Tag Archive: mystery

As an Indie developer, it’s hard sometimes to advance through the stages of game development, especially when compared to the pace of the AAA and AA powerhouses on the gaming scene. So, even though the alpha version of Outer Wilds was able to take home the 2015 Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival at GDC 2015, it’s not really surprising that its developers decided to go quiet for a while in order to focus on building towards an inevitable release. Well, just about three years after that landmark win for Team Outer Wilds—now a part of developer Mobius Digital—and on the heels of a publishing deal with another relatively fresh face on the scene in Annapurna Interactive (What Remains of Edith Finch, Gorogoa), Outer Wilds was ready to be shown off again. Thus, I happily headed down to Mobius Digital’s LA-based studio to go hands-on with Outer Wilds and see first hand just how far it had come.

Outer Wilds is a stellar space mystery with a Majora’s Mask time-repetition mechanic that will have you racing against the clock as you try to piece together various conundrums around your solar system before the day resets. You start off as a humanoid creature on your home planet, the latest brave astronaut in the early days of your species’ space program. Everything has a fitting cobbled together feel—like a cross between the Wright Brothers and NASA—but it’s more than enough to get your little one-man ship hopping around the solar system in pursuits of knowledge. As you visit each new planet, you’ll uncover relics from a lost civilization, as well as converse with the handful of other astronauts in your program as you try to better understand your little slice of the universe and what caused the extinction of those that came before you.

All this happens while also trying to figure out what triggered a time loop that only you and a couple other astronauts are remotely even aware of. Fortunately, because of this, every clue you find is recorded on your ship’s computer, and you can begin connecting the dots in the galaxy’s biggest mysteries in hopes of finding a way out of this Groundhog Day in space.

Although it sounds simple enough on the surface, Outer Wilds has so many moving pieces that it might be hard to wrap your head around where to start at first. Abandoned space stations and moons orbit around the system’s several planets, which themselves are explorable right from the get go and filled full of secrets to uncover. They’re also extremely diverse, ranging from your Earth-like home to sandy desert worlds, barren rocky landscapes, and even a gas giant with a liquid core that you can splash around in. (Oh, and pro-tip: be sure not to forget your spacesuit before you try any of those moonwalks—atmosphere is important, kids.) Playing the role of part-astronaut, part-detective allows you to approach everything with a patient methodology as you take on each new challenge, testing your analytical skills as you uncover more clues and begin to realize how small you really are even in this fictitious slice of cosmos.

Though I only got to play through a couple of “days” in Outer Wilds, it already started to suck me in. After fiddling with the controls and getting a grasp for how my one-man ship maneuvered in space, each new discovery filled me with a childlike wonderment I haven’t felt in puzzle games since maybe the original Myst way back when. Adding in the ticking clock before the galaxy reset also instituted a sense of urgency at first, but I learned quickly how to use it to my advantage (along with how not to panic). After all, everything would end up just where I originally found it—and the knowledge I had accrued would stay with me.

My brief time with Outer Wilds only reaffirmed why this game was an award winner back in its alpha phase. If you love mysteries, exploration, and have an affinity for time loops, this is looking like it might be a game for you. I can’t wait to hop back in my spaceship again when Outer Wilds finally launches onto our PCs sometime later this year.

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.