I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read the classic stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle countless of times, and I’m generally interested in anything Holmesian, regardless of the form in which it’s presented.
My issue with videogame adaptations of beloved works of literature — like Sherlock Holmes, for example — is that the writing is usually nowhere near as sophisticated as the source material, sometimes to the point of doing a disservice to the original author and familiar readers.
That’s why I’m generally happy with developer Frogwares’ third-person adventure game iteration of the world’s most famous detective — these people can write exceptionally well and they have a good formula. Their take on the material offers point-and-click evidence collecting at crime scenes with a clue interpretation system via the ‘Mind Palace’ which allows for deductions, conclusions, and eventually, verdicts. These verdicts include moral choices, usually between condemning and absolving a criminal which allow the player to link the logical to the ethical.
I’m glad to see both the writing and the formula return for their latest crack at Holmes. This time around, we are in Cordona (possibly a pun meant for players in lockdown), a fictional island in the Mediterranean where Sherlock spent a part of his childhood. Chapter One features a 21-year-old, before-he-was-famous Holmes returning to visit his mother’s grave, and in the process a mystery is revealed.
Besides the age of Sherlock, there’s another new twist — Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is an open-world game, and features interactive NPCs providing sidequests, shops where clothes can be purchased to aid with blending in with Cordona’s populace, landmarks and frequent fast travel stations. There is also a feature — if one looks for them — where Sherlock can eavesdrop and learn about secret meetings and unlocking more tasks. The world is clearly still in an early stage of development, but I’m looking forward to when it’s more densely populated with these things.
In terms of design, I struggled with the gameplay — instead of having general objectives, the player has to manually select items from the casebook which indicate follow-up. I found this confusing, especially because the descriptions of cases are not clear in regards to what action to take. In the final mission of the preview, for example, I was left with not knowing what to do next, to the point that I wasn’t even sure if I’d arrived at the end of the preview or not. Just a bit more of a nudge here without direct handholding would go a long way.
A more significant issue is that I am passionately opposed to the combat sections in Chapter One. Just as in their previous game, The Sinking City, combat is not needed to make a detective title work, but here it is.
In my view, developers generally throw combat in where it doesn’t naturally fit because they (unjustifiably) equate it with ‘fun’, but I cannot believe that developers with such a thorough grasp on Doyle’s work would see it the same way. Sherlock is a detective, not a soldier. A thinker, not a brute. The mere idea of bandit camps which can be cleared through combat is an utter joke in this context, and I found the combat I saw in the preview to be cringe-inducing.
As is stands, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One offers great promise and I look forward to Frogwares’ second attempt at open-world design, but I do hope that they use the time before release to polish up the UI and give the combat a second thought. If they focus on their strengths, spending time with young Holmes should prove to be a very interesting adventure.
Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One will release for PC, XBOX Series X and Playstation 5 November 16, 2021.