This is Sherlock Holmes, but not quite as you know him.
Before the famous detective was, well, a famous detective, he had a childhood filled with mysteries and complexities of its own. Or at least that’s what Frogwares is imagining in its latest game focusing around the detective. Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One places us in the shoes of a young Sherlock, one who is just on the cusp of developing his world-renowned investigation skills. And as he returns to his childhood home for the first time in a decade, uncovering his own childhood remains the biggest mystery for him to solve.
The setting of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is the fictional island of Cordona. It’s a beautiful melting-pot of cultures, where British, Mediterranean and Arabic influences collide to wonderful effect. Fictional as it may be, Cordona feels like a real, living, breathing place. There’s a rich heritage here, with so many cultures and backgrounds living side-by-side. Exploring its streets is a joy; moving from the opulent centre town centre, to the bustling marketplaces, to the narrow streets and sand-blasted houses of the Old Town. Throughout the course of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, you’ll get the opportunity to poke around in practically every nook and cranny of Cordona, and you’d be wise to do so; there’s a lot to discover and take joy in simply by exploring this fascinating game world.
If you’ve played a Frogwares game before, you’ll likely find Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One’s gameplay familiar. Like the recent The Sinking City, this isn’t a game that holds your hand. Subtle hints are available if you choose to take them, sure, but for the most part, discovering your path through the game, piecing together evidence and figuring out your next port of call are all down entirely to you, the player. It makes you feel like a real detective in charge of a case; you’ll even have to place your own waypoints on a map, based on information you’ve uncovered. Indeed, even apprehending the culprit behind a case you’ve been working on is entirely down to you. You’ll make your own deductions based on the evidence you collect – whether or not that means accusing the wrong person is down to your interpretation of the evidence. As far as the game is concerned, there’s no right or wrong answer. You’re the detective, after all.
While the main story of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One revolves around Sherlock, his childhood home and his mother (and his childhood friend, Jon, who accompanies you every step of the way), there are many other cases to delve into, too. You see, Sherlock’s mother died when he was very young. Of Tuberculosis, he was told. But it seems he may not have been told the whole truth as a young boy, and as he delves into clues scattered around his abandoned family home, he’ll find new leads to follow in order to find more information. But those new leads often lead to more than just figuring out what happened to his mother. You’ll find yourself investigating the death of a man trampled by an elephant, an art gallery robbery, and more.
Each case is different from the last, and every one of them will have you delving deep into pieces of evidence, using your ‘Mind Palace’ to process clues, analysing samples, interrogating witnesses and more. Sherlock is essentially a one-man CSI unit, and so everything is his responsibility, and his alone. Testing a liquid sample to find out what chemical compounds it contains? You’ll do that through an element-based mini game. Tracking down information about a person? You’ll need to scour police and newspaper archives to find a relevant lead.
It’s possible you may come up to a dead end, unsure of what to do next. But clues are available, depending what difficulty you’ve got the game set on. On the harder difficulty, you’ll be given fewer prompts. But on the easier difficulty, you’ll know when a key location has been fully scoured for evidence. Each piece of evidence will also be labelled with useful symbols to let you know what you need to do with them; whether they lead to a useful location, need to be analysed further, or whether you need to ask more questions about it, amongst other things. So if you do find yourself at a loss, check your map and your inventory. If a location hasn’t been fully searched, you’ll have missed a key item, so return and do another sweep. Or check your evidence – perhaps there’s something else you need to do with a piece of information. Handily, the difficulty setting can be completely customised to your preference, and if you want to switch while playing, you can do so at any time from the settings.
Unlike Frogwares’ earlier Sherlock Holmes games, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One incorporates some combat elements. At certain points in the game you’ll have to physically apprehend some subjects, and that means (ideally) non-lethally taking them out and handcuffing them. Being equipped with a gun, however, means you can kill them – but the idea is to stun them by shooting something near them in the environment, shooting off their armour, or dazing them using a snuffbox. When they’re incapacitated, you can approach them and, through a short quick time event, handcuff them.
If you’d rather stick to investigating, combat can be skipped at your discretion or completely turned off without being penalised in-game. (There are some combat-related trophies, however, if that is a consideration for you.) It’s a nice touch that your gameplay experience can be so heavily customised, and for those who decide to proceed with combat, this too has its own difficulty setting, which again can be tailored to suit you. It’s fun for the most part, though can be a little repetitive after a few encounters. Thankfully, unless you seek out relevant side-missions, they’re generously spaced so it never weighs down the gameplay too much.
The true joy of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is of course in piecing together events and evidence yourself. Because of the fact that the game never pushes you in any direction, every small discovery feels like a victory. Finding a key piece of evidence that leads you down another path makes you feel like a true detective, as does successfully extracting a key bit of information from a witness. You’ll likely stumble from time to time in the quest to piece it all together, but coming up with a plausible conclusion is always cause for celebration.
There are a few rough edges to Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One; the odd duff texture here and there, and lip syncing that never quite looks right. But none of that ever gets in the way of just how engaging a game this is to play. Stepping into the shoes of the young Sherlock Holmes is a real treat, and Frogwares continues to excel at doing what it does best: delivering an immersive experience that really makes the player feel like they’re actually a detective. This is by far the developer’s best yet.
Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One – GameSpew’s Score