The Testament of Sherlock Holmes marked Frogwares most polished, visually exciting Sherlock Holmes adventure in their series of Holmes games. Whilst it was a milestone for the developer in terms of expanding their traditional point-and-click dynamic, with a port to home consoles, it also marked the end of the type of Holmes adventures we’d enjoyed from the team.
Crimes & Punishments is a self confessed departure from the prosaic and amoral, with Frogwares pushing for a more hands-on, ethically involved experience – putting you, the player, in the mind of Sherlock Holmes. This installment introduces a new deduction system, a conversation wheel, and non-linear game-play that changes due to the decision you make as Holmes.
Since this is such a departure from the classic Frogwares Holmes titles we’ve enjoyed, we decided to sit down and talk with Olga Ryzhko of Frogwares about exactly what’s changed, and what remains.
Q: The Unreal3 engine is an engine known for very dynamic, beautiful visuals and effects – but it’s not something usually associated with highly detailed environments and microscopically clear textures, which is something your Sherlock games are known for. Will we be seeing the same attention to detail under the Unreal3 engine as your proprietary engine?
A: Absolutely! We do pay really a lot of attention to the details and environments with all our Sherlock Holmes games. We want to put our players directly inside of the game; we want them to feel the game weather it is a gorgeous Victorian London or slumming Whitechapel. Of course the efforts that we put into these microscopically textures vary from game to game; there is a world of difference between Mystery of the Mummy, our first Sherlock Holmes game from 2002, and the Testament of Sherlock Holmes, the one that was released in September 2012. This difference is coming however from the year of development rather than engine capacity.
With Crimes and Punishments, the seventh game in the series, we will only improve and enhance the level of details while using Unreal Engine. I am talking about both indoors and outdoors locations; about zooming inside of some scenes; about textures and characters of the highest possible quality that is due not because of the game engine but because we work on them in details.
Crimes and Punishments is investigation game, we will search for clues and examine them very meticulously: a ring, a gun, etc. Most part of solutions is concealed within these details. They say, the devil is in the details – you will find a lot of answers inside the details while examining cigarette ashes, scratches on the wall or someone’s blood. Details will answer some of the questions you may have; and details will also raise some bigger questions during the game.
Q: I criticized Sherlock Holmes in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes for being too somber, too deliberate. Will we see Holmes’ more creative, erratic side this time?
A: Dark and sinister, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is game about Sherlock Holmes himself. It features a very dark, super-rational and even unfathomable character. The new game, Crimes and Punishments, is a game about you. We are going to immerse you directly into the life of Sherlock Holmes himself. So you will endow him with your traits and features, whether deliberate or somber. Hence there is a place for humorous and eccentric sides of the sleuth. Your Sherlock Holmes may be creative, unpredictable or whatever you want him to be.
You are going to be Sherlock Holmes, but whether you are going to be the Sherlock Holmes of the book – that is going to be only your choice, not ours.
Q: What was behind the decision to introduce a more “modern” Sherlock Holmes character? Was it the British television show, or was the decision completely independent?
A: It is true that many media have modernized the character; and while we stay true to the Canon of Sherlock Holmes and 19th century England, there is room for up-to-dateness for our characters. Besides now you are the one to choose your Sherlock and the way you want to play in this game. Again since we do not want you to follow the detective, we want him to be more accessible for you. We want to create a stronger link between you and Mr. Holmes, so here is where the changes are coming from: his new look, his fancy haircut, etc.
As for the British TV series or any other media dedicated to Sherlock Holmes, we watch them with a great pleasure. I tend to believe that Sherlock Holmes is not yet fully realized as a character, even 126 years since his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet. He is the subject of at least 100 movies and plays and radio dramas; his character has inspired an entire library worth of books. There is some fanatical devotion from very different people who are fascinated by him unlike any other character ever known and Frogwares studio (or I’d say people inside of the studio) is not an exception. Hence we can explore Sherlock’s modernity and classical canonization.
Q: I see you’ve decided to introduce Holmes’ moral compass – specifically the ability to make choices. Obviously this adds a new dynamic to the game-play, but what narrative reasons were there for delving into the complex ethical decisions of a man not known for his deliberated moral compass?
A: Compared to any other media, it is a game and it gives us more opportunities to exploit. You have more time, more possibilities to connect with the atmosphere and with the characters; you have plenty of options to choose. You will not follow the detective, you will lead the investigations on your own. You are the one who will bear responsibility of everything that takes place inside of your investigation. We have made 6 games where you play aside Sherlock Holmes, this time you choose your story and how you write it.
Mr. Holmes is not known for a deliberate moral compass? But what about you and your compass? Every decision you make during the game is final, you cannot change it or replay the case. Investigation is usually a slow-paced game, you are not urged to make the decision; you should weigh all the pros and cons before influencing people’s lives, before you save or damn them.
It is going to have its consequences and will influence the further gameplay. You will see it very soon, when the game is out.
Q: Fans of the series will of course be worried about that ever-looming problem of “casualization”, can you ensure us that Crimes & Punishments will stay true to the dynamic and intellectually stimulating puzzle solving of all the prior games?
A: We are not going to betray Sherlock Holmes and detective genre. We are not going to betray the games we did. With Crimes and Punishments you will gather and analyze clues, interrogate witnesses and suspects, solve puzzles and for the first time – deduce the truth. We keep the essential and remove what is not.
Games change and Frogwares evolves as well. It is going to be the seventh game in the series. Like with the previous titles, every game we make is a stand-alone product with its own complete story. You are not forced to play the previous games to enjoy the new one. Now that we have very different Sherlock Holmes games, our players have their own preferences inside the series. The great thing is that players speak to us about their preferences and their desires on forums or Facebook and we do listen to them. So now it is a very right time for our players to express themselves and talk on the complexity of puzzles in our games. We are here to listen to their thoughts and ideas.
Q: Will we be seeing a Wii U release for the title?
A: It’s not in the plan.
Q: With your increasing success and larger budgets, are you worried about introducing new players attracted to the new, RPG like features, perhaps having trouble with the more classical point and click elements? How do you cater to everyone’s needs?
A: Interesting question, it is true that we cannot cater for all tastes and needs but we try to.
LA Noire and Batman Arkham Asylum made a fantastic job introducing adventure game to more people rather than only adventure die-hard fans. I am sure their creators were not afraid of using adventure game features. Do you think that players who are used to the classical adventures would be interested into the mechanics that our games propose?
Since 2005 our games are not point’n’click which more relates to the way you interact with the game interface. And for the last 7 year they are certainly not classical, they are 3D adventures. Here is a wonderful review of Sherlock Holmes The Awakened (2006) made by Assman; it has some strong points in it and I am sure it answers your question.
Q: Will we be seeing any cameo’s from famous characters in the series? Maybe visiting Watson’s notorious infatuations with greater detail?
A: Definitely, you will meet some characters from the canon. Sherlock Holmes fans will probably be happy to see Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft as well as the Baker Street Irregulars in the game. That is all I can say for now :- )
Having played what Frogwares have of Crimes & Punishments, I can confirm that whilst Holmes slightly more disheveled aesthetic may imply a large change of character, he still retains that classic Frogwares, Romanesque stature. The idea of a user-created Holmes will be alarming to some – as it was to myself – but Frogwares seems to have given players the opportunity to play the Holmes they want. Of course, Sherlock Holmes is a three dimensional character, and a very lateral thinker, so the ability to pick who he is as opposed to merely observing it, does offer a nice layer of depth compared to the prior games.
Ryzhko was adamant that this Holmes game was different to previous installments, it is “not a point and click adventure game,” according to the developer; “it is an investigation game.”
I was worried that the move to Unreal3 would damage the visuals of the game, assets of which are built for PC on their own in-house engine. It was a little clunky, but the results were astonishingly impressive. When I asked about the reasons for switching engines, Ryzhko claimed it was of course for visual upgrades and easier development. Whilst this is true, I still sensed it was a little bit of a compromise to accommodate the console porting process. Still, the game looked beautiful, and many of the assets used in The Testament, particularly Baker St., have been re-used in this installment – and that’s a good thing. Unreal3 seems to have its visual pro’s and con’s, but largely we see much improved lighting and shadows, with a smoother frame-rate all round.
I was particularly interested in seeing whether or not the quality of the puzzles remained, but Ryzhko was vague about the content and difficulty: “some people said The Testament puzzles were too easy, so it ruined the game – but others said they were too hard, which ruined the game also,” so it’s hard to tell what direction the team will take in this installment. What she did say however was that this title is more challenging due to the investigatory route; a necessity for a keen eye, and collecting and deducing the facts from the evidence, and making the ‘right’ choices, determined by who says what, and if that correlates to the evidence. Because of the emphasis on that, I got the impression that this installment won’t be such a puzzle heavy episode – but that ties in nicely with the whole ‘challenging in a different way’ vibe that Ryzhko gave me.
Crimes & Punishments is most certainly a departure from the classic tones of the series, but it’s one I’m confident that Frogwares are intelligently orchestrating. The key, it seems, is the different dynamic, and more user-oriented experience. The graphics have indeed improved, and whilst I’m still somewhat worried about the casualization of the series – something of course Frogwares aren’t quick to comment on – my worries aren’t exactly substantiated. This title and its predecessor aren’t directly comparable. What I can say is that Frogwares are intelligently and competently changing pace, offering players a more unique and vibrant Sherlock Holmes experience that should cater to as many players as possible, including players such as myself, who hold the prior games in very high regard.