Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate takes place in Victorian London. Unfortunately, it gives itself a very specific year, that being 1868. Most Assassin’s Creed games give themselves a few years, sometimes more than a full decade, in order to give themselves some wiggle room as to what kind of historical figures can be involved, but Syndicate is glued to the specific year of 1868. So when it wants to have crime-solving stories, it is unfortunately saddled with the reality that Arthur Conan Doyle was a maximum of 8 years old. If they’d run themselves, say, from 1868 to 1873, they could’ve at least gotten as far as 13. Alas.
So the Dreadful Crimes DLC gives our main contact as Henry Raymond, a fictitious author of penny dreadfuls. Little Artie is his biggest fan, and it’s honestly kind of annoying having this eight year-old drag you by the nose through the first mystery. You cannot solve the first one by yourself, your only option is to falsely accuse Artie’s child laborer friend of having stuck his foreman, when in truth it was one of the adult workers. After you make the false accusation, Artie steps in and is all “what if instead of going with the most blindingly obvious culprit after looking at two clues, we did some actual detective work?” and only then do the additional investigation sites open up such that you can find enough clues to solve the mystery for real.
Bad enough that we’re stuck with babby Sherlock because of the timeline, but they go out of their way to make him come across as less “plucky sidekick” and more “snot-nosed brat” in his first appearance. If it were some other adult that Artie was showing up, I wouldn’t mind, nor would I be bothered (except with myself) if Artie just showed up to explain why the person you’re accusing can’t have been the culprit every time you organically got it wrong. That’s not even something he actually does, if you falsely accuse someone they just profess their innocence and you have to guess again. That’s a perfectly good mechanic, but here was the perfect opportunity for Artie to demonstrate his sleuthing skills without being an irritating little shit about it, and they walked right past it. I imagine some players would get annoyed with Artie anyway, but that’s on them. If you didn’t want the eight-year old out-detecting you, you shouldn’t have fucked up your detective work!
Despite the rocky start, the Dreadful Crimes is fantastic overall. It takes the crime-solving from Unity, already that game’s best idea, and makes a ton of improvements to quality of life and storytelling. Syndicate’s main story is plagued by stilted dialogue where the idea is good but it’s marred by execution so lacking that I sometimes can’t tell what they were trying to set up until it’s being paid off, not in a “shocking twist” kind of way, but in a “oh, I guess Jacob and Evie’s conflict was supposed to be reaching the point of estrangement from one another and not just siblings joshing each other” kind of way. Not the Dreadful Crimes, though. Perhaps because the dialogue is much more functional, focused around interrogating witnesses, so there’s less pressure to try and communicate an emotional arc through casual conversation and instead it comes out in clues and contradictions.
The murder mysteries themselves draw on a lot of penny dreadfuls, some of which are still known today, occasionally changing around the culprit but sometimes keeping it the same just to keep people on their toes. Someone’s murdering people on Fleet Street and selling bits and pieces of the corpses, and we all know who Sweeney Todd is, but is he actually culprit in this version? He might be, but the killer from the original stories is innocent frequently enough that you’re better off not making accusations as soon as you run into (and I am not making this name up) Feeny Sodd. There’s a murder on a sleeper train (which just circles London because the game never leaves the city, but I’m willing to meet Syndicate halfway here and pretend it’s going through the countryside or something), and a professor who died, was buried, then came back to pound on his family’s door only to collapse dead again, and a man so hated that five different people tried to kill him within the same 15-minute span of time and you have to figure out which one actually killed him. The murder concepts are pulpy and fun.
The game also makes it much easier to keep track of clues. For starters, it solves Unity’s braindead UI problem of having a “congratulations on finding a clue!” popup obscure the text explaining what the clue actually is. It’s not a huge deal, the popup fades after a second so you can just wait for that while walking to the next clue and if you’re really impatient you can look up the clue text in your casefile at any time, including while you’re waiting for the stupid congratulatory popup to go away, but the level of incompetence displayed for that to even be necessary is really indicative of Unity’s polish overall. Not Syndicate, though. Not only has Syndicate solved that problem, it’s also better about clearly identifying investigation zones on your main HUD so that three different sites in the same general direction aren’t indistinguishable from one another without popping to the mini-map every five seconds, it’s better at indicating which investigation zones still have undiscovered clues or uninterrogated (or partially interrogated) witnesses, and it’s better at helping you keep track of what all the clues at a specific investigation zone were by having floaty text hover over clues you’ve examined when you’re in eagle vision.
The floaty text is the same (or near enough as makes no difference) as that used by BBC’s Sherlock, hence the title of the blog post. Now, partly this is because BBC Sherlock’s third and especially fourth seasons were bad, so all the Dreadful Crimes had to do to get ahead was stick the landing, which they do. The final mission ties the previous mysteries together to create a serialized finale to the episodic murders, wrings more drama out of Henry Raymond (the author of the penny dreadfuls, in case you’ve already forgotten who that is) and Artie than I would’ve guessed possible before starting that mission, and involves a usage of the mind palace that easily trumps anything BBC did with it. In BBC the mind palace thing is mostly just pretension, but here it serves to unite a bunch of different murder scenes all across London (pulled from earlier mysteries) without requiring you to journey across the length and breadth of the city for each new clue, and gives an excuse for the Moriarty-style criminal mastermind to show up and gloat about how clever they are without having to contrive a reason for that to happen physically, right in front of a highly skilled assassin who can and does just flat-out murder her/his enemies on the regs. It’s also a way to have one of those multiple choice “have you figured out the mystery” things that mystery games usually have to fall back on, since in this case it’s pretty obvious that probably the Moriarty-style mastermind is behind the crime so the real mystery has to be in figuring out how they pulled it off, not strictly who is responsible.
BBC’s Sherlock mostly gave up on mysteries by season 2 and by season 3 was outright insulting the audience for expecting there to be clever solutions to its cliffhangers. Dreadful Crimes is all about solving mysteries, on a mechanically enforced level, right up until the very end. Even in the explosive finale, when the intensity of the climax gave them the perfect excuse to rely on the existing parkour-and-murder Assassin’s Creed mechanics, they instead doubled down on crime-solving with the whole memory palace schtick, requiring you to make not just one but three correct guesses (although I’m guessing the penalty for getting it wrong isn’t super steep – which is also good, because Assassin’s Creed games are about doing cool things in cool times and places while wearing cool outfits, not challenge). Its climax isn’t a masterstroke of writing or anything, but it raises the stakes while playing them straight, and that sincerity is a hundred times better than the sneering aloofness Sherlock developed in its final seasons.
When I saw the floaty-text in eagle vision was the same as that from Sherlock in the first mystery, my first thought was “that probably seemed like a good idea in 2015,” but having played through all the Dreadful Crimes, I’m glad they did. BBC’s Sherlock tainted its own aesthetics with its contempt for its audience, but now any time I see a reference to that sort of thing, I’ll be reminded of how that show screwed the pooch, sure, but I’ll also think “but hey, Dreadful Crimes was pretty fun.”