Before you even get into the game, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One comes with a fine warning speaking of sensitive content, alerting players that whilst it’s completely against the mistreatment of the individuals and cultures within the game, it doesn’t want to shy away from the harsh realities of what things used to be like. Instantly my attention was peaked more than it already was before. I knew this game wasn’t about to shy away from a sensitive subject, but just how well have trusted developer Frogwares handled the latest adventure from everyone’s favourite detective, and is it capable of holding our interest for the long haul?
Unlike other Sherlock adventures spanning TV shows, movies, books and games, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is pinned as an origin story of sorts, ditching the familiarity of the well-known and beloved published novels already on store shelves and instead letting Frogware’s creative ideas really flow.
The game takes place within the confines of the fictional island of Cordona located in the Mediterranean, ripe for sun-seeking holidaymakers to arrive and in turn become the latest subjects of investigation, once the conspiracies, robberies and murders begin to pile up of course. Cordona isn’t the usual locale for a Sherlock Holmes adventure though and the reason our quick-thinking protagonist has ventured out is to return to his childhood home in a bid to visit his mother’s grave and uncover the mystery surrounding her death, which in turn allows for a captivating open-world locale to get lost in as you uncover numerous heinous cases.
Throughout the game, players take on the role of a much younger Sherlock Holmes trying his best to prove himself, with the story bringing a much more personal side to the detective. As you progress through the game memories, past traumas, and experiences will come into play to open up on the background of our protagonist and help fill in the gaps on just how he has become the cocky and confident loveable star we have grown to love. Not to mention his sidekick/companion Watson (definitely not that one) is a fantastic secondary character who manages to pull the attitude of Sherlock together perfectly, including the attitude you choose for Sherlock to have with actions you make, whilst creating enough of a difference within himself to really bring light to some of the darker moments in-game – even if he is purely within Sherlock’s imagination.
Now it must be said that whilst the overall focus is supposedly on finding more about the events surrounding his mother’s death, the invasion of other cases as you progress makes the quest to find out about Violet Holmes more of a secondary objective than that of a key task. Sure, the story does pull you along and into the finer details of just what happened, whilst offering some interesting choices that tie in with the overall ending, however, the open-world nature ensures that all other available cases take up just as much importance as the one you initially came to solve. I can’t say it’s criticism as any game that looks to provide as much depth to its side-quests and extra tasks as it does with its main objectives will always get praise from me, however seeing the focus point is to tell the origin story of the world’s greatest detective, surely, it’s the most personal issue on the island is the one that should take priority and with Violet only appearing briefly, she’s certainly more of a secondary character throughout, although don’t take that as a negative as the storytelling on offer in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is certainly exemplary no matter which of the cases you are investigating.
Despite being a game that hides the darker side of humanity amongst its politics, corruption and frequent violence, the island of Cordona is certainly a sight for sore eyes. Exploring the open world as you look for evidence and question suspects will introduce a world of picturesque views as the day/night cycle creeps by and you explore each of the unique and well-designed districts that make up the island. A sunny holiday island may not sound like the best environment for a dark and gritty Sherlock Holmes adventure, but Cordona certainly packs a memorable punch when as you go about your investigations.
Whilst we’re on the case of impressive visuals and design, I must say that for a game that has you spending a lot of time looking at people’s faces, the character models and animations are certainly an improvement over previous Sherlock Holmes games with characters looking impressive and believable.
As for the gameplay, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One follows on from Frogwares previous title The Sinking City in that hand holding is pretty much a no-go. Instead, players are rewarded through patience, exploration, and observation. For example, should you find yourself ready to progress to the next area in a case, you won’t find that pop-up waypoint guiding you, or a wonderful golden trail to lead you to your next destination, instead you’ll need to divulge the information you have on you and the knowledge of locals if you want to find your next objective. It’s a satisfying break from the hand-holding titles that launch on a regular basis and for an investigation game such as this, it fits the style of play perfectly.
Another positive for the gameplay is that choices really are yours to make with players given complete freedom when it comes to putting clues together and pointing the finger. Not always will you know everything there is to know, even with the best will in the world and you’ll need to make decisions regarding the futures of characters and the outcomes of cases based on pure knowledge and a little gut instinct. It’s a fascinating experience and at times, it can even be unclear as to if your decision was the correct one, but the thrill of working it all out, which even resorted to me using a real pen and paper on one occasion is without a doubt a breath of fresh air when compared to other similar games such as L.A Noire, etc, which like to point you to the right answers with little effort whatsoever. It’s overwhelming at first should you not be used to games that like to pull the rug from under you but stick with it and you’ll be trapped within a fantastical investigative story in no time.
When completing any given case, the key gameplay elements come from finding information. This may be from details scribbled or printed on an item you’ve just picked up and examined, it might be from listening in on a conversation or it might be from the Sherlocks highly valuable concentration efforts which allow you to piece together your thoughts of just what happened in front of you, in a kind of way that resembles the Echoes from Tom Clancy’s The Division, only ones that you are in charge of. No matter which way you find the information, the game ensures a clever way to put the player in charge of the information and with these ‘echoes’ particularly, it really makes you play out each scenario to flush out the true possibilities of each case.
Sadly, one area of the game that doesn’t quite match the gameplay polish set before it is the combat. Now fighting isn’t all too frequent, however on the occasions in which you’ll need to go fist to fist with some assailants, you’ll often find young Sherlock forced into a wave-based effort and to ensure his investigative efforts go on, you’ll need to either kill your opponents or make clever use of the environment and some available QTE’s to knock out each of your opponents – although opting for the former of those two options will see Mr Watson look to berate you in his writing.
That said, should you wish to keep the experience as simply a purely investigative and thrilling experience, there is the option to turn off combat altogether and ensure you’re efforts are best put towards the finely tuned areas that Frogwares have mastered here.
The final thing to note here comes down to the point that first had me intrigued – the sensitive content. I’m not sure if Frogwares have tried to tackle prominent issues or rather create them to gather applause. You see sensitive subjects throughout include a case involving sexual identity, another involving sexual assault and another of racist connotations. For any game to include even one of these is certainly impressive given the sensitive nature of each, however when you begin creating plot points with such subjects, when they really have no need to be in there and would tell the story just the same, it does make you wonder what Frogwares intention is, or if they are simply looking for additional praise where it isn’t needed. Despite that, I don’t want to put a negative spin on what is genuinely a fascinating and fantastic game throughout.
Overall, if you like the world of Sherlock Holmes, enjoy a good investigative adventure, or have enjoyed any of the previous games in the series, either new or old, then Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is likely to be a game you will thoroughly enjoy. It has charm, wit, excitement, and plenty of harrowing crimes to chill you to the bone as you explore the picturesque locale of Sherlock’s childhood stomping ground. This is what I always want a Sherlock game to be.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox S|X review code, using an Xbox S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.