This is Sherlock Holmes like you’ve never seen him before.
Frogwares is no stranger to Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is the fourth game from the studio based on Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective. But it’s not a sequel. Rather, it takes Holmes right back to the start; you’ll witness him as a 21-year-old who aspires to be a detective. Certainly, he has the skills and the abilities, but he’s only just starting out. And haunted by his own past – the mysterious loss of his mother ten years ago – he’s got his own demons to tackle first.
We’ve spent a few hours with a preview build of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, experiencing the opening section of the game and its open-world map. There’s certainly DNA from Frogwares’ earlier games here, and there’s an awful lot from the company’s most recent release, The Sinking City. Like The Sinking City, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One doesn’t hold your hand. You’ll never simply be following quest markers from A to B in order to make your way through the story. You’ll need to frequently consult your casebook, look at your own map, and figure out your next move for yourself. It really helps in immersing players into the experience – you truly do become Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes isn’t supernatural by any means, but his heightened detective skills means he has some special tricks up his sleeve. Pressing on the right shoulder button, for instance, enables Holmes’ ‘concentration’. Depending what piece of evidence he’s focusing on, he may be able to pick up extra clues – the trail of a person, for instance, or more information about an object in the environment. It’s a vital skill for cracking a case.
He’s also a master of disguise, and throughout the game you can expect to play dress-up in order to seek information you need. A mission we completed early on saw us don various bits of clothing in order to help a woman create an image of a perpetrator. Later on, you’ll be able to buy or rent costumes for various abilities. We dressed as a policeman to try and get information out of possible witnesses. They wouldn’t talk to Holmes, dressed as a well-to-do Englishman, but they were happy to help a police officer.
And, like all good detectives, Holmes has his very own ‘mind palace’. Accessible via the menu, it’s there he’ll go to link crucial pieces of evidence together. When he’s uncovered enough, he can recreate a mental image of the scene – but only if you, the player, have been paying enough attention. You see, you’ll need to place the right elements in the right place, and if you’ve been distracted at any point during the investigation it may be easier said than done.
Help is available if you need it, however, in the form of Sherlock’s childhood friend Jonathan, or Jon. He accompanies you wherever you go, and talking to him might sometimes reveal a hint. He’s also quick to let you know if you’re doing something wrong – in the impatient way that all best friends will do – and his notebook, accessible via the game’s main menu, will provide extra information.
The world of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is particularly stunning. It’s set on the fictional island of Cordona. An island in the Mediterranean, it’s a British protectorate so you’ll expect to find a lot of British influence there. Its location, however, means its main town looks more like an Italian idyll. There’s a huge wealth divide, with poor people living in what we can only describe as shanties just outside the city, and there’s also a big range of cultures here. It’s certainly not the biggest open world you’ll have ever seen, but it’s one of the most varied. And it’s packed with sidequests and points of interest, so you’re never going to be short of something to do. Frogwares anticipates there being more than 40 hours of gameplay here.
What you may be surprised to find in a Sherlock Holmes game is the inclusion of combat. Indeed, Holmes can get physical with perps if he wants to, and an early mission sees him receive basic training from the police. Equipped with a gun, he can shoot – though you’re very much encouraged not to kill your foes. Disarming them is the aim of the game; shoot their armour to stun them for a few seconds, or otherwise disengage them which gives you an opportunity to cuff them. Interestingly, if you’d rather focus on the detective elements of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One you can skip combat entirely, which is a nice touch.
To reveal too much about Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One at this stage would be to ruin your experience a little. The joy of the game is uncovering the story and its many twists and turns as you play – but needless to say, from the few hours we’ve spent with it so far, we’re very impressed. If you’ve previously been a fan of Frogwares’ games, or enjoy immersive adventure games, we’re confident you’ll find a whole lot to like here. We can’t wait to play more.
Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is coming to PC, Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5 on 16th November. PS4 and Xbox One versions will follow.