Every Sherlock Holmes game is burdened with a question of “how?” How do you adapt the world’s greatest detective for the interactive medium of video games? How do you give players the power fantasy of embodying the man with all the answers, without diminishing a crucial sense of challenge? How do you test a player’s investigative skills, without it feeling like they’re just following Sherlock’s lead?
These are all questions Ukrainian developer Frogwares is accustomed to answering, having developed nine Sherlock Holmes games over the past fifteen years. Its last entry, 2014’s Crimes & Punishments, answered these queries more astutely than most by placing the onus of responsibility squarely in the player’s hands. Sure, it may have been somewhat easy to uncover all of the clues with Sherlock’s full range of near supernatural powers at your disposal, but piecing each clue together, arriving at a plausible conclusion, and being confident that you were convicting the right suspect was an altogether different beast. With no wrong answers, it was less a game about rights and wrongs, and more about your interpretation, where Sherlock’s moral compass was your obligation, and you were forced to decide if these people should walk free, spend time behind bars, or worse.
The latest entry in the series, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, takes this unusual premise and applies it to five new Sherlockian tales of intrigue, suspense, and grey moral quandaries. As with Crimes & Punishments, this partition of cases is structurally sound. Without the need to stretch out one case over the length of an entire game, these bite-sized stories are free to move along at a fairly brisk pace, maintaining suspense throughout and hitting satisfying crescendos. There’s some foreshadowing sprinkled throughout that alludes to the titular Devil’s Daughter, but otherwise these are all disparate cases, branching a range of interesting subjects, from peculiar murders, to a deceptive traffic accident, and even an attempt on Sherlock’s life.
If you’ve played Crimes & Punishments, locations like Scotland Yard and Sherlock’s flat on Baker Street will be instantly familiar, yet The Devil’s Daughter still resembles a soft reboot of sorts. This is partly due to the sprightly redesigns of both Sherlock and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson--with Holmes transforming into a bit of a Jon Hamm-alike. Admittedly, this doesn’t change all that much: the writing and voice acting are still decent, with a few notable exceptions (such as the grating caricature of Sherlock’s daughter), and even Sherlock is a little less forthright--a little less of a decorous bore--which makes him slightly more enjoyable to be around. There’s actually a tinge of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock about him, which seems like a conscientious decision when you consider the other ways in which The Devil’s Daughter has tweaked the formula.
Devil's Daughter strikes me as a game attempting to push the series forward in a presumptive attempt to attract a more mainstream audience. It’s all a bit triple-A, if not in practice, then at least in spirit. Unfortunately it’s an approach that never really achieves anything but middling results.
You can now venture out onto the streets of Victorian London for the first time in the series--passing merchants shilling their wares, or overhearing the downtrodden complaining about the economy--but it’s mostly inconsequential. You’ll occasionally have to find a house or two by following road signs, but you spend most of the game fast-travelling from one location to another (the long loading times will test your patience). While at first this adventure to the outside world seems novel--providing the game with a welcome sense of time and place--it soon becomes an afterthought as early as the second case, and feels like a missed opportunity.
In fact, the most meaningful usage of London’s cobblestone streets arrives early in the first case, when you play as young Wiggins (Sherlock’s eyes-on-the-street) and are tasked with tailing a potential suspect through the winding back alleys of Whitechapel. If you’re rolling your eyes at the very thought of a tailing mission, you’re right to do so: this bout of stalking is as bad here as any Assassin’s Creed game. Though, mercifully, it only shows up this one time, which is a common theme throughout The Devil’s Daughter, as mechanics are forgotten just as quickly as they’re introduced.
Solving mysteries takes place within a literal representation of Sherlock’s mind, with clues depicted as neurons that can be linked together.
It’s quite the list, too. There’s a section where you have to run through a forest, managing stamina, and ducking behind cover to escape an impassioned gunman. Some rudimentary stealth makes an appearance, too, as you stand behind things and make note of guard patterns to sneak through a cemetery unnoticed. There’s one part where you switch between Sherlock and Watson to pull levers and push boxes in order to reach a higher platform, and a comical bar fight that is overcome with a most egregious process of trial and error.
There’s even some Uncharted-style tomb raiding as you contend with spike pits and booby-trapped rooms during an illusionary jaunt through an ancient temple. The Devil’s Daughter is certainly varied, and I appreciated that I wasn’t doing the same exact things in every single case. The problem with this scattershot of action-oriented asides is that they’re mechanically unrefined and terribly overdrawn. Player movement is clunky at best, and the things you’re doing are rather dull and derivative, which is only exacerbated when they drag on for too long. The game is spread too thin, with a variety of activities that rarely coalesce into something enjoyable.
Fortunately, solving cases is often a joy, and is done in a plethora of ways that delve into Sherlock’s idiosyncratic methods of investigation. The basic mechanics work as they have done previously--with a few minor tweaks here and there--and revolve around surveying crime scenes to gather evidence, interrogating suspects and witnesses alike, and using Sherlock’s divine powers of deduction to piece everything together.
Collecting evidence is relatively straightforward for the most part, and the locations you visit are beautifully detailed. They’re varied, too--taking you from an opulent bowls club to an illegal gambling den perched on one of London’s ramshackle docks--and sleuthing your way through them is a real treat. Occasionally you need to utilize Sherlock’s Victorian Detective Vision to uncover clues ordinary folk wouldn't notice. And things can also get a little tricky when, say, there’s a lock that needs to be picked, or an ancient Mayan text that has to be translated. These more traditional puzzles are dotted throughout, and put the conundrum-solving part of your brain to good use. A few had bamboozled me on more than one occasion. And if they’re too intricate, or if you only really care about the story, they can always be skipped without penalty.
I’ve always enjoyed the interrogation component of crime solving games, and The Devil’s Daughter puts a wonderfully felicitous spin on proceedings. At any time during conversations you can slow down time and zoom in on specific aspects of the person you’re talking to. This allows Sherlock to parse details that you or I may never notice. A sewn patch on a child’s clothing, for example, might look insignificant, but to Sherlock it’s an indication that his parents take good care of him; and that his skinny arms (a sign of malnourishment) aren’t born from negligence, but from a severe lack of income. This is important because, in a very Sherlockian way, you can often catch someone lying by contradicting their statement with a detail you picked up just by observing them. If you’re missing a particular piece of information, you’ll lose out on these opportunities, which injects a welcome dose of meaningful interactivity into what was previously a passive affair.
Once you’ve spoken to enough people and gathered the requisite evidence, it’s time to piece everything together and come to a conclusion. This takes place within a literal representation of Sherlock’s mind, with clues depicted as neurons that can be linked together so long as they’re relevant to one another. Link enough clues and this invariably uncovers more clues, until you’re able to reach an outcome that’s consistent with your interpretation of events. And that’s key, remember. There will often be two or more suspects, each with evidence suggesting both their possible guilt and innocence. It’s up to you to paint a picture of the case and come to a decision that you’re happy with. It’s a peculiar way of ensuring Sherlock is always right--and maintains his air of superiority--but it works. If there’s any failing, it’s that this concept robs each case of the satisfaction of knowing you did a good job. Yet, more than any other game of its ilk, it made me think and contemplate my decisions in a way that had me scouring back through all the evidence, just to make sure I was absolutely confident in my answer.
Less fantastic, however, are The Devil’s Daughter’s technical shortcomings. Visually, this is a handsome game, but the framerate has trouble keeping up, and screen tearing is a near-constant nuisance. Mechanically, it’s not particularly intensive, so these issues aren’t as heinous as they maybe could have been. But they are noticeable, and, combined with the excruciating loading times, amount to a game that’s not as optimized as one might hope.
Ultimately, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter succeeds where its predecessor did, by presenting a generous spate of intriguing cases, and giving you the freedom to come to your own conclusions. It’s a fantastic detective game; it’s just a shame that it's bogged down by myriad technical issues, and a mediocre attempt to inject some action into proceedings.