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: 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.