Impressions: Sherlock Holmes – The Devil’s Daughter

Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games have always been very weird. From the early awful fan-fiction-like conflations of Doyle’s work with his contemporaries, complete with evil staring Watson, to the more recent third-person festivals of terribleness, they’ve not managed to be good, but they’ve certainly managed to be strange. And yup, that’s not changing here. The Devil’s Daughter [official site] is like a fever dream, but a fever dream that’s been really badly made. Here’s my impressions of the first half, because good grief.

Goodness me, time has done well for Holmes and Watson. Eight Sherlock games in, suddenly the titular hero has become a man possibly in his late 20s, with for the first time a brand new young’un’s voice, while the formerly terrifying teleporting Watson has shaved off many decades and become a slim, rakishly handsome fellow with complicated facial hair. Both look distinctly 21st century, despite living in a 19th century world of bonnets and “good sire”s. However, this hasn’t extended to moving to new, trendier digs – it’s the very same flat as in previous games, complete with telescope, although this time it can no longer exclusively be used to perv on the voluptuous lady living across the street. (These games are really weird.)

Beyond these sudden, unexplained physical changes, much remains the same following Crimes And Punishments, with Sherlock’s world made of observational minigames and speculative open-ended cases. There remains the good-idea-but-terribly-implemented neuron connections as you put the evidence of your case together, refusing perfectly reasonable connections between directly related subjects, yet sometimes freeform and allowing any answer to be acceptable. And indeed there remains the wildly contradictory insistence that all evidence be found in a scene in the correct order before you can move onward, despite having all necessary information. Once again you can observe characters’ appearance to discern topics to ask them about, or contradict statements they’ve made. And once again you can get these “wrong”, be told your necessarily wild guessing is wrong, but then never be allowed to change those conclusions despite the person being stood there in front of you. Oh, and you have to object a statement they’re making before they’ve actually finished saying it, or time runs out and you’re stuck with accepting the spoken sentence at face value. It’s a game whose logic is entirely bizarro-land.

Sherlock’s investigatory skills enter all-new territories with his ability to eavesdrop on conversations to gain salient facts. Which makes sense, right up until you actually do it. You’re after the identity of a man who’s given a “special job” to your client’s father, and find out whoever it was hangs around in a local pub. So you sit at a table near two chatting fellows, and after keeping two floaty cursors inside a circle with your mouse and WASD keys for a few seconds (no, really), you can hear a single sentence of what they’re saying. “The man who gives the special jobs never drinks alcohol,” one of them says, at which point you instantly stop listening lest you find out anything more. Then you must wander until you find another hotspot, and listen in to the conversation of two others. “The man who gives the special jobs has mutton chop whiskers,” a fellow improbably says to his chum, before you break away to ensure a name or something more useful isn’t overheard. What? Just what?

Early on you’re faced with a seemingly interminable stealthy pursuit, where you play as one of Holmes’ Baker St Irregulars, following Mr Mutton Chops through the streets of Whitechapel in what I suppose was supposed to be something a bit like Assassin’s Creed, but instead is a clumsy prescribed route via its shopping trolley third-person controls. You must duck into cover (spots marked literally with the word “Cover”) as this complete lunatic incessantly turns around, stands still, and stares behind him. But at certain points there are obstacles, like some mean boys, meaning you have to deviate to the rooftops – could this be fun? No! It’s once again the unique pre-determined path, annoying to navigate, while being told off for losing the suspect despite having been forced to go this way. There’s a ridiculous balancing-on-a-plank minigame, and then as if in parody of itself, a chimney sweeping minigame (yes, you stop to sweep a chimney during your pursuit), and then a shoe-shining minigame.

Oh, and Sherlock Holmes apparently has an adopted daughter. WHAT? I’ve played every Frogwares Sherlock game apart from The Testament, and cannot remember their introducing a daughter character. [Edit: So, apparently she was introduced in that one, despite two of the RPS team who played it not remembering! She was entirely absent in the previous game, and it’s weird that she recognises her “father” in this one, eh?] They certainly didn’t in the last game, and no conceivable explanation is given upon her introduction in this one. On first meeting this wretched creature I immediately wondered if she was the Devil’s Daughter of the title, so demonically presented, her terrifying swivel eyes, and a voice so clearly provided by an adult woman that it felt like a possession.

At which point I began to wonder whether this was some sort of meta-story, a tale told in the head of Watson’s dog after a nasty fall. At any moment Santa would be in a boxing match. (Now there’s a specific reference.)

The game drags you by the nose through its so-called investigations, telling you to go to one location and refusing all others, not letting you progress until you’ve hunted around the rooms for every interactive hotspot, telling you what must be done next via your tick-box list… And then, nothing. So often it suddenly stops giving you any direction at all, the tick list ticked, the locations explored, and you have to guess which previous place might have added a new conversation, or that you’re supposed to be “researching” a topic via Holmes’ files. There’s no rationale to this. Find out about a secret meeting, find a map to that meeting, hear that someone is about to set off to that meeting, learn about the history of the place in which the meeting is taking place, but oh no, that location isn’t added to your map after all that. Instead you must stumble about clicking on things you’ve already clicked on in places you’ve already been. And ah, of course, despite having a map of the forest in your documents, and the more specific map of the meeting, you had to guess to click on a map on the wall of Sherlock’s abode to play yet another execrable minigame to get anywhere. Oh, and then connect some neurons. And then get your foot stuck in a beartrap. Honestly, all this is true, but I really think at this point I could say anything.

A lot of this gibberish could end up being kitschy hilarity, a game we play with eyebrows raised, wincing at the dreadfulness, but for how laborious it is. The third-person movement remains far better than the completely terrible first-person, but is still like trying to move around while holding a plank out lengthways in front of you. The game decides when “run” will be available to you, meaning you’re far too often forced to trudge about while smearing your face along the walls in case of vital hotspots. And good grief, the load times – they were terrible before, they’re terrible now. Even for one-room scenes – it’s bewildering to know what’s taking it so long.

Cutscenes often begin a few words in, at one point for me the graphics started glitching with chunks of textures flickering white at random around me as if I were having an epileptic episode, and while the voice acting for the main cast is decent, some of it is so bad that it made me regret my decision to have ears.

Oh, and it makes you play lawn bowls. But lawn bowls with outrageously ridiculous physics. And a crowd of toffs that actually boo and hiss when a ball finishes too far from the jack. Who boos at bowls?! Three stinking rounds of bowls, idiotically easy, but played at the pace of… well, bowls.

And it never relents with its strangeness. Immediately after the bowls, I meet my new neighbour, a pretty young woman who has taken fondly to Sherlock’s mystery daughter Katelyn. She asks if Katelyn can come to her home to practice piano occasionally, to which you’re given three possible responses:

Refuse: Kate’s education
Refuse harshly
Refuse: Blame piano music

None of the three makes a lick of sense in this contextless moment, let alone the peculiarity of not saying, “Yes please, that sounds splendid.” But forget that, because you’re imminently investigating a murder apparently by a metal Mayan statue.

And so it continues, reasonably entertaining if utterly preposterous mysteries with very pretty graphics delivered extraordinarily dreadfully, spoiled by laborious play, terrible controls, no internal logic, and monotonous minigames. One minute you’re playing an axe-chopping-down-a-door minigame, the next a QTE for dodging objects on a staircase, moments earlier or later likely some wildly idiotic DDR-style button timing to forge a sword in a foundry. You play as a dog, you have to switch between Watson and Holmes in a shamingly embarrassing attempt at a Tomb Raider-style block-pushing puzzle delivered via its clodding interface at a glacial pace, you have to do a cog puzzle like it’s pre-rendered 1996. It features a monstrously awful lock picking puzzle again and again, it forever forgets to give you any direction, and oh god it’s sooooo damned slow.

So no, I haven’t finished it. Part of me is completely intrigued to continue, to see how it can get any worse. It is so very similar to Crimes & Punishments, complete with lavishly crafted locations used for throwaway moments, usually completely wasted because all you remember is how Holmes couldn’t walk around a corner, or got stuck on a hatstand, or wouldn’t look at the really incredibly obvious piece of evidence, or any of the several million different ways it manages to be so devastatingly annoying. So no, again, I probably won’t finish it, no matter how perversely intrigued I might be to see where this adopted demon daughter bullshit is heading, because I only have so much hair left and I’ve no desire to meddle with my blood pressure.

Nu Watson and Holmes look dangerously close to Downey Jr and Law, five years too late, and their new voices are bizarrely unenigmatic, if competently delivered. It’s not a reboot, nor a refresh, right down to the repeated locations and character models of the likes of Lestrade, but rather the weirdness of the series continuing its morbidly fascinating spiraling descent into lunacy. If I find myself carrying on, I’ll certainly let you know what happens next, but in the meantime, yeah, avoid.

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20 Comments

  1. Infinitron says:

    I’ve played every Frogwares Sherlock game apart from The Testament, and cannot remember their introducing a daughter character

    Hey, guess what.

  2. FurryLippedSquid says:

    When will they get it right?

    :(

  3. Hyena Grin says:

    I’ve enjoyed.. at least one Sherlock Holmes game. Which has made me kind of want more, because I rather enjoy the subject matter and the setting. Many of the games are… hovering somewhere beneath mediocre, depending on your personal standards.

    I’d also gotten quite used to the old Sherlock voice, and it’s a bit frustrating that they’ve changed him. I suppose it was never the most important part of the Sherlock games, but changing the main character in a series you watch/play mainly by force of habit, has a way of shaking you out of that habit.

    I think I’ll pass.

  4. Tyjan says:

    Oh, and Sherlock Holmes apparently has an adopted daughter. WHAT? I’ve played every Frogwares Sherlock game apart from The Testament, and cannot remember their introducing a daughter character.

    Well, this is awkward.

    Quick question then: As someone who HAS enjoyed all of the Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes games up to this point (actually had a good time with Crimes and Punishments), would you recommend it to someone who had fun with their previous titles, avoid all together, or wait for a sale?

    • Tyjan says:

      And apparently I do not know how to use the italicize XHTML. Good job, me :D

    • John Walker says:

      Yes, if you enjoyed the complete and utter balderdash that was C&P, then there’s no reason to think your brain infection won’t allow you to enjoy this rubbish too!

      • Hyena Grin says:

        Ahahaha, that was cruel. C&P wasn’t that bad. You do have to lower your standards a bit, but for its budget and what it was trying to accomplish I felt like it succeeded.

        Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see a high production value game in the same vein, though.

      • Tyjan says:

        Great! *slams face onto “Purchase” button*

      • woodaba says:

        Stay classy, John.

    • muro says:

      I only played Testament and liked it. The story was ok, though the adopted daughter situation (which happened there) was a bit of a stretch.
      Will probably buy C&P on next sale and this one later. The older ones are too ugly by now.

  5. chrisol says:

    Boxing match… Santa… are we talking 1986 Neighbours’ Christmas here with Clive being knocked out and, well, I’m sure everyone remembers… ?

  6. AlexClockwork says:

    Well, that’s disappointing. I REALLY enjoyed Testament, felt like it had a good story with good puzzles. Then C&P came along, and… Well, those separate crimes with open ended endings were a let down. The stories felt weaker, and the correct endings were about “I needed more clues in order to be able to choose this ending”, instead of “the clues make it clear this is what must have happened”.

    I never got around to finish it because I lost my save, and I’m not willing to go through a single case again, much less the Indiana Jones one. So tedious.

    I was hoping they’d go back to something like Testament, but if they are going for something like C&P, I’m out.

    • muro says:

      Oh, thanks for the warning – so only Testament was good? Guess I was lucky then.

  7. JackMultiple says:

    Seemingly Old Man Murray has taught us nothing about the post-Sierra Adventure genre.

    • phlebas says:

      And precious little before that, given OMM’s main contribution is encouraging people to think that you can tell whether a puzzle is any good by reading a walkthrough.

  8. Premium User Badge

    john_silence says:

    Oh John Walker, how you make me cackle. Most excellent read.

    I remember playing through Frogwares’ first Sherlock Holmes game, which ended on a distinct note of “whaaa?…”, requiring incredible perspicacity all of a sudden after having spent the entire game cruising along, not bothering you to think too much. But it wasn’t perspicacity back then either, of course. The logic was bewildering, with fallacies or half-explained elements everywhere, and a writing that made their endeavour to take up Conan Doyle’s mantle seem really objectionable, impudent even.

    I feel like Watson would have sought redress. But I think you just obtained that for him – and you are also a John W. so the sense of justice is strong.

  9. klops says:

    Holmes looks like a pick-up artist guru from 15 years ago. By the screenshots it seems he shaves that sexy beard off at some point. Can anyone tell me why?

  10. Hameln says:

    “Location isn’t added to your map after all that. Instead you must stumble about clicking on things you’ve already clicked on in places you’ve already been. And ah, of course, despite having a map of the forest in your documents, and the more specific map of the meeting, you had to guess to click on a map on the wall of Sherlock’s abode to play yet another execrable minigame to get anywhere.”

    Well. Yes. That’s how maps work. You have to know where are you going on the map before you can actually go there. There isn’t any GPS navigators to do that work for you.

    ‘And it never relents with its strangeness. Immediately after the bowls, I meet my new neighbour, a pretty young woman who has taken fondly to Sherlock’s mystery daughter Katelyn. She asks if Katelyn can come to her home to practice piano occasionally, to which you’re given three possible responses:

    Refuse: Kate’s education
    Refuse harshly
    Refuse: Blame piano music

    None of the three makes a lick of sense in this contextless moment, let alone the peculiarity of not saying, “Yes please, that sounds splendid.”’

    If you really let your children to play with strange people with satanic jewellery and cut marks in their wrists, you asking for trouble.

    “The Devil’s Daughter is like a fever dream”
    “At which point I began to wonder whether this was some sort of meta-story, a tale told in the head of Watson’s dog after a nasty fall.”

    Yes. It is a meta-story and the last case is named “Fever dream”

    “Nu Watson and Holmes look dangerously close to Downey Jr and Law”

    Yes they are and I liked it. I guess it is a matter of taste. I agree that most people don’t like action sequences, because they are actually hard, but otherwise I had the run for my money.