It’s been one hell of a year (or two… I forget) and the best thing we need is plain and simple. We needed a new Sherlock Holmes game, and one from the legendary developer, Frogwares. With the studio having quite some trouble with the publisher of The Sinking City, fans were left in the dark on whether or not we would ever get a brand new game. Thankfully, one of the only joys to 2021 is the release of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, a reboot of the iconic series from the developer, with a younger, toyboy version of Sherlock Holmes, who ventures back to his home island in order to resolve some unsettling personal matters.
Has Frogwares come back with a shining revival of the detective, or should they start fresh with a gaming adaption of another detective? (Maybe Columbo? Or Morse? Or even The Hardy Boys?)
(WARNING – LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD)What is Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One?
Chapter One is a fresh start to the Sherlock legacy in the media of gaming. After The Devil’s Daughter, there has been a 5-year wait for the next game from Frogwares, and this serves as a brand-new take, thematically and mechanically for the charismatic and sleuthing kid detective.
We see a young, fresh-faced Sherlock Holmes at the beginning of his career, working as a "consulting detective" for hire. Following the tragic death of his mother, the young detective makes his way back to his childhood home, the Mediterranean island of Cordona. It's not long before Sherlock finds himself enthralled with a sinister conspiracy lurking within the beautiful island paradise.
With the help of his friend Jon, (who is not Watson before you ask) the duo will explore the beautiful island, help some of the more interesting locals and solve plenty of cases in order to unravel the bigger mystery at hand. However, they can expect some hostility from locals, thorough investigating and making some incredibly difficult decisions that will question your morality and very being as a person. Story
The central plot revolves around the tragic death of Sherlock’s Mother and his return to the island of Cordona some years later. With his arrival, it soon becomes apparent that not is all that it seems to be. After revisiting the family home and conducting some curious sleuthing, Sherlock discovers that not all the details of his mother’s death were accurate. Stranger still, upon asking some simple questions and finding old family friends, the young detective soon finds several dead bodies under mysterious circumstances. All of whom knew your mother and died shortly after her demise.
Following a plentiful number of leads, Sherlock undercovers a massive conspiracy linked to his family and it’s all up to him to resolve the matter before it could end the Holmes bloodline.
Previous Frogware games have always been constructed as a sort of anthology, with several cases to solve and all of them linked by a singular thread. Crimes and Punishment and The Devil’s Daughter both mastered this approach and created intriguing mysteries with a central note to link them all up. It really depended much on the player if the single thread which connected all the cases together was good or not. But each of the cases was excellently handled and offered a great deal of player investment and personality.
Chapter One is really the first game with such a big narrative and one that could lead people to have some doubts going in. There are still plenty of smaller mysteries to solve and all of which are great. They all have the classic thematic elements and execution you would expect from a good Sherlock Holmes story. The singular thread connecting them all is on a much more personal level and one which is also handled very well. I like the more personal motive and elements that unravel when Sherlock dives a little deeper into the case. The main story beats work well and the depth in investigation and personal interest/risk and reward will keep you thoroughly invested throughout.
There are also some great side missions that lend certain thematic connections to the main story and often revolve around a small injustice leading to something much more sinister. Plenty of great reveals are guaranteed but like many games’ prior, the player will often need to make a difficult decision that could lead to some tragic repercussions.
The one element of the story which I wasn’t so keen on was the inclusion of Jon, not Watson, but Sherlock’s childhood imaginary friend who aids him in his adventure. Jon is not certainly a bad character or plot device but one that leaves an odd taste in the mouth and feels a little contrived by the end. Especially so since Jon can rather annoying at most times.Gameplay
As you might expect from a Sherlock Holmes game, there will be plenty of sleuthing, exploration, discovery, and of course, deduction. The young detective will be free to explore the beautiful island and solve a series of cases through any means necessary. This will include using your keen detective skills of deduction, but a good pair of eyes to spot all the clues and hidden details and maybe even a disguise or two to figure out the (in cockney) “nasty so and so who did commit the murder”.
Sherlock will have about him his many tools for the job, with a journal for taking down notes, many of which you will have to reflect upon, and even select the right one when questioning or asking people about the case at hand. Exploration and finding key items in incredibly important and missing even one of the most important items in the case could lead to a massive stall in the progression.
Collecting evidence, asking people about certain key events or items, observing and questioning suspects, and allowing your “Mindspace” to piece everything together are the core elements of Chapter One’s investigative gameplay. Thereof course other elements which make an appearance, such as disguises and light combat to fill in the gaps between, and an open world to explore.
And of course, there are plenty of mini-games! Which are great fun in most instances. From light chemistry to eavesdropping, Frogwares certainly do love adding a mini-game to make detective work more interesting.
Sherlock’s main goal is to gather evidence and piece it together to find certain beats of the case, thus further progression, examining certain substances (in a fun little mini-game) and breaking them down into their individual solutions or piecing together all the main beats of a case to come to some conclusion on which suspect should get arrested (or freed if you’re feeling generous).
Frogwares have done this “Multiple Suspects” angle before and it’s a very thoughtful one, adding to the tension of getting the right results, but also adding in plenty of reply value. But unlike the Devil’s Daughter, you won’t know 100% who is rightly to blame. But depending on your stance, this could be either fascinating and a bold move, or simply an annoying and unrewarding end to a list of chores. I’ll share my thoughts on this later/
What Chapter One does offer is a venture with very little to no handholding. It seems some were upset by the Devil’s Daughter's gentle guidance from time to time and thus, you can expect some confusion and repetition during your sleuthing. Everything is explained thoroughly and while the systems may seem complex, they’re really not. There is a confident set of systems to make deduction and investigation more interesting, getting you to go back and forth in your notes and reflect more so on your progression. But some things can be easily forgotten about, such as highlighting key items or insights before asking questions to a passer-by or prime suspect. There is also a lack of direction when handling certain tasks and even Jon provides no useful tips in these instances.
But Chapter One is an incredibly ambitious game and one which I feel is a great starting point for Frogwares to expand upon.What had I liked?
The main plot to Chapter One is one of the best in the series, with plenty of personal elements to allow us to see more of Sherlock Holmes whose personal life has eluded us since Frogwares has been developing the series. But the mystery at hand is incredibly captivating, holding plenty of emotional threads and moments of breathless tension while giving a climatic and satisfying end to the main story.
The core components of the detective gameplay are as versatile and engaging as ever. Sherlock’s tools and thought processes, along with the sleuthing gameplay elements all around together beautifully to make for one of the most compelling and thrilling detective games to date. This is certainly a game that rewards you for your keenness and detailed observations while giving you plenty of room to make your own assumptions and conclusions to some heavy and enthralling mysteries.
I loved many of the smaller elements such as the mini-games and for the most part, the discovery for clues and side missions are very entertaining to take part in. Everything for the detective gameplay really intertwine beautifully and felt wholesomely rewarding right until the end of the adventure.
Aside from the gameplay, visually this is a beautiful-looking game with some nice sound design and voiceovers. Some of the voice work is a little off and the facial animations at certain moments do again look uncanny valley. But the beautiful location really did make this a sight to behold. Plus, Frogwares know how to capture the weirdness that much Sherlock Holmes media has incorporated in the past. Making it feel more like the BBC’s Adventure of Sherlock Holmes back from the 1980s/90s.What could have been better?
The world while beautiful does feel a little shallow and dull at times. I didn’t want a Shenmue clone, but It would have been great to have a more interactable world, that rewarded you when exploring. To find secrets, interesting observations, or maybe even fragments that added to the world-building and main story could have been great fun and lent towards meaningful exploration and world design.
I love many of the mini-games but some of them are just awful. The eavesdropping mini-game just made no sense and seems to function on you knowing more than you do at the time of the conversation.
I also found a few moments of logic were, there was no logic or where a helping hand could’ve been useful. Instead of Jon just being a right tit and constantly saying I had or was doing something wrong. Such as a few moments I needed a disguise and thought I had the right one on, only to be told it wasn’t. Previous games had very few disguises and even though you could add or alter certain aspects, you could finely tell which outfit would work. Like a sailor outfit to enter a pub where sailors go too. But to enter a poorhouse, there were a dozen outfits that could have fit the bill to allow me entry. Yet nearly all of them were wrong, even the one which had Sherlock looking like he had an extremely rough night in East London.
Lastly, I found the combat to be somewhat tonally deft here, especially when we see Sherlock have a shootout with a few guys in a warehouse and can easily murder them all without any consequences. I don’t mind action set pieces even in a detective game, but maybe include a more gratifying reward for detaining suspects or be a little more inventive with the situations. A thrilling chase sequence would lend better to Sherlock’s adventure and keep with the thematic side of things. Maybe focus more on stealth and figuring a way around a group of enemies, by causing a distraction or hiring a group of thugs to take care of them. Something rather than a cover-based shooter where you can murder all of the suspects as you please.Overall?
Chapter One shows great promise for the future, if not with some shortcomings. The story is thoroughly engaging, the detective gameplay wonderfully entertaining and many of the smaller elements really do add up to make one of the best games in the series. Despite the clunky moments such as the combat, some mini-games, and the ill logic which befalls you from time to time, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is defiantly the return we could have hoped for. Let Frogwares learn from the mistakes here and deliver (hopefully) the greatest Sherlock Holmes game with the next installment.
++ Beautifully crafted main story and side missions
+ Engaging and inventive investigative gameplay
+ Wonderful presentation and visuals
-- The world needed more depth and activities
- Some ill logic in some cases
- Combat is a little clunky
A Steam review key for Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One was provided by the publisher for this review