Sherlock Holmes Chapter One Review
Before I get into the main review, I want to address the content warning Frogwares has put before you get into the game. It warns of outdated views that portray the harsh reality and mistreatment of minorities in cultures back then. It states they’re wrong, which is good, but these portrayals are still in the game. I’m not sure how I feel about this overall. On the one hand, I’m glad the warning is there, but on the other hand, the game features racism, transphobia, and classism, and I’m not certain any of this helps the story to shine.
With that out of the way, creating an ambitious detective adventure must be difficult. There are a couple of essential questions that need to be addressed and reflected on while creating each part of the mystery. For starters, are the puzzles too simple, too hard or just right? How much freedom do I have in my actions? Are there enough hints, so that I know where to go, but not so many that I feel like the game is leading me by the hand? Does each clue feel coherent and rational?
It’s interesting trying to answer those questions while thinking about my time with studio Frogwares creation. To be honest, I don’t think any of the responses is a simple one. But let’s start from the beginning, exploring every element and trying to reach a more or less logical conclusion.
Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is the tale of a younger version of the character we often see portrayed. The game shows his first steps in Cordona, an island that invites the player to reveal its extravagant cases, and a chance for Sherlock to remember some harsh events from his childhood. Fortunately, he’s not alone: his friend Jon —not to be confused with his historic sidekick, John H. Watson— will accompany him all the way to the end of the adventure.
Show me your tricks, Mr. Holmes
Solving any main case involves several features. Sherlock can examine objects in a crime scene, interrogate suspects, create portraits or show them evidence, eavesdrop on people chattering about relevant matters, and even elaborate chemical analysis on certain items. You can also wear disguises to access otherwise locked scenarios or talk with specific NPCs that wouldn’t give him the time of day if they knew he was an arrogant high-class fella. However, the most interesting mechanics involve using deduction abilities, such as “Concentrate”, which can reveal important clues while investigating a scene or looking for a specific suspect in the streets. Sherlock can also use “Imagination” to vividly reconstruct how a scene happened, choosing its agents and actions and the order they happened in. Lastly, he’s able to access a menu called “Mind Palace” in which you can connect clues and elaborate thoughts that will gradually create the path to a conclusion when the case is about to be solved.
Most of these actions are performed by pressing or holding a button, looking for an object of interest or selecting the correct evidence/situation when needed. More often than not, playing as a detective is fun: the cases are deeply layered with engaging characters, conflicting interests, multiple crimes, well-thought-out plot twists and rich dialogue. A unique feature that differentiates this title from other detective titles is that you can solve a case by accusing the wrong suspect. This won’t end in a game over. Instead, the main story will continue and you’ll notice a small glimpse of your consequences by purchasing the newspaper. During one of my playthroughs, I was ready to close a case by accusing a man of provoking an elephant to go hostile, which led to the murder of another man. However, I doubted it for a moment. I thought that I could talk with the daughter of the murdered person agian and show her evidence I didn’t share with her before. It actually worked, and it allowed me to finish the case without sending anyone to prison —just protecting the animal.
These are the moments where the game shines the most. At the decisive moments of every major case, I experienced a genuine feeling of uncertainty. I became anxious, reading my notes again, revisiting the evidence, speaking aloud to myself about my first conclusion. After an internal debate, I just moved forward and closed the mystery —always doubting what I have done.
Unfortunately, some of these impressive moments required hours of frustrations, wandering aimlessly around the town, and solving situations that didn’t feel fair at all.
Okay, so… what now?
This island of Cordona consists of different districts that you can visit by travelling on foot or using fast travel locations —once you have unlocked them by visiting them. The main idea behind the game is that you are free to explore Cordona at your own pace, searching for the key elements needed to move forward. For instance, from time to time you’ll need to locate a specific suspect in the street by using a bit of intel or a photo. Sherlock can examine civilians using his “Concentrate” ability and find a distinctive characteristic of the person he is looking for. In theory, he can also ask random NPCs about this person and, with some luck, receive relevant information about their whereabouts.
This doesn’t always work though. Cordona’s streets are usually crawled with many people living their lives and most of them won’t know about what you’re looking for. On one occasion, I asked dozens of NPCs if they knew a certain woman and none of them answered positively. Some of them were even rude, and I spent a considerable amount of time just running around the district until I found a woman, several blocks from my initial location, who pointed me in the right direction. This felt as if I’d advanced in the story merely by chance, breaking all the immersion and hard work put in by delicately presenting every clue until that point.
Sadly, this situation repeated itself a couple of times. During some segments, I needed to go to one of three archives, located in different buildings at the centre of the island, and find more information about a suspect or location. While most of the time I could solve these without issue, on some occasions the intel I had was too vague to realize which archive I should visit. This, again, meant I ended up running in circles, trying multiple options that lead nowhere and wasting valuable time. Even if the game has “difficulty” options for its puzzle-solving, the use of all the hints doesn’t prevent the player from getting stuck every now and then.
It’s important to explain that even if the game presents an open-world and multiple possible endings for each case, that doesn’t mean its structure isn’t linear most of the time. Sherlock usually needs to find the clues and evidence in a specific order, and he can’t progress further if he lacks any essential piece of evidence. Sure, you can find some extra clues that might change your conclusion, but that’s it. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this approach, however, it’s a double-edged sword when considering some of these problems. Instead of feeling that I was spending my time becoming an ace detective, it sometimes felt more like playing roulette.
Not everything is a crime
Apart from solving the five cases from the main story, Sherlock Holmes and his friend will try to reveal the mystery about the death of Holmes’ mother. After each major case is complete, Sherlock will be allowed to visit his former house and explore a new room, full of memories about his childhood. These segments are incredibly crafted and they present some of the best dialogues between Sherlock and Jon, whose exchanges about life, the past and current events tend to be exquisitely involving.
Cordona is full of side cases that can be found by exploring the different districts, talking to NPCs, picking up posters on walls or recalling moments with Jon. Sometimes, they are simple cases that involve just a bit of exploration. On other occasions, they present surprising complexity. The need to find pieces of evidence, speak with multiple characters and find what’s going on with a lost violin, a ghost story and much more. These secondary missions are a nice excuse to freely explore the island, which also presents markets to buy new outfits for Sherlock, or furniture for his house.
On a different note, one aspect I haven’t touched on until now is combat. While at first it might seem interesting and a good addition to change the flow of the cases, it loses its freshness pretty quickly and becomes a boring gimmick after a few scenes. Sherlock’s fighting abilities include a revolver, limited slow motion when aiming and a special move that can blind enemies for a few seconds when fully charged. The game encourages you to nonfatally deal with the enemy. In order to do that, you have to shoot them in a specific part of their equipment or clothes — sometimes they carry an incendiary item, have a hat, or they’re wearing armour. Parts of the world can also be shot at to create a distraction and before rushing in to start a QTE that will put the enemy down.
The lack of variety in the combat makes it more of a nuisance than a feature. After your first battle against enemies, you have seen everything the game has to offer and it won’t change from there. Fortunately, you can select an option to skip all the combat sections from the beginning, but a well-thought system would have added another layer to the story.
It’s hard trying to summarize my experience with Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One. On one hand, there are aspects that are brilliant and can fill you with great satisfaction when every piece of the puzzle falls into place. On the other hand, when the immersion is broken by obnoxious or random ways of finding the next clue, you’ll find your enjoyment of each case diminished.
Hopefully, the team at Frogwares can create a more refined tale for Chapter Two. The deeply uncomfortable notes within the game itself as I mentioned in the intro are one thing. However, even when it comes to the gameplay, while there’s certainly a lot of promise here, it never quite feels like it sticks the landing, which is a real shame.