A Study in Perspective
HIGH The cerebral gameplay is a great break from action titles.
LOW Needing an FAQ to find overlooked items.
WTF Why isn't there a Benedict Cumberbatch skin?
After playing scores of games that have me jumping, shooting, punching, driving, and exploding things in action-packed settings, it's a rare pleasure to play a title that manages to be interesting and engaging while keeping the volume below eleven.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes fits that bill, and is exactly what a game starring the world's greatest detective should be: slow, methodical, cerebral investigation, with just enough intrigue to keep it moving. There are no quick-time events (QTEs) to mash, and no headshots to take. There's no combat, nor a life bar to manage. In fact, it's not even possible to die in the game, and that's quite all right with me.
Analogous to a PC-style point-and-click adventure, Testament has Holmes and his faithful sidekick Watson working through a series of crimes that take numerous twists and turns before leading to the conclusion that Holmes is a fraud and a criminal, rather than the unbeatable deduction machine that people around the world know him to be. It's an unconventional story that had me constantly second-guessing the hero, and I appreciated it for that.
In terms of characterization, the work done here was a great fit for the plot. Watson is a slightly dim Dudley Do-Right, but Holmes is ruthlessly intelligent, and has no problem ignoring the law when it suits his purpose. In fact, I'd say that he's something of an anti-hero, and I found that dark edge to be fascinating. Although this game has no connection to the recent BBC series Sherlock, I would guess that the developers have taken a few character notes from that program's semi-sociopathic star. As a huge fan of that show, I approve.
However, Sherlock's slightly amoral intellectual superiority has a deeper impact on the game than his demeanor. Despite the fact that he's the character under direct control of the player for most of the adventure, his calculations are portrayed as so insightful and astute that both Watson and I were constantly trailing behind his thought processes. For example, after solving whatever puzzle was at hand, it was common for Holmes to announce the next step in the investigation while everyone else (including me) was still standing around with question marks floating above our heads.
It's a bold directorial decision to leave players in the dark on such a basic level since they're the one finding clues and searching down leads. However, this technique was quite effective as a way of reinforcing the image of a character who's always written as operating far above the level of normal man. It felt appropriate to be three steps behind at any given time, and reinforced Sherlock's status as a super- genius. Even when in charge of his every action, the player can never be as smart or as adept as he is, and that's an uncommon thing in video games.
When it comes to Testament apart from the characters, the experience was largely satisfying. I'm no expert on the realities of England's history, but the game paints a vivid picture that satisfies my imagination. The atmosphere is richly rendered with plenty of small, quasi-Dickensian details in every environment, showing both the stiff upper classes and the diseased dregs of society in equal degrees. On the other hand, while the characters and mood were on the mark, the gameplay wasn't quite as smooth as it could've been.
For the first half of the game, things moved along swimmingly. Some puzzles and tasks were better (read: less contrived) than others, but it wasn't hard to settle into the investigator's shoes and solve some crimes. However, the second half proved more problematic. While I wouldn't say that the puzzles were especially difficult for a game of this sort, there were times when I missed a key object because an object was outside my field of vision, or because I was looking in the right place at the wrong time.
In other instances, the game's interface was what held me up. There are certain lock picking puzzles which are oddly difficult to manipulate, and sometimes it's not clear what kind of input the game wants. It all becomes clear with a little time and experimentation, but more clarity and tweaking of the user interface could have avoided a good number of unnecessary headaches. It was smart thinking on the developer's part to allow players to skip any puzzle (or all of them, if so desired) after a few minutes, but that seems like a shortcut to avoid ironing out the trouble spots.
Although some sequences in the second half may have players running to find an FAQ if they don't skip the puzzles outright, I found The Testament of Sherlock Holmes to be an enjoyable, offbeat experience that serves as a great change of pace for players who don't mind putting the guns and explosives aside once in a while. If nothing else, it's proof that not every game needs a tightly-tuned twitch factor to succeed.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, and use of drugs. Make no mistake, although there's no real-time action, this game is intended for adult audiences. Many of the investigations are quite gruesome and graphic, the use of opium is brought up on several occasions, and the overall tone of the writing and dramatic elements are clearly not meant for children. Grown-ups only!
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: in general, this game is quite accessible, and all dialogue is subtitled. However, there are times when the game will give a small auditory cue like a "ping!" or a "beep!" which means that there is an item in the environment that the player should investigate. There is also a visual cue on-screen, but sometimes these visuals are easy to miss. Although the game does not rely on these sound cues, players with hearing impairments will have to pay close attention to small details in order to avoid getting stuck.