Friday, October 10, 2014

The Adventure of the Six Napoleons

“Come, Watson, come!" he cried. "The game is afoot."
"The Adventure of the Abbey Grange"

Takumi Shuu of Ace Attorney fame will give us a new take on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson next year, but first up is a more traditional Holmes game.

Of all of the sixty original Sherlock Holmes stories, only four were novels. The other fifty-six stories were short stories, which is also the format that fits Holmes the best, I think. From the Adventures to the Casebook, Sherlock Holmes and his dear collegue and friend Dr. Watson came across a myriad of interesting cases that have provided short but memorable bursts of mystery and adventure to readers for over a century. Developer Frogwares too has finally embraced the short story format for their latest videogame in their long running Sherlock Holmes series. After Mystery of the Mummy (2002), The Secret of the Silver Earring (2004), The Awakened (2006), Nemesis (2007), Sherlock Holmes VS Jack the Ripper (2009) and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes (2012), we finally catch a glimpse of Holmes' less lengthy, but still captivating exploits in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments (2014, available for a lot of systems). Follow Holmes and Dr. Watson as they tackle six independent cases and capture the criminals behind them.

Frogwares has a long history with Sherlock Holmes games and I have reviewed two of them in the past. I wasn't sure what to think of The Secret of the Silver Earring, but I quite liked The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, but I had a major gripe with both games: the presentation was all over the place, as the point of view jumped between Holmes and Watson. It was as if the developers wanted you to become Holmes, look for clues, make deductions and all, but also be Watson at the same time, playing the role of someone who is astounded by Holmes' deductions. But like Ace Attorney's Takumi Shuu already noted quite correctly: detective games want the player to be the great detective, but also want to surprise the player at the same time, leading to a contradiction. It can go wrong very easily, and Frogwares previous Sherlock Holmes games were wrong in that aspect.

But Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments improves greatly upon the experience previous games, letting go of strange POV jumps as it embraces the concept of 'becoming Holmes'. The game gives the player a chance to see what it's like to be the great detective and it's fun! The biggest feature is the new deduction system. Here you can 'combine' the hints you gathered to generate new theories/insights that in turn lead to a solution. Say, [X had access to the murder weapon] + [X had a motive] = [X is the murderer]. The catch is although every theory/insight generated is correct logically, it's up to the player to interpret them and see which are relevant to the case. For example, in some cases you will discover that both X and Y had opportunity and motive, but it is Holmes=Player who has to decide which line of reasoning to follow.

And these choices are relevant, because in a new twist, each of the six cases has several endings. Each case basically ends with the arrest of the suspect, but it is actually possible to arrest the wrong suspect, because Holmes=Player made the wrong deductions!  The game also does not tell you outright whether you were right or wrong with your arrest (you can check it if you want to though), so it pushes a lot of the in-game responsibility on the player, which is great. Are you sure you have found all the evidence, made the right decisions and arrested the criminal? Or do you have doubts, thinking you might have caught the wrong guy? These false solutions based on your own deductions really add to the thrill of detecting in this game and the most ambitious thing I've seen in Frogwares Holmes games. It really gives the player the feeling he is the detective, that his reasonings, his decisions have an impact on the world.

I've seen some people refer to the deduction system as revolutionary, which is going a bit too far. I mean, the deduction system of combining keywords to generate new insights is certainly not new (see for example, Ace Attorney Investigations and Trick X Logic), and a game system that includes false solutions, while more rare, can be found in Trick X Logic, Trick DS, Tantei Gakuen Q: Meitantei wa Kimi da! and Sigma Harmonics for example. But the combination of a false solution system to a fleshed out multiple endings system (instead of a game over, try again screen) is something I had never seen before and I love it. It feels natural, it allows for more challenge and it invites replay sessions. I hope future Holmes games will utilize this system too (see this post for more detective game ramblings)

The game has some other nifty mechanics that gives the player the feel he is Holmes. The infamous Sherlock Scan (observing someone and making deductions based on htat) for example is not always useful, but always fun to do. Interesting is that the game Crimes & Punishments borrowed some visual cues from the Sherlock TV series with the Sherlock Scan, while Sherlock in turn obviously borrowed its visual cues from game grammar in the first place. The imagination mechanic, like Ace Attorney Investigations' Little Thief mechanic, allows Holmes to visualize movements, situations based on his deductions. There's even a morality mechanic at the end of each case that allows you to condemn or absolve the suspect. You don't often see that in a mystery game, but it does fit Holmes, who quite often made his own judgement at the end of a case. It's all of this that really helps Crimes & Punishments work as an engaging Holmes game.

Is it all good? Well, there are some mini-games that are kinda frustrating, though it's possible to skip them after failing them a couple of times. I think the biggest problem I have with Crimes & Punishments is that it's a bit easy. The game basically gives you a checklist of what to do, so it's fairly difficult to miss out on evidence. As a result, I think few people will actually make the wrong deductions / arrive at an incorrect ending, because they will have found all evidence and will be in possession of enough information to make the correct call. For a game that gives you the freedom to make mistakes, it strangely also does its best at pushing you in the right direction. And that is kinda working against its own concept.

As for the cases themselves, it's a mixed bunch. Of the six cases, no less than three are actually based on Conan Doyle's stories. Sure, they include some rewriting to allow for multiple endings, but still, for those familiar with the Holmes stories (+ one semi-Holmes story), it's familiar ground and two of them are actually quite similar. As for the other three stories, one is a bit non-Holmes-like, but the other two are okay. Combined with the mechanics described above though, the player is in for quite some hours of observing people, finding evidence, making deductions and slowly unravelling the mystery in the guise of the great detective.

The Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games always have great atmosphere and Crimes & Punishments is really a wonder to behold. Victorian England has never looked so good, but like always, it's the little things that really help the presentation, from the interior of the 221B Baker Street apartments to even as mundane as disguising the loading screen between locations as Holmes sitting in a hansom cab! Both visual- and audiowise, this game doesn't disappoint.

Overall, I really enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments. Its merits lie in allowing the player 'become' the great detective, by giving him access to all kinds of neat mechanics that make him feel all empowered as a deducing machine. The atmosphere and writing is sufficiently Holmes-esque and I would say that this was Frogwares best effort at a genuine Sherlock Holmes game until now. As a mystery game, Crimes & Punishments is also interesting, with a deep deduction system that allows for faults and actually has consequences. But the game also holds you hands really tight, so you almost have to go out of your way to make wrong decisions, which weakens its own concept. But Crimes & Punishments is an amusing game overall and it oozes potential for future entries in the series.

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