The following software was reviewed on an Xbox Series X.
Believe it or not, Sherlock Holmes has been a prominent member of the video games industry for about a good 20 years now, and I have a bit of a soft spot for him. Part of a series of solid Adventure slash Mystery games by independent Ukranian developer Frogwares, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One follows a young Holmes and his partner Jon as they uncover the circumstances regarding their mother’s death. But naturally, not everything goes as planned in the rather beautiful Mediterranean shores of Cordona, and it is up to you to guide our younger, bolder, and perhaps a bit naive detective through vandalism, theft, and murder.
This is Frogware’s second open-world title following The Sinking City, and a first for the Sherlock games, although the core identity stays fairly the same. Sherlock Holmes is all about investigating cases and solving them, with the primary mystery being the story of what happened to Holmes’ and Jon’s mother. The mystery unravels as the player picks at the detective’s memory and solves other cases that are directly and indirectly tied to the arching narrative. Many investigations are introduced to the player through cutscenes, digging through items, or even just overhearing a conversation in the open-world.
Now pull up a seat and grab a cup of finely grounded kahve. For Sherry’s largest adventure yet, you will need it.
The Master Detective and His Tools
In a typical case, players will guide Holmes through the ropes of questioning, examining, analysing, and formulating conclusions for a given incident. All gathered clues are placed into the journal, where they can be examined further or used as a basis for questioning with key witnesses and suspects. Some items may also be chemically analysed, which is done through a minigame that involves a bit of math work, but nothing terribly difficult and can also be skipped if necessary. And while most evidence will be collected on the scene, some will require fooling people with disguises, eavesdropping on unsuspecting gossipers, and combat.
Going through the motions is quite fun, especially if you are the type to examine anything and everything. Each case, from the smaller to the larger ones are bespoke and do not always require the use of all of Holmes’ skills, or in the same order of things. I never once felt a case took longer than it needed to, and if a case had me stuck, I simply jumped to a smaller one. This is one aspect of the open-world I liked: I could just leave whatever I was doing and come back when I have my head in order. Although I think I would chalk that up to the open-ended nature of the mechanics this time around.
As I mentioned prior, the open-world is the biggest change for the series. Previously level-based and featuring long rides on carriages between areas, Sherlock can now run from one end of Cordona to another—taking in the sights of Ottoman culture to spots of Greek and British influence—I really loved the world design (both artistically, musically, and layout) but I was also impressed with the number of NPCs that litter the streets depending on the time of day and area. Considering the size of Frogwares, I was quite impressed. Although animations for characters are much to be desired. The model work is there, it is just a bit of a shame they cannot quite hit those high notes yet.
But on that note, I was also left unsatisfied with the open-world. This is because, for all the gameplay mechanics players will be engaging with, the city really is not one of them. Sure, there may be shoppes or pretty sights, but once I unlocked a good number of fast travel points, I stopped running through the streets in favour of simply hopping all over the place. Simply speaking, if you removed the open-world and cut up the cases into levels, nothing would change. There is no engagement to be had with running to every single destination because nothing dynamic happens—they almost feel like loading screens you have to engage with instead.
Combat also falls short of the mark. Holmes’ is equipped with a revolver to fight back enemies that would dare fight back, and trust me there are plenty that will. Fighting will usually take place in a closed off area, set up for battle, and you will know when you are in one thanks to the arcadey intros that play. Now this sounds typical, but Sherlock is no killer (and killing has its consequences), which means the player will instead need to attack the baddies weak point and run up for an arrest. This is where things get very frustrating very quick. Sometimes you cannot quite hit the enemy’s weak spot, or other times Sherlock will be stunlocked til he is all red—do not expect Gears of War from these sections and you will be just fine. Though fighting encounters are not too common, and even though they can be disabled, I simply do not think these options make up for the clunky nature of the combat. Also, it is also a good source of income, which you will need to purchase disguises and furniture for Sherlock’s old abode, so skipping it might not be the best of ideas.
Solving Crimes and Their Consequences
Playing a young Sherlock has been quite the entertaining endeavour. I was a bit worried by the direction Frogwares would take with a naive Holmes but I was quite pleased with the results. His comebacks are wittier than ever, and he is not afraid to shut someone down if it disinterests him. His partner, not John Watson but a Jon, plays a role in ensuring the better side of Sherlock comes out, and he is not afraid to criticise. Whether it is how the player has Holmes talk to people or how many times you have him get a deduction wrong, he has plenty to write about you. Jon has plenty of things to say as well, between serious matters and the occasional video game reference, he is the best partner one could have. And unlike Watson, he has a reason for being able to teleport.
The city of Cordona and its citizens have plenty to tell you about Sherlock’s briefly but former homeland, and you will learn more naturally as you progress through cases and discover some terrible secrets of the victims and suspects you encounter. Some of those involve sexual assault and rape, for example, and I feel the game does a good job of handling the subjects in the proper fashion. At the end of many of these investigations, the player will be given choices on how to handle the verdicts of the suspect Holmes can accuse. There are a lot of grey areas, and no matter what choice you go with Holmes will bend the accused and the deduction to his will. This is perhaps my favourite part of the game, because you can see how Sherlock is shaped by his case solving in ways that even he does not expect.
Really if you had to pick up a narrative-driven game, I would easily recommend this one—the very highlight of the game, in my opinion. Although if I had one thing to say, do not expect the world from the voice acting.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One features a few options to customize investigation and combat gameplay, with the ability to turn the latter off completely. Subtitle support and language can be adjusted as well as aim assist functions. However, controls cannot be customised. Players looking to do so should consider making a custom controller profile in the console’s settings.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is perhaps my favourite Frogwares title. By expanding and spacing out the objectives at the player’s leisure, it creates an open-ended feeling of choice that had me coming back. The writing and overall narrative was paced well and did not over indulge me with useless information, nor did cases drag on longer than they needed to. And though I spoke negatively about the city, I do not think going open-world was a bad choice at all. I hope that Frogwares can figure out how to make it more engaging and iron out the combat to a less clunky standard while also encouraging pacifism.
This is perhaps Sherlock’s best adventure yet.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One$44.99 | $59.99 w/ Season Pass
- Engaging narrative with choice and consequence.
- Investigation mechanics are done fairly well and are easy to grasp.
- The city of Cordona is beautiful and is rendered well both artistically and how the player navigates.
- The open-world fails to engage the player beyond being an observer.
- Combat is clunky and not fun at all.
- Voice acting and animation work are not always up to snuff.