Tag Archive: Focus Home Interactive

Dostoyevsky would be proud

Even before his recent upswing in popularity due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern portrayal, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the world’s most beloved fictional characters ever since Arthur Conan Doyle penned his first adventure more than 125 years ago. Given his penchant for puzzle-solving and dealings with quirky characters, Sherlock Holmes seems like a perfect fit for the world of gaming.

Unfortunately, most of his gaming efforts haven’t really moved the needle. But developer Frogwares decided to give it another go by infusing this latest effort, their eighth with the deerstalker-capped man from Baker Street, with some elements we’ve seen from the modern TV shows.

Crimes & Punishments keeps the traditional setting of late-19th-century London, where you control Holmes over the course of several months as he’s confronted with six unrelated cases that deal with that most primal of crimes: murder. Taking a page from Cumberbatch and company, however (aside from the integral notebook, where you can easily reference facts for recalling later), this Holmes iteration has what can only be described as his own personal “mind palace.”

When key clues come up via witness testimony, examining the evidence, or some inventive re-enactments between Holmes and his trusted companion, Dr. Watson, the world’s most famous detective can piece together related facts to draw conclusions that appear as nerve endings in his mind. When enough conclusions can be clustered together, Holmes will have the ability to convict a potential felon.

Aside from how the ability to piece clues together in his mind, Holmes also has the ability to instantly analyze a suspect, looking them up and down and drawing conclusions—sometimes key ones like noticing particular tattoos or dirt under the fingernails. This “instant profiling” draws another parallel to the modern Holmes incarnation, and it’s another welcome addition in making players feel more like the great detective.

Something else new, though, is that Holmes can actually be wrong. Most cases will provide evidence that could allow Sherlock to convict multiple suspects, and while the game will move forward even with an incorrect conviction, you’ll always know that you sent the wrong man or woman to face the hangman. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the extra challenge that multiple suspects provided, since it really did make me pay closer attention to everything involved with a case, I wish there’d been more of a penalty for coming to a wrong conclusion and that some real weight had been provided to this branch of the morality system.

Even when you do solve the case, you don’t have to convict the culprit of anything, since Holmes uncovers crimes of passion or long-unpunished abuse finally facing karmic retribution. But, again, no matter what you choose—whether it means sending the criminal to jail or finding a shred of humanity within Holmes and absolving those responsible—there seem to be no real consequence to your actions beyond how they affect that single character.

Another disappointment was one of my own making, but I still felt cheated a bit while playing the game. If you should look at the Trophy or Achievement descriptions, the culprits for all six cases will be spoiled for you, since special actions involving those characters are tied directly to proper convictions. I know that may seem minor, but you’d think that something like this wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the developers, and it took away some of the challenge the game would’ve otherwise offered.

Despite the fact that the final verdicts were somewhat spoiled, I was surprised at how much fun I still had working out the process to find enough proof to convict someone. While most puzzles are unintuitive in regards to their controls, they offer enough of a mental challenge to practically make the game worth playing in and of themselves. And the variety was welcome, with only the lockpicking puzzles repeating frequently throughout all six cases. Whether it was controlling both Holmes and Watson to work a series of switches or using Toby, Holmes’ trusted Basset Hound, to sniff for clues, my only complaint is that I wish some of the puzzles had been reused more often because they were so fun.

Unfortunately, a few glaring flaws persist. The graphics aren’t the prettiest, even on the new generation of consoles, and though the voice acting for the major characters will grow on you, these actors aren’t going to win any awards for their distant, disconnected performances. At least Holmes being distant and disconnected fits the character, but not with anyone else.

Despite these cut corners, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments does a fine job of teasing your brain into coming up with the right conclusions. I wish the new morality system was more fleshed out, but the other additions help make this 19th-century stalwart character appeal to a modern audience, and I can’t wait to see what adventures Frogwares has planned next for Holmes and Watson.

Developer: Frogwares • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 09.30.14
Fun puzzles, inventive murders, and new crime-solving features help make up for a morality system that needed far more fleshing out to be effective.
The Good Strong emphasis on puzzle-solving; open-ended solutions for each case.
The Bad Unintuitive puzzle controls; lack of moral weight to choices.
The Ugly The Trophies and Achievements spoil the end of each case if you look at them beforehand.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is available on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this review.

Off the rails

When I first think of rail shooters, arcade experiences usually pop to mind, but every now and again, these games provide a refreshing change of shooter pace on home consoles as well. In fact, some of my favorite experiences on the last generation of consoles included The House of the Dead: Overkill and Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles for that very reason. Now that we’ve got a new generation of consoles, I wondered if there was anything they’d provide that could help freshen up the genre.

Enter Blue Estate, a prequel to a 12-issue comic book of the same name from a few years back that tries to insert players into that world’s tongue-in-cheek noir crime drama. Instead of playing as the comic’s bumbling detective protagonist, however, players are inserted into the shoes of Tony Luciano, the incompetent son of a Mafia Don, and Clarence, the handsomely paid ex-Navy SEAL who’s often following after Tony to clean up his messes.

The best thing Blue Estate does is circumvent the need for a PS Move by instead using the gyroscope built directly into the DualShock 4. While this does make aiming a tad less accurate, the game compensates with an aim-assist feature and the ability to recenter your cursor at any time, no matter the controller position, with just a tap of the L1 button. Surprisingly, the controls are rather intuitive because of this, and I saw myself mowing down rival mobsters with no issues whatsoever. The game even finds a way to make the touchpad useful with touch-sensitive prompts for melee and opening doors.

Once you get past the controls, though, there’s really very little to be excited about with Blue Estate. The premise is straightforward, but at no point do you get enough from the story to make you care about the characters or the ridiculous situations they’re in. And beyond the occasional chuckle, there’s really nothing funny about this self-described “dark comedy,” either. Throw in some of the most canned, stereotypical dialogue you’d expect, and the entire script should’ve never seen the light of day.

Besides its miserable excuse for a story, the game is also tremendously short, especially for its $19.99 price tag. It has seven levels, the first six of which should take you only three hours to complete. To lengthen the experience, the last level then sees a ridiculous difficulty spike that may cost you another hour or two. To help illustrate this: In the first six levels of the game, I died four times. In the last level alone, I failed 18 times.

Because of the boring story, the gameplay monotony becomes startlingly evident, even for a rail shooter. All seven levels are full of the same carbon-copy thugs who all go down with a simple headshot or nutshot (heh, the game says “nuts” a lot…so funny, right?). There’s no enemy variety whatsoever, except for the game’s three bosses. They don’t offer much of a challenge either, though, except as an exercise in trying to keep awake. They’ve got lifebars that are ridiculously long, yet their AI is so simple that you’ll repeat the same pattern a dozen times without taking a hit before they finally drop.

Even Blue Estate’s guns–a make-or-break element of these types of shooters–leave something to be desired. You have a simple pistol with infinite ammo, and come across another weapon in each level. Some, like the assault rifle, make the game too simple, as you’ll find yourself racking up 200- and 300-kill combos in no time. Others, like the shotgun and the Magnum, have too short a range, making distant enemies impossible to hit. That means you’ll likely spend most of your time sticking with your default pistol, which only adds to the frustration.

Blue Estate also includes a couple of other features that you’d expect from any rail shooter to help try to salvage this trainwreck. Local co-op is available if you want to play with a friend, and two DualShock 4-controlled crosshairs work just as well as one. Global leaderboards are also present if you feel like replaying the game over and over to try and get a high score.

The only issue with that? I can’t imagine people wanting to play this game once, never mind multiple times. Blue Estate should’ve been satisfied staying a mediocre comic book, because it only makes a crappy video game.

Developer: HeSaw • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 06.24.14
Utilizing the DualShock 4’s gyroscope and light sensor is a great gimmick, and it’s a concept I hope other rail shooters implement. Beyond that, though, Blue Estate is a boring shell full of cheap, unfunny stereotypes that isn’t worth a single playthrough.
The Good Uses the DualShock 4’s gyroscope for targeting.
The Bad Sad attempts at humor, dialogue, and character development.
The Ugly Just another example in my war against prequels of any kind.
Blue Estate is currently a PS4 exclusive. Review code was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this review.

Playing with fire

With the popularity of games like Skyrim and TV shows like Game of Thrones, it’s no surprise to see other media creators wanting to strike while the high-fantasy iron is hot. It’s going to take a lot more than just knights clanging swords together or wizards weaving random spells to break through in this suddenly crowded category, however.

The latest property looking for its slice of the high-fantasy pie is the action-RPG Bound by Flame. Here, seven necromantic magicians known as the Ice Lords are trying to conquer the world of Vertiel with their undead army, which has yet to meet defeat in a single battle after 10 years of conflict. All is not lost, though. You play as a mercenary nicknamed “Vulcan” who’s tasked with protecting the Red Scribes, an order of magicians performing one last desperate act to possibly sway the tide of war back in the favor of humanity. When the summoning ceremony is interrupted, the spirit the Scribes call forth possesses Vulcan, bequeathing him with unfathomable power and possibly the last chance to overthrow the Ice Lords.

Bound by Flame is a perfect example of wasted potential. It does things I wish big-budget games with long-lasting pedigrees would do, but it can’t get the very basics of the genre right. This dichotomy caused me to love the game one moment and hate it the very next.

One thing Bound by Flame nails is the crafting and upgrades. RPG players will be familiar with the clutter of screens on the menu they’ll have to sort through, but once they do, they’ll find a simple system that, from the very beginning of the game, allows crafting of traps, health potions, crossbow bolts, and even the ability to make better materials out of existing ones, such as tempered steel out of three pieces of raw steel. Players can even craft and customize specific parts of their weapons. Adding a new hilt to a sword could up its critical-hit chance, while a new pommel could increase its total damage output. The system is completely straightforward, and as long as you have the parts, you can pause at any time to instantly make your desired item.

Another aspect that I thoroughly enjoyed—and was quite shocked by—was the shades of gray each choice the game introduced. Many titles, including Mass Effect, Fable, and inFAMOUS, have a moral system of some sort, and Bound by Flame is no different. In those games, though, I always found myself easily making the “right” choice, the decision that led me to unlocking the “good guy” branch of an upgrade tree or ensuring that all the people of these virtual worlds would love me. Bound by Flame actually had me thinking about these decisions, and for the first time ever, I found myself playing the bad guy on my first playthrough. Never before has the “good” decision been this difficult. No matter what I did, I’d be sacrificing something, and in the end, I typically chose the “worse” moral option. And, like in many of those other games, the world, my character, and the story changed accordingly to follow my choices.

Since Bound by Flame is able to do things like this, however, it only makes the game’s shortcomings even more painful. While the story is rather bland in and of itself, following your typical high-fantasy fare of medieval themes punctuated with wizards and magic and a world in peril, it in no way compares to how boring the game’s world looks. Five of the most generic environments you’ll ever see comprise the entirety of Bound by Flame—it seems as if the world designer was using a color-by-numbers chart instead of real artistic flair when concocting Vertiel.

A bland environment can be overlooked, though, if you’re neck deep in engaging combat. Unfortunately, this is Bound by Flame’s fatal flaw. Even after leveling up and getting better weapons and upgrades, you’ll still spend most of your time having to resort to hit-and-run tactics where you get close to an enemy, slash a few times, and then run away and let your health and magic refill. Then, you just rinse and repeat until your undead foes fall. The worst part of all this? Many enemies, even the weakest skeletons, take dozens of hits, turning each encounter into a marathon that had me just running straight toward my objectives and ignoring every enemy I could by the end of the game.

And what makes matters even worse is your friendly AI. You can take one of the four characters that join your party throughout the game with you when you go adventuring. They’re all worthless, though, except as distractions to split the attention of larger forces up. Whether it’s Sybil the healer, Edwen the dark mage, Randval the warrior, or Rhengar the ranger, each one is no better than fodder for your enemies. You’ll run around in circles, hacking and slashing and hoping you take out the group of enemies by yourself so that you can quicksave again and not have to redo any section of combat. Between your brain-dead AI allies and the tactics you’re forced to resort to, this is easily some of the most horribly balanced combat I’ve ever seen in an RPG.

It feels like Bound by Flame couldn’t get out of its own way. By trying to institute some interesting systems and provide some difficulty when making your decisions, developer Spiders forgot to focus on the basics. Without that foundation, the game simply can’t stand on its own. Even though I don’t regret playing Bound by Flame, I can’t really recommend it, either, unless you so desperately need a fantasy fix that you’d rather power through the problems than risk having missed it. You can’t say I didn’t warn you, though, when you get burned.

Developer: Spiders • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 05.09.14
For every great thing Bound by Flame does, it messes up critical gameplay components like the combat. There’s this sense that the game can’t get out of its own way, and only die-hard high-fantasy fans that aren’t afraid of getting torched by a budget title should check this one out.
The Good An easy-to-use, streamlined crafting and upgrades system.
The Bad Combat is cumbersome and friendly AI is useless.
The Ugly The world might’ve been designed with a paint-by-numbers program.
Bound by Flame is available on PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this review.