The burden of power is supposedly a crushing one, but you'd never guess it from Frogwares' latest take on Sherlock Holmes. The great detective's dead-eyed stare and insufferably smug attitude belie the power that he wields to condemn or absolve. Over the course of six cases, a sycophantic Dr Watson, a moronic Inspector Lestrade and the whole of the British constabulary hang on his every word, and what Holmes says goes. Justice is meted out or mercy is exercised depending on his whim and, in the eyes of those around him, the great detective is infallible.
Surprisingly, this audacious show of egotism makes for a largely entertaining and involving detective game.
Much of the success of Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments - an awkward but deliberate play on the title of Dostoyevsky's novel - is due to its mechanics. By piecing together clues that can be interpreted in different ways and collecting frequently conflicting verbal statements, you guide Holmes to building a picture of the events that transpired, but it's ultimately up to you to decide which of the facts are relevant and which are mere happenstance. Once enough evidence has been collected and a plausible chain of events established, you deduce who is guilty and, leveraging the moral choice mechanic, decide how you'll present your findings to the feckless Lestrade and his clueless bobbies.
In practice, this means that whatever conclusions you draw, the game continues as though they are irrefutable fact, supported by cut-scenes and the mindless braying of Watson and Lestrade. At the end of each case you can choose to reveal whether you are technically accurate as far as Frogwares is concerned and, criminally, you can then choose to skip back to the point where you accuse someone to make a different choice - which serves only to undermine your experience. Ultimately, though, it's your reading of the evidence that decides who is guilty and what should be done with them.
In order to pull this off, Frogwares has had to forgo an overarching narrative in favour of six discrete but self-contained cases and so, aside from a collectible or two, there's little in the way of long-term consequence for your choices and almost nothing tying the six cases together. Instead, the real payoff is in seeing what percentage of players made the same choices as you, which can often raise a few eyebrows and force you to look again at your decisions in a way that the game is otherwise incapable of managing.
The cases themselves offer a degree of variety in location, pace and the puzzles that they present, but they are also hit-and-miss when it comes to offering viable multiple suspects. Three of the cases are open-and-shut affairs but an investigation into a vanishing train, a case of stolen flora, and a bitter, archaeological turf war are complex enough to be open to interpretation.
Clues are gathered by completing some entertaining challenges, picking a few too many locks, donning a disguise or two and solving some genuinely interesting puzzles in the vein of established brain-teasers. Holmes is also able to concentrate his mind to enter Detective Mode, picking up on more subtle clues and employing his imagination to visualise how a scene may have played out or to establish a timeline of events. Then, evidence analysed and witnesses cross-examined, it's off to the Deduction Space.
This visual representation of how the clues piece together in Sherlock's mind is where you choose between mutually exclusive versions of events and start to build up a picture of what could have happened. As links are made, new pathways are formed that intersect with others to lead to conclusions consistent with your interpretation of events. So long as all your deductions are consistent, you'll be presented with a conclusion that supports your reading of the evidence - so, having decided it would take exceptional skill and strength to pin a man to a wall with a harpoon, you cannot then claim that a young boy achieved the feat, irrespective of other evidence you might have collected that places him at the scene. In this way, your conclusions are consistent, giving a self-satisfied Holmes sufficient cause to espouse his - and your - theories, whilst a collection of rapt peers and contemporaries lap it up.
It's the lack of contradiction or challenge from anyone else involved in the case that is the game's biggest failing. Despite a number of incidental instances of humour that prove Frogwares isn't taking itself too seriously, the dialogue is staid and interaction with other characters stilted. Holmes is a smug bore and, aside from a scene or two with his brother Mycroft, there's nobody willing to play foil to his incessant assertions of his superiority.
Nor are there any private moments of self-doubt or internal debate to mirror what you are feeling as you attempt to piece together some of the better-crafted mysteries. This last, at least, can be rectified by playing with a sofa-buddy helping to make the decisions - and, like Telltale's The Walking Dead, Crimes and Punishments acquits itself well as a multiplayer single-player game, albeit one with some irritatingly frequent pauses for loading.
Evidently, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments isn't about rights and wrongs so much as it is about interpretation and judgement. Being right all the time is a fitting tribute to Homes' monstrous ego, and it's also an interesting premise for a detective game - a more effective one than it might initially seem. However, the lack of character development and some lacklustre supporting players result in a feeling of detachment from a game that only excels if you are invested in it. That's a shame, because there was potential for Crimes and Punishments to be a truly great detective game, instead of just a mechanically sound one.