Review: Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is the latest entry in Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes series. Instead of a grand scheme, this game treats us to six different cases that need Sherlock’s amazing deductive skills.

The Good

  • Fantastic puzzles
  • Brilliant deduction system
  • Beautiful visuals
  • Interesting and varied cases
  • Intriguing morality system

The Bad

  • Too many samey lock-picking puzzles.
  • A couple of cases are too straightforward.

Previous titles in Frogware’s series placed Sherlock on the pursuit of a large conspiracy, with several minor investigations to propel the story further. This time around however, we are treated to a classic approach to Sherlock Holmes: independent cases. If you read the original works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, most of the stories are just like this, one-off deductive adventures. Six consecutive cases compose the game, each with varying degrees of complexity and an abundance of red herrings. It’s classic Sherlock on PC, and I couldn’t have hoped for anything better. Having said so, a couple of the cases are too straightforward, with the responsible parties being pretty obvious.

The red herrings actually form the basis of the game’s deductive system. While on a case, any new insight you glean becomes a Clue and pairing up clues creates a node in your deductive space, modeled like neurons in Sherlock’s brain. When you have matching deductions, these will link and generate new deductions, some of which are new investigative avenues for you. Some, however, will have double meaning. You might have proof that someone had a motive for a murder, but some other evidence might point out his innocence, and the deduction space reflects that by making the node a dual one, the branching deductions depending on which one you choose. False leads and wrong conclusions come into play almost organically from your observations, which I think is the greatest accomplishment of the game’s deductive system; no matter your choice, it feels natural. Once you have enough evidence or deductions to make a case against a suspect, a golden node will spawn, representing one of the many conclusions possible. Once you’ve unlocked them all, by changing your assumptions on the different dual nodes, you can simply press a button to check your conclusion list before making your choice.

Profiling helps deduce important facts!
Profiling helps deduce important facts!

Once you’ve committed to a conclusion you have to decide how you’ll solve the case. You will have two choices at any given time: Convict or Absolve, harsh or merciful. It’s the game’s version of a morality system, helping you shape the man Sherlock ultimately is under your guide. What’s really interesting, however, is that no matter the choice, it never plays out in an out-of-character way. Whether he convicts a man or lets him go, it feels as something Sherlock would do. I was ready to have issues with this morality system but when I saw how it worked, I realized it’s a brilliant mechanic. It gives the player the feeling of choice, but it also remains true to the Sherlock Holmes we all know.

There are some inventory-based puzzles but they’re the minority, as most tend to be about observation and logical analysis. My favourite puzzles were the association ones. At a couple of spots in the game, Sherlock finds a familiar smell but doesn’t immediately know where from, so he needs help to visualize the objects he associates with the smell. These are image perspective puzzles, where you get a fragmented image, and you have to rotate it to find the point of view from which you can see the whole thing. I’m only sad that you don’t use these more, as they are quite brilliant. Instead of the complex puzzle-based locks present in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes¸ this time around all locks work the same, each increasing the complexity a bit more. While the first few times these puzzles are quite interesting, they become samey very quickly as they are all based on the same principle. Variety in the lock picking would’ve been nice.

The deduction space, where you'll (happily) spend most of the time!
The deduction space, where you’ll (happily) spend most of the time!

This game introduces two new mechanics to Sherlock’s arsenal: Sherlock Vision and Imagination, both of which you use to figure out new clues. Sherlock Vision automatically highlights important information in bright yellow, performing some initial and instant analysis before giving you the option to examine more closely. It doesn’t light up every other hotspot as it’s meant for specific clues. Imagination on the other hand reconstructs missing evidence, such as a box that might have been moved from a given spot. It also allows you to create simulations of how things might have happened. Both mechanics are very intuitive and easy to use.

As always, some evidence needs to be researched in Sherlock’s lab and archives, and Crimes & Punishments does away with the color-coded lab-puzzles from Testament, and favours a variety of lab analysis puzzles. The Roman Bathhouse case had the most of them and they are all fantastic, my favourite being the ice-cream recipe one. I can’t say more for fear of ruining it for you. Beyond the lab, however, every case will have at least one experiment, from testing out a ventilation system to throwing harpoons at pigs. Yes, I’m not making that up.

The best nose in the British Empire!
The best nose in the British Empire!

Crimes & Punishments does something really interesting with loading screens, which can get to be a bit long sometimes. While you’re on the carriage, the trip itself being the loading, you can check your clues and go over your deductions. I found this very useful, giving me the time to go over the notes and deductions before arriving to my destination, almost as if I sat next to Sherlock, looking over the case while he read Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment.

Finally there’s the social aspect: interrogations. Witness interviews and suspect interrogations are part of every case, and first you need to observe the suspects, using the visual cues they provide to build a profile on them. If you played Moebius: Empire Rising, it’ll be instantly familiar. When you have the appropriate information and you catch someone on a lie, a quick-time prompt will appear and you’ll have a chance to use your evidence against them, forcing the suspects to give up valuable information. It’s a simple system and it’s not overused and instead adds the challenge of getting it right every single time, as you must choose which piece of evidence to use to prove they are lying.

I love that the case-book he's checking in the loading screen matches the current case!
I love that the case-book he’s checking in the loading screen matches the current case!

This is the most beautiful Sherlock game Frogwares has made to date. The Unreal Engine takes the visual quality from previous iterations to a completely new level and brings Victorian England to us as never before. It’s not just the models and textures though, it’s the tiny details such as newspapers on the floor and garments hanging from chairs that take make Crimes & Punishment’s world come alive. Kew Gardens and Whitechapel are outstanding, the first with its rich floral majesty and the second as dark, grim and seedy as you’d come to expect.

Sound-wise, I loved the fact the music shifts tones to match the mood. At the start, the music is jovial, as it’s just another morning of Watson scrambling around the room while Sherlock shoots around with a blindfold on, but then in the first crime-scene it’s almost muted, just a few separate notes giving everything a mysterious air, and this trend continues for the rest of the game, the music even dying down when it would only be a distraction. Voice acting has always been one of the strongest points for the Sherlock games and it remains so in Crimes & Punishments. Some people have said they would love to have Benedict Cumberbatch voice this Sherlock, but not me, I think Nick Brimble does a fantastic job as the character.

Sherlock's costumes are something else!
Sherlock’s costumes are something else!

In the end, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments goes back to basics and delivers a true Sherlock experience. No grand plots, not a single mastermind behind everything, just a man using his brains to stump everyone else. It’s Sherlock through and through, so what more can we ask for?

The Mental Attic Score: Worth Overpaying! This is the highest score available on The Mental Attic.

Review: Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order is the latest entry in the world famous Wolfenstein series. Set in a reimagined 1960s where the Nazis win the war, BJ Blazkowicz is back to kicking Nazi ass.

The Good

  • Challenging gameplay
  • A perfect fusion of Old-School and Modern design
  • Fantastic Characterization

The Bad

  • Massive Download/Installation
  • BJ’s musings can get a bit annoying

The last Wolfenstein game I ever played was Return to Castle Wolfenstein, a game I loved, no matter how unfair it was. I skipped the next release, having seen what it was about and not finding anything there to interest me. Before that I played the original Wolfenstein, the Freeware version. I think I might have replayed that first act more times than I ever play the Doom Freeware, or the full versions for that matter.

I avoided watching or reading anything about this new Wolfenstein. I had no plans of buying it. I felt the FPS genre couldn’t give me anything new anymore. But then the Steam Sale hit and I got it along with a few other shooters, including Crysis 2 & 3, Farcry 3 (and Blood Dragon) and Rage; and to be perfectly and truly honest, Wolfenstein: The New Order is the best of them. Hands down, no two ways about it.

For the record, I played it on "Bring'em On!" I don't need daddy's permission to play!
For the record, I played it on “Bring’em On!” I don’t need daddy’s permission to play!

Much like every other Wolfenstein, this one opens in the series’ own fictionalized account of World War II. This time around the allied forces, among them BJ, mount a final assault on Totenkopf, Deathshead, the highest ranking General of the Third Reich and head of the technology division. His castle is protected by all manner of security and automate technology, and from the introductory stage, you can see and admire the level of detail that went into this game. While the Nazi have improved technology and electric grenades (Tesla Grenades the game calls them), it’s bulky and feels and looks archaic, the same way advanced technology looks in Steampunk settings. Automated defense cannons are extremely large and take up a third of the rooms that contain them. The opening stage also gives us plenty of examples of Totenkopf’s technical prowess, from the supersoldiers and Panzerhunds (giant robotic soldiers) to the giant Mech stomping around the battlefield.

Things don’t go as planned though and BJ ends up in an asylum in Russia in vegetative state. You see years going past him, days going into nights and the only constant being his nurse, Anya. When Nazis come one day to close the asylum and kill all the patients they take Anya with them, but before they can kill him, BJ awakens from his conditions and (with your direct input) butchers every soldier around, rescuing Anya and taking her to her grandparents, where they tell him the war is over. The Nazis won the war and have been the masters of the world for the past 14 years. It is now 1960.

Seems legit, right? Especially when you reload and don't drop either of them!
Seems legit, right? Especially when you reload and don’t drop either of them!

I have to admit that when you first control BJ after he wakes up, I was pleasantly surprised, for a moment, that he wobbled when walking, as anyone in a 14 year old coma/vegetative state would. Muscles atrophied, he shouldn’t have been able to walk, or at least do it properly. But after a few minutes it’s almost as if BJ found the walking manual and you once again control him at his best. I can’t deny that this broke the immersion for me. I couldn’t see past it, it was too much. I went way over my suspension of disbelief, or as I like to call it, my Bullshit Tolerance Threshold.

I could have stopped there, and not kept going, but despite my reservations on his miraculous recovery, the story and BJ himself kept me going. Unlike other protagonists, BJ comments on his situation, the tone similar to a Noir character. He muses on his surroundings, on his mission, enemies and even allies and friends. Blaskowicz feels alive, not just some unknown soldier fighting his enemies. This is also the first time in Wolfenstein history where BJ is identified as Jewish but it’s not made part of the plot, it doesn’t take center stage, instead it’s just one of the many details about this man, just as if he were one of us.

Sneak kills are oddly satisfying! Or maybe I've played too much Assassin's Creed!
Sneak kills are oddly satisfying! Or maybe I’ve played too much Assassin’s Creed!

Sometimes though, the musings and internal monologue come too frequent and can get rather tedious. It frames the narrative from BJ’s point of view but it’s one case of less is more. What I do like is they’re never witty quips or one-liners but reflections made by a man fighting a war for a couple of decades.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a modern shooter with firm classic roots. Selecting difficulty presents images of BJ dressed as a baby for the easier modes, meant to mock you if you choose them. Leaving the game presents you with a taunt, similar to those found in the original game of the series or the original Doom. Your health is presented as a number, but you can acquire health upgrades and if you take damage, your health replenishes over time, but just to the nearest ten (so if you drop to 43 health, it’ll stop regenerating at 50), if you want to heal more, get some health kits and food. You can overcharge your health by using healing items while at your maximum, but that extra health drains slowly. Weapons can be dual wielded, even assault rifles, as funny as that looks, and as long as you find a second gun of each type you can dual wield any of them. Except of course the LaserKraftWerk.

This game displays its roots proudly!
This game displays its roots proudly!

Early on, you get access to a laser pistol. It doesn’t damage enemies but is used to cut through grating, but later you acquire the aforementioned weapon. At first it only works as a stronger version of the laser pistol or a very slow laser cannon in its secondary firing mode, but then you start getting upgrades for it, from a scope to one that gives it full automatic fire.

Personally though, I never really did play this game guns blazing. As with many other games, I prefer the stealth approach and Wolfenstein handles that very well. You need to be careful how you move, trying to make as little sound as possible. If enemies see you, you need to make sure you silence them as soon as possible, even more so if they are officers. Often you will intercept radio signals, the amount of them telling you how many officers are near you. If an officer discovers you, they will sound the alarm and you’ll be constantly swarmed by reinforcements until you kill the officer and the alarm signal they produce.

I love the details in every locations. They really bring this alternate reality alive!
I love the details in every locations. They really bring this alternate reality alive!

To support the different playstyles, Wolfenstein: The New Order introduces Perks but you don’t acquire them by leveling; instead each perk is a challenge, complete it and you get the perk and an achievement. For example, one such Perk is the ability to regain health every time you perform a silent kill on an enemy, but to unlock it you need to perform five suck kills while being on health overcharge. It sounds easy but it’s actually pretty tricky. The good thing is that once unlocked, if you die and need to redo the section, you don’t lose the Perk. There are different Perk Trees, each with its set of challenges and rewards and over the course of my playthrough I acquired a bit of everything.

It’s a good thing you don’t lose Perks if you die during the section in which you got them as the game’s difficulty is considerably high compared to other shooters. There is no cover mechanic in this one, so you need to be aware of your surrounding and above all play it smart. Jumping into the middle of a group guns blazing will get you killed as much as insisting on stealth when you know it’s not the right way to go about it. Wolfenstein often forces you to adapt and change your strategies and I can only wish more games did that. It’s exciting.

Above all though, killing Nazis is fun, and did I mention there’s a Lunar mission? Yes, you’re killing Nazis in a moon base! Best of all though, and something that made me laugh, was the inclusion of the original Wolfenstein in the game. There’s a bed in the rebel base, and if you point at it, the interaction button appears, stating, Nightmare.” If you press the button, BJ will go lie down and dream of playing the original game. It’s the original Wolfenstein but your guns and BJ’s model stay the same, being a high-res character in a low-res nightmare.

The Perks system is weird, but it works, and that's what's important!
The Perks system is weird, but it works, and that’s what’s important!

I love this game’s characterization. Every single character has the same level of work put into them than the protagonist, even the Nazis you encounter throughout the game. I don’t mean the cannon fodder you gleefully go through but the major ones. Frau Engel and Bubi are one such case. Deathshead on the other hand stays the same for most of the game and he never gets fleshed out, but then again you only see him a couple of times. The rebellion is a mix of wonderful personalities, especially Klaus. There is so much depth to this character and his adopted son Max Hass that you can’t help but feel for them, to care about their well-being.

The plot itself starts rather simple, but over the course of the game there are added complexities in the form of the Dat Yichud, a Jewish secret society responsible for developing the technologies Deathshead acquired and appropriated to help the Nazi win the war and conquer the world. It’s a wonderful concept, a society that seeks to reach God by creating. The simple act of creation itself is enough.

One of the few times you see the bad guy, but it's a memorable one!
One of the few times you see the bad guy, but it’s a memorable one!

The story has a wonderful pace, and while even with the DY is rather simple, it’s only one part of the game, the wonderful characterization adding depth and character and complexity to this story. If the cast weren’t so outstanding, both in vocal performance and writing, then it wouldn’t matter how intricate the story was, because at the end of it, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a story about people.

Accompanying the outstanding vocal design is the terrific music, designed to match not the game and play style, but the Nazis, adding another layer to the storytelling. This is their world, so the music had to reflect that, but at the same time the music is based on 60s era style performances. As the music producer called it, it’s “a tribute to all things guitar.” And no track better represents the overall style of the game than the title song, the one you hear in the menu. It’s a full electric guitar track, but it has odd moments, the music seemingly distorted, playing on your sense of hearing.

I’m not a fan of big visuals. Let me rephrase that, I don’t put emphasis on them, but The New Order looks brilliant. For me it’s not about how realistic the people look, but the details, and the level of detail in the art design is outstanding. Every level is designed in such a way that even the most open of locations feels restricted and oppressive, the same way the characters feel in this world. I also loved how even 20 years in the future, Nazi aesthetics hadn’t changed much and everything had a distinct WWII vibe, from the vehicles to the Nazi soldiers themselves.

There is one big downside to the visuals however, is how large the installation is. It’s painful to see, download and see downloading. This game has the dubious honour of being the largest game I have ever installed on my PC, taking up to 40GB of memory. It’s nearly 5% of your 1 TB HDD, that’s a lot.

I think about 15GB went into that mech!
I think about 15GB went into that mech!

But having said so, I can safely tell you that it is worth it. Wolfenstein: The New Order isn’t just an outstanding entry in this long running series, but one of the best made games ever.

The Mental Attic Score: Worth Overpaying. I say it to keep my scoring standard, to give it the highest score attainable in The Mental Attic. In truth, it’s worth its asking price of $60. It’s worth every penny, more so than any other game released in the past few years.

Review: Crysis 3

Crysis 3 is the final game in Crytek’s Crysis series. 25 years have passed since the events of Crysis 2 and the CELL Corporation has taken over the world using Ceph technologies. Prophet is once again on mission, to stop CELL and the greatest threat of all, the Alpha Ceph. Continue reading Review: Crysis 3

The Blackwell Epiphany – Review

The Blackwell Epiphany is the last entry in Wadjet Eye’s Blackwell series of supernatural Point & Click adventure games starring Medium Rosangella Blackwell and her ghostly companion Joey Malone. In this last entry, the stakes are higher, the suspense is greater and things come full circle in one of the best saga endings in the history of adventure gaming. Continue reading The Blackwell Epiphany – Review

Moebius: Empire Rising Review

Note: Review based on pre-release copy. Issues encountered might not be in the retail version.

Moebius is a Point & Click Adventure game by Pinkerton Road Studio in collaboration with Phoenix Online Studios. The Game follows antique appraiser and historian Malachi Rector as he travels around the globe using his analytical skills to uncover a conspiracy threatening to ruin the world. Continue reading Moebius: Empire Rising Review

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller – Review

The Good

  • Episodes have fantastic and engaging stories.
  • The overarching plot is amazing.
  • Solid Gameplay.
  • Powers get plenty of use.
  • Erica’s smartphone is useful for more than just calling.
  • Incredible music and voice acting.
  • Smart and interesting puzzles.

The Bad