Review – Sherlock Holmes Chapter One
I’ve always been a sucker for a good mystery, so it’s only natural that my penchant for mystery novels would spill over into which video games I tend to enjoy. Although, for some reason I have yet to play an actual Sherlock Holmes based game. I have played several titles based off the works of Agatha Christie, such as Agatha Christie – The ABC Murders and Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot: The First Cases, but it appears I have never actually played any of the games revolving around Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I’m really happy that my first experience with one of my beloved literary characters was such a good one, with Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes Chapter One.
As the title would imply, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is a seemingly episodic game, although no sequel has been confirmed as of yet. It centers around Sherlock Holmes in a way we haven’t seen before: as an arrogant and precocious youth before he became the legendary detective. Taking place in the fictional Mediterranean island of Cordona, Holmes returns to his boyhood home after his mother’s passing. Before long, he becomes aware that his island home has become a place rife with crime and political corruption. Thankfully, the world’s greatest detective is never one to back down from a challenge, and he begins to uncover the depravity and social class issues all around him.
As you might expect, most of the gameplay in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One involves investigating various crime scenes and getting to the bottom of each case. The main story focuses on Holmes trying to piece together memories of his past, which is done through solving cases around the island. Holmes has many different skills at his disposal to uncover the truth, such as Concentration, analyzing the surroundings and individuals, a camera, a casebook where he can keep track of his cases and pin evidence, disguises, and of course his notorious Mind Palace.
The Concentration mode in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One acts very much like one featured in Frogwares’ The Sinking City. When using Concentration, clues become easier to spot and certain events of the case can be reconstructed. Concentration can be used to gain more knowledge about a person just from visual clues alone, which can then be combined to create a personality profile for that individual. At times Holmes will even be able to use Concentration to pick up on old trails to track down culprits. It’s a very handy mechanic, even if it’s not the most original.
A feature I appreciated in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, even if it wasn’t always the most clear, was the use of disguises. As someone who hails from a wealthy, well-to-do family, being able to get workers and members of the lower class to open up and trust Holmes isn’t always easy. Nor is being able to sweet talk your way into a police station. In circumstances like these, often times the wisest course of action is to dress yourself according to situation as needed.
My only issue with this concept is that it isn’t always clear what exactly is needed in the disguise in order to be successful. In one instance I got very frustrated because I thought I was wearing the appropriate attire to get into the locked area I was trying to access, but I kept getting denied because I was missing a specific hat. Luckily, this sort of thing didn’t occur too much, but I still felt the disguises could have been explained in a bit better detail.
Holmes also has a camera to take pictures of various pieces of evidence or points of interest, but this tool isn’t used very often. I actually forgot I had a camera at one point because it’s so underused. The main tool he’ll use is his casebook. This is where he will keep track of what cases he has open, see what evidence has been collected, pin the evidence most relevant to his current investigation, view what information he has learned, as well as tracking all of his progress for each case.
The casebook is his best friend… aside from Jon, an imaginary friend that only Holmes can see. Jon acts as a sounding board for Holmes to bounce ideas off of. He might be imaginary, but he isn’t afraid to poke fun at Holmes or become frustrated when it’s taking him too long to have a breakthrough in a case. Jon’s presence is a peculiar one, and one that I found myself quite enjoying.
Jon is also present to weigh-in whenever Holmes tries to reconstruct a memory or a scene of a crime using his Mind Palace. Whenever Holmes obtains enough information about a case, he can enter a sort of meditative state and use his Mind Palace to piece together prior events. This helps him to get a better idea of what transpired before he got there. If he reconstructs the events incorrectly, Jon will be the first to point out his missteps. Only by correctly ascertaining what took place will allow him to progress the story.
The Mind Palace is also where Holmes will piece together all of the information and evidence he has collected in order to draw definitive conclusions about what actually happened. One of the things I like most about this game is that there are two sides to every story. Holmes will have to make character profiles for some of the people of interest in each case. Is the person in question a hardened criminal looking to pull scams on the upper class, or are they someone who’s had a lifetime of hardships and are genuinely looking to start a new life for themselves? In Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, you get to decide which profile you believe fits best and discover the results of your decisions much later. Knowing that there can be real consequences based on your decisions really raises the stakes.
Unfortunately, these more gripping moments while solving the cases are often times bogged down by combat situations. Many times throughout the game, Holmes will find himself having to engage in combat with various thugs. I understand wanting to add something to break up the investigative gameplay, but the combat in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One just feels tacked on.
Holmes is equipped with a pistol and some peppermint snuff, which can only be used sparingly to stun enemies. Every enemy has weak points, as do the environments. Using Concentration will allow Holmes to see those weak points and auto-aim onto them. The key is to not kill the enemy, only subdue them for arrest. The combat as a whole feels awkward and unnecessary, and brings the pace of the game to a screeching halt.
That being said, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is a game that doesn’t hold your hand. At all. Aside from some very basic instructions on how some of the core gameplay mechanics work, there’s almost no help whatsoever to be found in this game. Some aspects of this are extremely refreshing, such as actually having to look at street names on your map and city signs in order to figure out where you’re going. Other things, like having to pin the exact right piece of evidence before anyone will talk to you about an open cases you’re investigating, can be very frustrating. Thankfully, after playing around with the various tools at your disposal, it’s usually not too long before the “a ha” moment of discovery of what to do next.
The island of Cordona is also a surprisingly lively place, with each district having it’s own feel. Much like a bustling metropolis, each of the districts are clearly influenced by the primary populace living there. The more affluent areas are gorgeous and hold predominantly wealthy individuals. The older areas have more merchants and middle class folk. Then there are the outskirts of the towns that house the poor workers. All of this is done purposefully to tackle one of the main themes of the game: social class issues.
Since Sherlock Holmes Chapter One tales place in the 19th century, the setting and treatment of specific races and demographics is fully on display here. In fact, there’s even a warning at the beginning of the game reminding players of the fact that these characters were borne of a different time and that certain views, terminology, and treatment of other social classes was common place at that time.
This is something that could have easily become offensive if not handled properly, but the team at Frogwares handled the subject matter with great respect, surprisingly not shying away from the unpleasantness at all. They present Sherlock Holmes as someone who honestly doesn’t care about of these stigmas and is only interested in solving the cases and doing what he feels is the right course of action. Since the decisions about what to do are in the hands of the players, we essentially get to choose the narrative to a point.
Aside from the the main cases and trying to restore your childhood memories, there’s a lot of other experiences to be had in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. Sidequests are held within the Stories of Cordona sub tab of your casebook, which are surprisingly varied. As you might expect, there are smaller cases to be solves for citizens all over Cordona. Honestly, I ended up enjoying these just as much if not more than the main cases. They give more of a realistic glimpse into the lives of the citizens of Cordona (yes, I know I’m talking about realism for a fictional location) and they make the island of Cordona feel more authentic and alive.
They’re not all taking up smaller cases for townsfolk either. Some of the other missions in the Stories of Cordona sections involve treasure hunting. These are presented in a couple of different ways. Some of the sidequests will give you pictures of locations all over the island, and it’s up to you to figure out where the treasure is hidden based off the photos. Other quests will have to following a series of riddles to various locations across the island until you find the treasure. Neither of these necessarily add any depth to the world, but it’s a great incentive to have you fully explore the island or have something else to look for while you’re traveling from one side to the next.
Regardless of whether or not you enjoy the more menial tasks while running all over Cordona, there’s no denying just how stunning it is. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is a beautiful game. All of the environments are gorgeous and well varied, with vibrant color palettes, rich textures, and dynamic lighting all throughout. Even the character models have been greatly improved from other Frogwares games, especially their animations. The characters now look and act more like believable people instead of stiff dolls at playtime. I was constantly impressed with the noticeable difference in fabric textures in Holmes’s vest, gloves, and jacket.
That being said, such an ambitious undertaking does show how much it’s straining to keep up appearances, even on next gen consoles. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is a gorgeous game, no one can argue that. However, it does suffer from some pretty bad framerate drops, especially when Holmes is running and fighting enemies. It also has some stuttering issues whenever there are lots of characters onscreen or especially when Holmes is running through the streets. The same goes for pop-ins, which are most present whenever Holmes is moving through a section too quickly. So I guess if you want to get the best visual experience, walk don’t run, if you have the patience for that of course.
The sound design is also excellent. The vocal performances are very strong throughout Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. From sassy, swaggering Holmes to hilarious, caring, and at times patronizing Jon, each character leaves their mark on the game. The sound effects are well done, especially the ambient sounds of nature surrounding Cordona, and the bustling streets and marketplaces.
For the most part, I really enjoyed my time with Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. I will admit that were some truly frustrating times when I needed to do something that wasn’t explained well, but for the most part, that wasn’t an issue for too long. What kept me going was just how enthralling the cases and characters were. It’s been a while since I’ve been this engrossed by a detective series and its world, but Frogwares took notes from their other games and righted a lot of wrongs. It might not be a perfect game, but Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is a great time in a rich world. I certainly hope there’s more to come.
A gorgeous game with some beautiful and diverse locations. The character models and animations have been vastly improved from other Frogwares titles. It does suffer from some framerate drops, stuttering, and pop-ins though.
Sherlock will have to perform investigations, carefully note subtle details, ask the right questions, and meticulously scour crime scenes for clues. His mind palace is intelligently designed and helps him make the proper deductions. The combat sections feel awkward and tacked on though.
The voice acting consists of strong performances all around and the music is wonderful.
Fun Factor: 8.0
Investigations take some refreshingly logical thinking in order to solve cases and figure out what to do next.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Sherlock Holmes Chapter One was provided by the publisher.