Sherlock Holmes Chapter One
Quick, name five really great recent mystery video games. Sure, there are a few, but chances are you ran dry pretty quickly after The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and maybe Wolf Among Us. Maybe you also listed Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, one of Frogware’s better games about the legendary detective. Now, the developer is hoping that after you play Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, you’ll add it to the short list of outstanding titles in a relatively underrepresented gaming genre.
Ukrainian developer Frogwares has released eight prior Sherlock Holmes games as well as a number of other gothic mysteries, so clearly the team obviously has a love of that peculiar, late 19th century juncture of science, superstition, and the occult from which Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes arose. Holmes’ late Victorian era was not only the period of real-life monsters such as Jack the Ripper but fictional bogeymen like Sweeney Todd. It was a time of immense economic disparity and a battle between newly emerging scientific methods and antiquated beliefs, and Doyle’s Holmes was the poster child for using reason, deduction, and rational inquiry over the criminals, charlatans, and the occult fakery of the day. While we’re used to popular depictions of Holmes and Watson as mature, seasoned detectives, Chapter One takes us back to the beginnings of Holmes’ journey.
The game begins as a seasick, 21-year old Sherlock Holmes arrives on the Mediterranean island of Cordona with his traveling companion Jonathan, a newly-invented origin story sidekick filling in for the ubiquitous John Watson. Young Holmes has somewhat unwillingly traveled to the island to visit the grave of his recently deceased mother, and it is no spoiler to reveal that the twelve or so hour main story arc will deal with solving a number of nested mysteries surrounding her death. One of Chapter One’s strongest, subtle elements is Holmes’ very gradual emotional transition from youthful arrogance to something akin to tempered early maturity. Although Chapter One’s writing varies in effectiveness, it seems to land the best when it is focused on Holmes’ inner life momentarily breaking through his still tentative façade of reason and intellect.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is Frogware’s first foray into an open world environment, and the game does a great job of imagining the island paradise of Cordona as a melting pot of Mediterranean and North African cultures. Cordona is divided into several sectors, including the wealthy Grand Saray, the Arabic influenced Old City and the economic hub of Scaladio. During the course of the main story, Holmes and Jonathan will need to become familiar with each sector and its culture, and naturally, each section of the map is home to many mysteries to be solved, crimes to thwart, and investigations to complete, some of which are nearly as robust and convoluted as the main campaign. In terms of world-building, architecture, and art direction, Frogwares’ Cordona is a significant accomplishment, and the game doesn’t shy away from some of the troubling, racially motivated attitudes, beliefs, and social structures that were such an unfortunate part of the colonialist British Empire. All those varied areas are also a great excuse for Holmes to wear a series of disguises, helping him to blend in and gain the cooperation of the locals. Or just look cool.
Book a Vacay to Cordona
Chapter One doesn’t begin in the open world, however, but spends a considerable amount of time in a luxury hotel on the night of Holmes’ arrival. This extended prologue serves as a tutorial, getting new players up to speed on the game’s mechanics, some of which are holdovers from prior entries in the franchise, and some of which are new. There are a lot of tools and techniques in Holmes’ repertoire, but one of the most important is Detective Vision, which allows him to concentrate and “see” hidden clues and important objects in the environment. From gathering objects to pinning evidence to stringing together clues to form conclusions, the investigation mechanics are quite varied and often connected in ways that are not perfectly clear. In fact, the game is not in the least bit shy about being opaque and whether it’s a bug or a feature, players can expect to spend much of the games’ first few hours not only solving a series of mysteries but unravelling the bigger questions of how all its systems work. It’s a little amazing that after so many Holmes games, the gears of the investigation mechanics still grind.
Although Sherlock Holmes Chapter One — like prior games in the franchise — allows Holmes and the player to fail investigations and still progress the story, or come to conclusions that have vastly different ethical or practical outcomes, often the moment-to-moment process of solving a crime devolves into a very deliberate, directed and inflexible pixel hunt in which a series of objects or points of interest must be identified before the scene can conclude, which of course takes no thinking at all. Not using the pinned evidence correctly often resulted in a frustrating lack of progress, and too many times an investigative tool, like eavesdropping, is really nothing more than a poorly explained puzzle game mechanic or quick-time event. While I think that Chapter One does a good job of translating the complex thinking of its protagonist into a series of steps and techniques, I also think that fewer and more clearly articulated mechanics would make the experience feel more fluid and fun. The game understands that its version of combat isn’t great, so you can turn it off entirely, and a streamlined investigation mode might be in order as well. Mystery stories in any medium depend on very precise structures, misdirection, and conclusions that can’t feel arbitrary but flow logically from the circumstances, and generally speaking the main story follows the rules of good detective fiction, while the side missions are shorter and more perfunctory, though they do often lend color and texture to the culture and environment.
Think Back…What Were YOU Like at 21?
Chapter One is a perfect opportunity for Frogwares to play with our expectations of Holmes as the somewhat stuffy, cerebral eccentric we’ve come to know through countless films and popular media, and it does a good job portraying the detective as cocky and insufferably ripe for a life lesson or two. Jonathan is less clearly drawn, most often simply serving as a weirdly teleporting dispensary of asides and commentary, and occasionally moving the story along in small ways. Overall, the writing is smart if not entirely avoiding stereotypes, and the voice acting ranges from very good in the principals to generically bland in the minor roles. The musical score and overall sound design is excellent, only becoming annoyingly repetitive during some investigations that seem to take a very long time. The game’s lighting, subtle special effects, and art direction are stellar but the news isn’t quite as good when it comes to character design, facial animations, and lip-syncing, many of which feel stuck in the uncanny valley of a few years back.
The idea of Sherlock Holmes essentially investigating his own origins is an intriguing conceit, though that’s really only a small element of Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. The invented island of Cordona is a great backdrop for commentary on the late Victorian British Empire in all its excessive and tone-deaf glory, though again, those considerations are secondary. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is, at heart, a collection of large and small mysteries to be solved, the chance to inhabit the mind of a legendary polymath and play detective with a wide and deep arsenal of tools and toys. Although the series is still bogged down by its fiddly mechanics and the pace can move too slowly for us fidgety gamers, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is far more ambitious in scope than its series predecessors and may represent a new, high bar for the franchise.
***PS5 code provided by the publishers for review***
- Beautiful open world setting
- Interesting mysteries to solve
- Smartly written
- Mechanics can be convoluted
- Poor combat
- Pacing is sometimes slow
- Character animations are pretty basic
- Inconsistent voice acting