Sherlock Holmes Chapter One
is a revelation. And it’s far from elementary
, or any other tried and tested Holmes
schtick for that matter. Rather, this is a measured and deeply personal tale set within the early years of his life as a detective, in what is likely the first of a new series of Holmes tales for developer Frogwares
, who delight us here with storytelling of immense maturity and scope, marred only by obvious budgetary limitations in relation to tech and execution.
No stranger to Holmes, nor detective-style game-design, having more recently cut its sleuthing teeth with the Lovecraft
-inspired, The Sinking City
-- another reach-for-the-stars joint hoisted on an equally rickety foundation of poor tech -- Frogwares continues to craft its blueprint for multi-path investigation gaming. And is slowly perfecting it, though it’s not without its teething problems still.
As you may have already deduced, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is an investigative videogame. It’s set in what is touted as an open-world, but really it’s just an open city. The city of Cardona
, in fact, which is a British
colony. The fictional island ‘paradise’ is presented as a bit of a racial and cultural melting pot, and consists of five key districts. Be warned, however -- that ‘melting pot’, as it were, is delivered in a tone that lightly reflects certain sentiments of the late 1800s period in which the game is set. Which is to say, colourful and challenging writing exists within the confines of this historic setting, so you might hear antiquated dialogue or come across situations that make you uncomfortable.
"You can pick up side quests from the Police Station, or stumble upon crime-scenes or nefarious activity out in the world. Sometimes from eavesdropping...”
The game largely plays out with a key story taking place involving the death of Holmes’ mother, and more emergent content manifesting from the depth of your Nosey Parkering
about Cardona and its many off-the-beaten-track content hidey-holes. You can pick up side quests from the Police Station, or stumble upon crime-scenes or nefarious activity out in the world. Sometimes from eavesdropping, or walking upon a scene unfolding, and these aren’t all directly related to the main questline, but engaging them still goes a long way to fleshing out the world of Cardona. And so may yet have relevance to the reason you returned here at all.
You see, Holmes lived on the island a decade ago. It’s where his mother died of consumption (read: tuberculosis). Or so he thought. His older brother, Mycroft
, has been steadfast against his walking down forgotten old roads, and wants the young detective to remain in London
where his skills and notoriety are useful and required. Something, however, has tugged hard enough to prompt Holmes to bypass his hate of all things water, and make the long trek to the island with the natural unfurling of a deeper mystery awaiting his arrival on the island, and thus begins your adventure.
What’s immediately great -- and jarring -- is that Frogwares wastes no time throwing you into the thick of things. And there's instant pressure to perform a decent job of investigating as a result. Holmes here is written as a narcissistic know-it-all who has little-to-no humanity when it comes to the cold, hard truth of things.
Logic is his friend and he’d have made an excellent Vulcan
"Jon, Sherlock’s imaginary childhood friend, a kind of ye olde timey lad who affectionately calls Sherlock “Sherry”...”
The game itself plays like this: clues and deductions and the game’s overall story -- main and otherwise -- are all intimately linked. There’s a coherent journey that never feels disjointed in how it’s narratively presented. This is at minor odds, however, with use of its investigative systems; Mind Palace, Case Book, the world map and Sherlock’s Wardrobe (you'll play a lot of dress-ups). Jon
, Sherlock’s imaginary childhood friend, a kind of ye olde timey lad who affectionately calls Sherlock “Sherry
”, also helps keep you up to date with a sort of simplified delivery of all that has transpired at any given point. But those systems mentioned above, they’re clunky and difficult at times to discern one moment to the next, and take some time to work through from a functioning and confident level.
The Case Book, for example, is where pertinent information is placed. From this, you can pin any piece of evidence to your screen and it becomes an active exploration point, specifically in talking to NPCs. It’s not always clear if you’re pinning the right evidence, but that’s okay because it means there’s no hardline here to the truth. L.A. Noire
failed in that way and felt super on-rails, but the breadth of evidence available to explore in Chapter One, alongside how you use it to deduce in the Mind Palace, makes for an awesome system. But it can also just be clunky and unclear on what extrapolation of a line of dialogue means, and how it fits into the larger picture. And the game doesn’t do the best job of explaining these types of systems on the whole.
"Mimicking the cool, confident stylings of Sherlock and his out-of-menu abilities, as the game and its titular protagonist have been written, would serve the overall flow...”
This doesn’t mean they’re bad, by any measure. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is arguably the best detective game ever made outside of Lucas Pope
’s untouchable Return of the Obra Dinn
. It’s just that you can see how a more fluid presentation could work in its favour. Mimicking the cool, confident stylings of Sherlock and his out-of-menu abilities, as the game and its titular protagonist have been written, would serve the overall flow and accessibility of the experience massively, but it falls just shy of doing that throughout your journey.
As alluded to above though, you will eventually get a knack for navigating the multiple path system to deduction. Which helps in streamlining that wanted ‘flow’. But the game never *quite* feels as complete in its UI or UX as it *could* be. And the thing is, we’ve been here before. That is, if you played the equally enjoyable The Sinking City as mentioned earlier, most of the way Chapter One plays will be infinitely familiar. And the problem with so much of this is there’s a forced style of play at hand, much of which is centred around a learnt knowledge of the city. Places and points of interest are expressed less in how they look visually in your travels, and more as addresses in written form -- this person of interest loiters around at the junction between Belvedere Street
and Casino Boulevard
, sort of thing.
On paper it’s a fantastic way to drive the idea of investigation, exploration and extrapolation of clues and the world around you. In action though, with the game’s subpar tech and how disjointed even running in the world feels, to tasks at hand, it simply doesn’t deliver upon promise nor expectation.
"There’s no fluidity to how any one situation is handled...”
Speaking of animations and disjointedness, there’s action afoot, too. Though the game only presents this in sparing quantities, what’s there is equally clunky. There’s no fluidity to how any one situation is handled because sometimes the requirement is to exploit the environment, but those opportunities are limited and missing them can drag things on and make working through it all a chore. Or even just a superfluous activity in the first place, designed to placate the need
to say there’s action in the game. And its emphasis is almost always weighted towards arrest or apprehension, which isn’t bad, but that sparing nature means it’s not a normal, fluid part of proceedings and can play out more as a distraction when it rears its head.
In some ways I can liken the experience to the Aussie
made Hand of Fate series
. The games are almost perfect in every aspect, except in the case of Hand of Fate and its required
combat and dungeon segments, which just technically aren’t good. They’re not precise enough to reflect the skill aspect of the game, and often play a hand (heh) in your undoing. But more importantly, their place and technically limited nature just makes them not fun and chore-like, which simply isn’t how a game should feel.
"Alex Jordan and Wil Coban as Sherlock and Jon, respectively, are both sublime. Worth the price of admission alone....”
Putting the technical limitations of the game aside, the writing and voice-acting in Chapter One are far and away its greatest strengths. So much so, only one or two other outings with VO and in-depth writing this year are on the same plane -- everything else is just posturing in comparison to Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. Alex Jordan
and Wil Coban
as Sherlock and Jon, respectively, are both sublime and worth the price of admission alone. While everyone else maintains the same level of gravitas and poise throughout the experience. It was a strength of The Sinking City, too, but here Frogwares has outdone itself and should be applauded for this aspect of the game alone. And I can’t speak more highly of it.
Adding in the dynamic and multi-faceted aspects of investigation and deduction also elevates the whole affair, they’re just not as smoothly delivered or as coherent as they could have been. And it all unfortunately comes back to tech and execution. With this mob, if they had a larger budget and the time to exercise it fully, we could be looking at a series of titles that would reign for years as genre-defining and utter benchmarks, but as they stand they’re unfortunately marred by monetary and resource limitations that genuinely hold back what should be at the gaming fore. And yes, we’ve seen indies break through despite limitations before, so it's not at all unheard of. Rather, Frogwares’ ambition where it bites off more than it can chew is perhaps the biggest issue here, and it's a bit of a common thread if you look back at its history.
Still, this is one of the best detective titles you’ll play and its story and voice-acting is a pure joy. Just don’t go in expecting any high level of visual sheen, or system fluidity.