‘Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter’ makes its case
Sherlock Holmes ascended to the pantheon of great literary heroes long ago, but he’s enjoying something of a pop culture resurgence of late, thanks to onscreen portrayals by Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey, Jr. If you’re a fan of the legendary detective, you can find multiple iterations of the character in books, on TV and at the movies.
You can also get your Holmes fix via video games. There’s something fundamentally appealing about assuming the role of history’s greatest sleuth. It makes you feel smart.
“Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter” (rated T) is the latest in the line of Sherlock games from European developer Frogwares, and it’s a lot of fun so long as you’re prepared to mentally switch gears. The game eschews action and combat – mostly – and swaps in challenges that reward patience, observation and deduction. It’s a nice fit for older gamers or anyone interested in taking a break from frantic shooter games.
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“Devil’s Daughter” is split into five separate adventures, or cases, in which Sherlock and his trusty companion Dr. Watson solve perplexing mysteries in and around London. The Victorian-era setting is nicely realized, with cobblestone streets, misty alleyways and some darker sequences in London’s underground tunnels.
By far the coolest new element introduced in the new game is a time-stop system in which Holmes gathers clues by looking over a newly introduced character. The camera swoops in and around the person in an approximation of Holmes’ penetrating gaze. Linger on a particular detail – a coat-of-arms emblem or a muddy shoe – and the system logs clues as you build up a character portrait.
When Holmes returns to his abode at 221B Baker Street, he can consult his archive of books, or his chemical laboratory, to ascertain the significance of the clues he’s collected. Flip over to deduction mode and the clues become textual elements floating in an abstract rendering of Holmes’ busy mind, complete with synapses and neurons. Pair significant clues together and Holmes’ builds his case.
It’s a clever solution to the game design problem of presenting the process of deduction onscreen. Each of the five cases has dozens of clues that can be collected in the various scenes of the story. If you miss a clue, or make a bad guess as to its meaning, you can wind up coming to the wrong conclusion. Only at the end of each case do you find out whether your sleuthing was entirely successful.
The designers have plugged in a number of mini-game challenges as well. You may be asked to eavesdrop at a pub, or pick a lock, or navigate a narrow beam between London rooftops. Sometimes you switch characters as well, assuming the role of Watson or one of the Baker Street Irregulars – street urchins employed by Holmes to gather intelligence.
A hard sell for kids
Not all of the gimmicks work. One of the mini-game systems puts you in the role of Holmes’ basset hound, sniffing out a scent trail. That’s about as fun as it sounds. The occasional action sequences are uneven at best, with splashy controls that make it virtually impossible to do anything tactical.
But I was willing to cheerfully forgive these passages for the overall experience of sleuthing out mysteries as history’s greatest detective. The five cases presented work quite well as little short stories in and of themselves. If you’ve read Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, you’ll find plenty of little winks and nods to classic cases and characters.
Parents hoping to get their kids hip to Sherlock Holmes might be tempted to get the game as a gift, but I must report that it’s a pretty hard sell. When I tried to get my eighth-grader interested – “It’s great! You walk around and notice stuff!” – he was curiously unenthusiastic. Kids today. What can you do?
“Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter” is now available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows.