consistently impressive element of Crimes & Punishments is the graphics. When you talk to or interrogate each character, you get a close up and highly realistic view of them. Interrogation is an important aspect of investigation for Holmes because he uses his keen eye to quickly notice key details about a person that can build a solid background about them. Time slows down as you get to observe a character in detail, to show you just how sharp the detective actually is. Noticing these details about a person brings up more questions to ask them, furthering the investigation.
The only negative I have regarding character graphics is the animation feels stiff, while the detail of the graphic model itself is great. It’s as if they spent most resources designing the model, and struggled with or skimmed over polishing the facial animation and body language. At times, I would catch a hint of striking realistic movement, but then that quickly faded away and was replaced by the person’s awkwardly stretching, undulating lips or stiff limb flailing. It was an odd, furtive mix of almost-good animation and beautiful graphics. I ended up just overlooking the animation to enjoy the impressive graphical fidelity coming out of a game without a AAA budget.
The environments struck me as being just as smart and polished as Holmes himself. I saw hardly any evidence of repeated assets being used. Every object and room was carefully planned out and full of personality. Everything felt real. In one case where I had to visit multiple train stations — all equipped with mailrooms — each mailroom was different, down to the color of wood used for the mail slots. I never had to worry about getting used to seeing any objects or types of rooms. It was a breath of fresh air compared to many other video games’ redundancy.
Another thing I realized while comparing the game to the great L.A. Noire, was that this game smartly avoids the pointless open world while still having large enough areas to explore. I don’t need to traverse all around London when my case happened in one contained area. I did notice a lot of loading time between locations, but this is remedied by the ability to review your case notes and clues while Holmes and Watson ride in the carriage. Holmes even carries the exact same journal you use as the case notes menu system, and you can see your notes on the page if he is reading it. You really become Holmes in this game.
One aspect of becoming Sherlock is the realistic mini-games. They are almost not even mini-games — they are necessary to analyze evidence and follow the scent of truth. You use Holmes’ scientific intellect at his analysis table to perform simple dissections and experiments. For example, you use salt, ice, and a mold you previously discovered and constructed to make an ice object. Another time, you have to gather the materials to make a rope bridge and then carefully balance while you inch across it. Some were very frustrating and had me feeling like I was not worthy enough to play as Holmes, and some made me feel like the smartest person ever. Oddly enough, the game gives you the ability to skip every single “minigame” if you wish, after a time trying your hand at it. This and the ability to check if you came to the right conclusion for each case made the game feel a little cheaty, but I didn’t really mind because they are only options; you don’t have to choose to use them.
I absolutely loved diving into the mind of Sherlock Holmes while playing this title. People who have read, watched, or played anything else from his world will no doubt find something familiar and enjoyable in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments. My time as Holmes was extremely exciting, fun, and immersive, and I was impressed with how long it lasted. Every case had some new gameplay element introduced, like getting to play as Holmes’ hound Toby to follow a scent trail. Each character was beautiful in detail, but not in animation, and each case elegantly came to an end while Holmes’ life went on to the next one, and I was happy to be a part of each and every moment.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments review copy provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. Also available on PS3. For more information on scoring, read our Review Policy here.