Frogwares have had some mixed success with Sherlock Holmes over the years, but this is unquestionably their most ambitious take yet.
While Crime and Punishment is regularly cited as the series highlight, Chapter One definitely puts forward its claim for the best Sherlock yet. But it isn’t always smooth sailing.
The big takeaway for me is that Frogwares have tried to create a real, open-world adventure game. That may sound exciting and it should, because you can pick up random side cases, go on treasure hunts, eavesdrop on conversations to gain new clues, and as with before, have multi-choice outcomes for cases.
Unfortunately, it’s also saddled with a clunky combat system, pretty poor signposting (which, we’re told, should be improved for launch) and a frankly annoying and unnecessarily stressful betting system with your companion, Jon.
Chapter One is a real origin story, introducing you to a young Sherlock Holmes, minus John Watson. As young Sherlock, you’re investigating the mystery behind your family’s past, much to the chagrin of older brother, Mycroft.
To help with this, you’ll have the aid from your best and only friend, Jon. You can tell their pals because he even calls him ‘Sherry’ . Curious yet? There’s an explanation but you won’t find those spoilers here.
Thing is, Jon is also as helpful as he is annoying, with his incessant betting mini-games. Some of these are fun and do provide some nice side-diversions, like beating him at a game of chess or giving a cane back to its rightful owner. The problem is Jon marks you down for every wrong answer you get and bad assessment you make, noting it scathingly in his journal.
This does actually impact your overall investigation score as well and is a serious shift from what Frogwares have done before. Anyone who’s ever played an adventure game has probably used everything on everyone a dozen times over. It’s the done thing, but here you have to be super on edge and cautious with every choice. And I really hated it.
I’ve played a lot of adventure games over the years. I grew up on Sierra and Lucasarts classics, so I’ve rolled with plenty of punches and adapted. But I am not a fan of the pressure this adds and it honestly feels a bit unnecessary even if I get the intention. It also doesn’t help when it’s easy to make mistakes, which I’ll get into it shortly.
Sherlock’s a super detective, right? He doesn’t make mistakes. I guess this is a way to make you feel closer to Holmes than ever, except I’m just Tom, I make plenty of mistakes and I can barely figure out where the milk is for my tea every morning.
Same for the fighting, unfortunately. It’s been tried in adventure games before and nothing here has convinced me it was worth the effort again. This time the game has areas known as Bandit Lairs. They’re completely optional – there are fight sequences in the main quest but they can be skipped – and you can visit them to fight a wave of incoming enemies.
Action is fully roam. You can aim down your sights with a gun, use Snuff powder to blind enemies when you’ve built up the action bar, and when the time is right, use QTE strikes and button taps in order to knock them down, leaving them open to arrest.
You’ll also sometimes need to chip away at random armored enemies. I say random, because, you know, this is 1910 and I don’t know why people are running around like wannabe knights. You need to aim and shoot to blast off an armor piece, which then weakens the enemy and opens them up for a strike.
You can, of course, also just shoot at enemies and kill them. Jon isn’t a fan of this, though, and even goes as far as to cite it as murder, even though these bandits are coming at you with knives waving in the air and shotguns blasting at your chest. But sure, you’re the murderer.
All this is making seem like I didn’t enjoy Chapter One, I guess, but that’s absolutely not true. In fact, despite the frustrations, I kept persevering as I wanted to learn more about the cases I was on, gain as much evidence as possible, and find the right killer responsible.
Some of this is done as it was before with Sherlock opening up his mind palace to connect clues together and make deductions. The other part of it is a little different, having Sherlock pin evidence to the screen so he can actually converse with people about the subject at hand. It’s a lovely idea, and it helps you to see things relevant to the particular investigation you’re on, allowing Sherlock to observe the environment in different ways.
Except this also links back to the consequences I mentioned earlier as speaking to the wrong person about the wrong thing affects Jon’s approval rating of you.
Overtime, you start to get used to the game’s flow and its fussy nature, but it’s been a long time since I’ve reloaded old save games this many times just to try and not have my playthrough tarnished by a second of absentmindedness.
It seems like in order to realise their open-world vision of an adventure game, Frogwares felt like they had to add some peril or repercussions for that. They really didn’t.
And it is a shame because there’s lots of cool stuff the game does, like allowing you to fully dress up to fit certain profiles and naturally blend in. I also really enjoyed rebuilding your childhood manor by buying pieces of furniture and apparel which trigger forgotten memories.
Even the cases themselves, in part, are intriguing, though also veer a bit on the bizarre with elephants and rituals just some of the things you’ll encounter and need to learn more about.
I think there’s a solid core here and, being completely truthful, this is one of the biggest breakthroughs the genre has had in years. It’s actually one of the most ambitious things I’ve seen done in games of this scale in quite sometime.
I just hope the intention is to get Sherlock to London so Frogwares can give us a proper open world, detective adventure with John Watson in tow, dialled down combat and more side-cases. Because this is where the game shines, not in getting into annoying scrapes and receiving constant disapproval and disappointment from a colleague because of a finger slip or because I took a bit longer to research my next objective.
I could even deal with young Sherlock’s overbearing nature at times because it made sense as the character is evolving and we’re taking part in his origin story. I’m just hoping this is a starting point of a much more exciting future for the man from Baker Street.
I had fun with Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. I was able to look past its shortcomings and frustrations, and pretty much got into a routine of skipping combat entirely because I like what Frogwares are building here. The game is rough around the edges like the younger, brasher, lead character, so there’s work to do for Chapter Two, finding the right balance with what worked well before, but there’s a structure and promise here with some very exciting potential indeed.
+ A surprisingly large open world with lots to see and do
+ Multi-choice outcomes for cases
+ Intriguing character development through memory building
– Combat feels out of place, is clunky and annoying
– Signposting of objectives is sometimes lackluster
– Jon’s rating and betting system adds unnecessary pressure and frustration
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is now available on PlayStation, Xbox, and Steam
Played on PlayStation 5
Code Kindly Provided by Frogwares