Sherlock Holmes Chapter One (PS5) REVIEW – Frogwares’ Best Game Yet?
November 16, 2021
PC, PS5, XBXS
If you were to ask people to name a fictional detective, there’s no doubt that the ever-present Sherlock Holmes would be one of the most popular answers. After dominating our cultural zeitgeist for more than a century, earning his author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle his legacy and knighthood, and inspiring countless other storybook sleuths such as Hercule Poirot and more recently Benoit Blanc, it should come as no shock that the witty Brit detective has stood the test of time and maintained relevance well into the modern era of streaming, the internet, and, of course, video games. After a small hiatus from the titular detective, the passionate hands at Frogwares have returned to craft yet another Sherlock Holmes mystery. Could they have lost a step since going independent, or is Sherlock Holmes Chapter One the best game they’ve conceived to date?
Taking a fresh, new crack at his origins, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One predates the rest of Frogwares’ games to explore the detective in his youth. He’s brash, cold, and calculating, caring only for the constant moral pursuit of the truth and very little else. Having no friends to speak of but his partner Jon, Sherlock comes to the isle of Cordona to seek out the mysteries surrounding his childhood home on the island, and maybe even regain his humanity. Controlling the actions and decisions of the dry and disdainful Holmes could have led to a dislikeable, unrelatable protagonist, considering the know-it-all detective starts the game without an ounce of humility in his body. Thankfully, and in a genius move on Frogwares’ part, Jon never leaves your side. He acts as a foil to Sherlock, providing constant bouts of comic relief, cheeky hints, and some much needed compassion to balance out Sherlock’s cold views on the world.
As the game progresses, your choices should help to mold Sherlock from a contempt-ridden adolescent into someone that resembles yourself. Though not as deep as something like what BioWare offers, at key moments your choices do have an impact on Sherlock’s definition of justice and how that justice affects the whole of Cordona. The Isle of Cordona and its many districts feel rich and historic. Bridges and streets are named thoughtfully, landmarks feel distinct and important to the island, and the hustle and bustle of the NPCs make you believe that this is a place that could actually exist.
The people of Cordona are brought to the forefront, cultural and social classes are prominent in each district, and each section of the island vastly different from the last. Side cases and small mysteries ranging from grisly murders to an old pirate treasure hunt not only do well to provide a rich level of content to the game, but a lot of meaningful worldbuilding for Cordona. It turns out to be a wonderful setting for Sherlock to get in touch with himself as the main plot explores the complexities of Sherlock’s childhood on the island.
The primary story at the heart of Sherlock Holmes Chapter One oftentimes pales in comparison to its colorful collection of side content. While solving crimes and uncovering mysteries for neighbors and familial friends around the island, you’ll always return to Stonewood Manor, the Holmes’ old home on Cordona. Here, Sherlock and his vivid imagination will remember bits and pieces of a relationship with his mother that his young mind had mentally blocked. As the game gathers steam in its final hours, and the pieces of Sherlock’s memories start to come together, the story gives itself reason to exist as it recontextualizes everything experienced up to this point with a new lens. It all culminates in an emotionally striking conclusion that I honestly wasn’t expecting the game to pull off.
Reaching that conclusion consists of some of the most streamlined and accessible “Sherlock” gameplay I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Crime scenes are clearly marked with interactive icons, making clue-finding a cinch. The clues are then marked with icons hinting at the best use of each clue to further the investigation. Constant note taking and Jon’s often humorous diary keep you on the right path so it’s impossible to get too lost when trying to crack a case. And yet, despite the plentiful quality of life improvements (and wonderful accessibility options), Sherlock Holmes Chapter One refrains from hand-holding the player through its complex criminal campaigns. Making connections, finding addresses, and coming to conclusions all fall squarely in the player’s lap.
Time-tested mechanics such as the disguises and the deduction-forming Mind Palace go that extra mile in putting you in the shoes of Sherlock Holmes, and small features like Sherlock’s slightly different accents when disguised and the occasions where everything in the case just clicks after finding the right clue creates a charming symbiosis between player and character. That symbiosis becomes shattered when you finally have to go toe-to-toe with Sherlock Holmes Chapter One’s biggest villain: its combat system.
Finding every bit of optional content tucked around seemingly every corner of the open world does a great job at keeping the player engaged, but as soon as that single looping combat track kicks in, whether via a bandit lair or in the middle the otherwise solid cases, you’re hit with some of the most repetitive, disjointed, and tacked on third person shooting gameplay I’ve ever had to force myself through.
I appreciate that the developers are aware that Sherlock, while admittedly known for being a good shot, isn’t a gunslinging desperado. So if you need to shoehorn combat into your latest Sherlock Holmes game, focusing on shooting off armor pieces, rolling out of the way of slow-firing muskets and thrown knives, and using the environment to stun your opponents to get in close for non-lethal melee takedowns sounds like a solid gameplay loop on paper. In practice, however, it leads to monotonously running in circles around similarly designed square arenas, shooting at highlighted weakpoints and environmental objects, and avoiding enemies’ meandering telegraphed attacks for upwards of 4 to 5 minutes at a time. All the while, Jon is repeating the same lines of advice, the music is grating, and the same 3 enemy types are spawning in waves. It’s horde mode at its worst, and if you have any respect for your time, you’ll try it once then head to the wonderful accessibility options menu that allows you to skip combat.
The tonal contrast between Sherlock Holmes Chapter One’s story and its gameplay is one of its most attractive features. While the plotlines of many cases paint vivid pictures of humanity, mortality, and mental health, the gameplay actively invites you to: impersonate a police officer without a second thought, change into a ridiculous costume (complete with silly accent) to trick a man who wouldn’t give you the time of day two seconds earlier, and walk all over crime scenes without a word of protest from anyone nearby. The almost tongue-in-cheek feel reminds me of the more whimsical LucasArts games, where the dialogue options and puzzle solutions are important, but sit hand in hand with the intrinsic entertainment value tied to the overall suspension of disbelief that comes from playing a video game.
If there’s anything that’s hard to believe, it’s how far Frogwares has come in the jump to next-gen because, for the most part, this game is gorgeous. Character models are loaded with details and personality, crime scenes and interior areas are densely dressed and atmospheric, and the Isle of Cordona itself can be truly breathtaking. Dynamic lighting enhances every facet of the characters and the environments in which they exist, but it comes off as a double edged sword when the sun shifts in the sky. At certain times in the game, the lighting can make everything appear flat and featureless, or hide details behind a thick layer of morning fog or a cover of darkness. When combined with the game’s occasional shadow and texture pop-in, leaving the meticulously picturesque interior areas and entering the open world can feel like an unfairly perceived downgrade that does a disservice to the level of detail the artists put into the visual makeup of Sherlock Holmes Chapter One.
As with previous games in the series, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One feels like a love letter to the classic literary icon. Jon and Sherlock make for absolutely fantastic partners as they banter and bounce off each other. Cases are deep and well constructed, while the central plot is a fresh and surprisingly emotional journey into the history of Sherlock Holmes. The open world is distinct and memorable with meaningful content around seemingly every corner. Though the combat leaves a lot to be desired, the highly customizable accessibility menu ensures you’ll never have to deal with it if you so choose. Being one of the most beautiful games Frogwares has made to date seals Sherlock Holmes Chapter One as his best video game outing to date.
A PS5 key was provided by PR for the purpose of this review.
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Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is one of Frogwares’ best games to date. Captivating characters and stories set against a beautiful backdrop are held back by a smattering of technical issues and repetitive combat encounters.
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