More than perhaps any other developer out there, I always find myself looking forward to whatever comes from developer Frogwares next. Whether it’s a new entry in their long-running Sherlock Holmes franchise, or next year’s take on Cthuluian mythology, the Ukrainian developer always seems to have some very compelling irons in the fire. Very much in the domain of the former, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter is its latest take on the titular detective of Conan Doyle’s timeless fiction and while it’s a detective yarn that could do with some extra polish, it still manages to expound on the considerable quality of its predecessor, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments.
Returning to Baker Street
Ostensibly, one the biggest differences from the last game is a tonal one. Less Jeremy Bratt and more Robert Downey Jr., this year’s Sherlock Holmes title wastes no time in throwing players into the bombast; an early rooftop chase above the streets of London and later on an Indiana Jones-style jaunt through a Mayan temple both proving to be exclamation points on a more cinematic take on the adventures of the legendary detective.
Once the starting case begins and you end up getting stuck into the game proper, the first thing you notice is just how much larger everything is. While Sherlock’s 221b Baker Street residence remains mostly unchanged internally, players are now able to venture outside of his apartment and down onto the cobbled streets below, taking in the locals, nabbing the newspaper of the day and even taking part in a spell of arm-wrestling on the side.
Speaking of cobbled streets, Frogwares cadre of artists do a commendable job of using a modified version of the aging Unreal Engine 3 to bring the hustle and bustle of Victorian London to bear. From the torn wallpaper and old wood surfaces of the various building interiors through to more stately affairs such as an upper class bowling club and much more besides, The Devils Daughter’s take on 19th century London might not be so grandly encompassing as Ubisoft’s most recent Assassin’s Creed title but it arguably feels more intimate.
Fans of the previous game will also note that Sherlock and Watson have undergone somewhat of a physical transformation with both boasting new character models and voice actors. Holmes himself looks like Don Draper’s doppelganger from Mad Men while Watson more closely resembles Jude Law’s take on the character as seen in the recent Guy Ritchie films. Vocally, Sherlock sounds a lot less sneering and arrogant than he did in Crimes and Punishments and is much more likeable this time round; his newly realised dulcet tones sounding much closer to how I’d imagine Sherlock to be rather than somebody you would want to head-butt into a fine red mist.
The Devil’s in the Details
As to the game itself, those folks who have played Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments will have a good idea what to expect here since The Devil’s Daughter plays fundamentally in the same way. Spread across six cases, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter has players investigating crime scenes, gathering clues, making deductions, interrogating persons of interest and indulging in a bit of action on the side.
One of the best things about the investigation system in Crimes and Punishments was how you could use Holmes’ almost supernatural perception to pick up visual clues on a suspect that would contribute to the case. The ability to do that returns here, but the player’s input into the visual profiling system has been expanded upon, allowing you to specify reasons for evaluating a certain aspect of a character in a particular way. For example, identifying that a suspect that has a reddening of the eyes could be construed as conjunctivitis or recent weeping and so will change Sherlock’s perception of that character depending on whichever observation is made. The upshot of this is it makes you feel much more in control of the critical decision making process that sits at the heart of each case, rather than taking a backseat to the script as seen previously.
In terms of Holmes’ investigative shenanigans, strides have been made elsewhere too. As before, key moments appear during dialogue whereupon you can interject with a fact or observation, except now get just a single chance to state your case. Wonderfully, this now means that the conversation will continue to progress regardless if you fail to mention something of note to either collaborate or refute the argument. Because of this, The Devil’s Daughter has a sort of tenseness to it that was utterly absent from its predecessor and it’s arguably all the better for having it.
The willingness of The Devil’s Daughter to permit failure on the part of the player also continues through to the ‘deduction space’ mechanic that was glimpsed in its predecessor. As before, players can combine clues to form deductions that in turn can be used to decide upon a guilty party except now you can utterly implicate the wrong person and the narrative will still trundle along regardless, with such choices being brought to bear in the final case that tie up the first five.
It’s actually when we look at the sixth and final case that one of the finer elements of The Devil’s Daughter’s grand design is revealed. Unlike Crimes and Punishments where all six cases were experienced in relative isolation, here there is an overarching narrative that links everything together with Sherlock’s daughter Katie playing a key role in the game’s extremely well crafted conclusion. As such, this makes each case feel like an organic continuation of what came before it and part of a truly cohesive, on-going narrative in a way that Crimes and Punishments just didn’t manage.
Any fan of the source material that played Crimes and Punishments might have been disappointed by the manner in which some of the main characters were portrayed; Watson seemed to be nothing more than an empty suit who continually spouted cluelessness while Inspector Lestrade appeared to be a frustrating dullard with a horrendous talent for inflicting apathy. Now much closer to Conan Doyle’s original depictions of those characters, the relationship between the bumbling inspector Lestrade and Sherlock Holmes is much more appropriately antagonistic this time round, while Watson plays a far larger and meaningful role in the game; with his skills coming frequently being used by Sherlock to solve all manner of puzzles and conundrums.
Overall, The Devil’s Daughter isn’t just cleverer than Crimes and Punishments; it’s also a fair whack more difficult too and nowhere is this more obvious than its puzzles. From deciphering long forgotten dialects to working out floor symbols and much more in addition to all the usual detective work, there’s a huge amount of challenging stuff to do and when compounded with a three hour average completion time for each case (not factoring in replays to get different conclusions), it’s obvious that The Devil’s Daughter will keep players busy for a good while.
While the difficulty of the various puzzles and mini-games has enjoyed a sharp increase in the Devil’s Daughter when compared to previous efforts, the game (much like Crimes and Punishments before it) graciously allows the less tolerant of us to simply skip them, though the attached Trophies do often provide a neat incentive to see them through.
The fact that you can skip through does in fact prove to a blessing in some cases, since some of these mini-games just aren’t up to standard. In one of these sequences for instance, you find yourself being pursued by a rifle-toting hunter on foot through a forest and to save your skin you need to put distance between Sherlock and his antagonist while taking periodic breaks in cover to regain your stamina. The problem is however, Sherlock inherently moves rather sluggishly and there’s a notable delay between pressing a button to get into cover and actually getting into cover, often resulting in a frustrating, sequence-restarting death. Clearly then, this is one area of the franchise that Frogwares need to shore up going forward.
The Troubling Case of the Tearing Screen
Another area that could do with some extra love is the technical performance side of things. Pointedly, it’s a shame that over some eighteen months on, Frogwares still hasn’t quite managed to demonstrate a mastery of the PS4 hardware as highly distracting screen tearing, overly long load times and jarring frame rate drops occur throughout, threatening to tarnish the otherwise wonderful depiction of Victorian London that the developer has wrought.
Elsewhere, distinctly low bitrate pre-rendered cut scenes also don’t prompt a good impression; their blocky edges and vertices doing more to remind you of early PS2 cutscene footage instead of the contemporary state of affairs enjoyed by Sony’s powerful PS4 console in 2016. All in all it leads one to wonder why the developer didn’t just bite the bullet and render all the scenes in real-time given the poor results on display here.
A smattering of technical issues and the odd duffer of a mini-game aren’t enough to seriously dull the lustre of Frogwares latest effort. An assured evolution of the already accomplished foundations lain in Crimes and Punishments, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter elevates the franchise with a gorgeous visual take on Conan Doyle’s Victorian world, a handful of massively entertaining cases to solve and perhaps more importantly, an enhanced investigation system that by allowing failure, feels much more intense than any entry in the long-running series so far.