Modern incarnations of Sherlock Holmes tend to be combinations that draw in whatever Victorian weirdness captures the creator’s fancy. Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper? Done (and done, and done). Sherlock Holmes hanging with Sigmund Freud? Done. Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland? Done.
At this rate I’m surprised Sherlock hasn’t shown up to investigate the Cottingley Fairy hoax (as his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, did in fact), but probably it would be a bit anticlimactic to turn the great sleuth’s prowess towards scolding a couple of little girls for lying.
This tendency to combination is as much about the genre as it is any kind of unoriginal tendencies in the creators. (Full disclosure: I wrote a now out-of-print novella that was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, so maybe I’m a little soft on these besotted folks.) Once you’ve decided to use Sherlock, you’re more or less in pastiche territory already, so why not throw in Dracula? Plus, the structure of the detective story makes combination ludicrously easy. Sherlock must go somewhere and investigate something, so you might as well use a recognizable cultural property.
Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes series is an avid participant in the cottage industry extending Sherlock’s reach to all the strange places one might imagine, and in their latest installment, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, released June 10, 2016, we’re treated to a “Most Dangerous Game” style mystery (I wish I could consider that a spoiler, but the opening animation pretty much lays bare what kind of story the player is getting into) and a Curse of Tutenkhamen type mystery with a Mayan flare, along with somewhat more original fare.
This would all be fine if the game itself weren’t a combination of a different kind: a combination of lengthy and tortuous minigames. Every lock you pick, every safe you crack, every blood-stained handkerchief you analyze, every game of lawn bowls you play leads to a long, dull sequence that saps energy from the actual detection. These feel like padding designed to give the generally slight game more playable hours. But how many hours do you really want to spend picking the same simple locks?
In normal mode (which is easy mode renamed to preserve your self esteem), you can skip these horrible minigames, and by the time I reached my second case I was skipping nearly everything possible. This wasn’t due to difficulty—I’ve played, with pleasure, Nancy Drew games that were more challenging—but just because I couldn’t be bothered to go through the motions.
Adventure games rely on puzzles and minigames to a certain extent, but there’s a difference between puzzles that feel useful and relevant (like translating Mayan hieroglyphs from a set of notes) and those that contribute absolutely nothing to the story (like playing a game of goddamn lawn bowls).
Nor are the action sequences, one of the most advertised features of the game, much better. Despite having large, interestingly designed levels, every action sequence is entirely on rails, so that the player spends more time figuring out what the game wants them to do than figuring out what to do.
There’s a particularly horrible Assassin’s Creed style knockoff sequence where you play as Wiggins, one of the Baker Street Irregulars, tailing a suspect while hiding behind lots of convenient crates marked “cover.” During this sequence, there’s also a chimney-sweeping minigame and a shoe-shining minigame, neither of which is even minimally interesting. (Click on the soot with the brush, you say? How ingenuous!)
The actual detection mechanisms of the game are solid and enjoyable, though in an ill-advised effort to add higher stakes, it’s impossible to go back and change a deduction once it’s made. The problem with that is that it goes entirely against the inductive method the game is meant to model. Creating theories, testing them, and then revising them based on later information is an integral part of detection, and forcing players to stick with a wild guess they made early on adds nothing and removes part of the actual intellectual process.
This installment was meant to be a darker, hipper take than the previous Sherlock Holmes games, and the character models at least are hipper. Sherlock now looks like a cross between Jon Hamm and Richard Armitage, and Watson seems to have absorbed a big dose of Jude Law from the recent films. But the use of Sherlock’s adoptive daughter from the Testament game doesn’t really succeed in the goal of developing Sherlock’s character plausibly and actually detracts from the story more than it contributes. (It doesn’t help that her animation is so badly done that her lips frequently look black, making me wonder if she coaxed some heroin from “Daddy’s” dealer.)
Things like minigames and dabbling in familiar tropes are fun when they’re diversions from the norm, a little treat to leaven more solid fare. But when those “treats” overwhelm the storytelling and action, the result is something that feels less like a game and more like a grab bag of weird.