Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is, he’s probably the most well-known and recognisable fictional character of the last few centuries. He’s been portrayed in many different styles through movies, books, TV shows, anime, and video games, homing in on his keen attention to detail as he solves intricate crimes in his own unique and straight-to-the-point way. When it comes to video games, Frogwares are veterans at creating interesting, highly interactive, puzzling, adventurous, and exciting experiences based on the famous detective. I can finally reveal that over the last few weeks I’ve been extremely fortunate to get my hands on an early build of their latest game, the upcoming Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One.
Frogwares has released ten games based upon Sherlock Holmes, ranging from tracking down the infamous Jack the Ripper, to combining the quirky detective with the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft. They’ve also branched out to cover other franchises such as Dracula, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Around the World in 80 Days, each one being innovative for the time and building upon their previous games’ mechanics. Their latest venture saw us travel to Oakmont as we explored a vast open world full of Lovecraftian creatures and horrors, discovering the secrets of The Sinking City.
So, after two long years, I finally got my hands on a very early build of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, a game that takes us back to the younger days of the titular detective, telling a new origin story of how a 21-year-old aspiring detective develops and enhances his abilities on his journey of becoming the most well-known sleuth in the world – maybe even more popular than Poirot, and his little grey cells (who is also, conveniently, getting a game based on his younger years later this month)
The question is, did this preview copy increase my hype or make me lower my expectations? Let’s find out…
I’m not going to talk about the story within Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, mainly because the preview copy we’ve been playing only let us get so far before stopping us from progressing, but also because the narrative contains a lot of plot points that would be considered spoilers. However, I’ve read the blurb on all of the storefronts, so I know what I can and can’t say safely as the information is already out there.
Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One begins with 21-year-old Sherlock returning to his home town, Cordana – a place he left many years ago when his mother died, leaving behind the memories and experiences he had there. He’s returned to visit his mother’s grave, who sadly died of TB eleven years ago in 1869, in order to pay his respects. However, upon seeing his old family mansion once more, past events and suppressed memories begin to resurface, leading to him doubting the conditions surrounding his mother’s death and the truth behind her illness.
Anyone who’s familiar with the fictional protagonist will know that he’s almost always accompanied by his trusty friend, colleague, and published author, Doctor John Watson. Well, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One does give you a sidekick who balances out your serious nature with comedy and common sense reasoning, but it’s not John Watson, it’s your childhood friend Jonathan – aka, Jon. Basically, before John Watson, there was Jon, a mysterious friend of Sherlock who has been by his side since he was a young child. That’s as much as I can say about Jon, I only know a little about who he is (in the sliced content I’ve played), but I can’t wait to find out more!
As you’d expect from a wannabe detective, although your main focus is on the newly discovered questions surrounding your family on the island, you can’t turn down helping others that are in need as you explore the huge and living open world. Whether you’re tracking down a stolen donkey and violin, or trying to figure out if an elephant purposely killed someone or was provoked into it via a devious plan, there’s a new adventure around every corner and resolving the disputes often requires you to think outside of the box and utilise many of Sherlock’s creative abilities.
In previous Sherlock Holmes games, most notably The Devil’s Daughter and Crimes & Punishments, you had to change your clothes, accessories, and facial hair in order to blend in with certain people whilst trying to solve a case. You were given a small number of options to choose from and a vague clue as to how you should look if you wish the story to progress. Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One takes this mechanic and expands on it, making it a much more intricate mechanic within the game, one which I happily spent a few hours experimenting with to see how the dialogue changed in certain circumstances.
Once you first gain this ability, you’re given a few clothing, hats, facial hair, and makeup options, allowing you to completely transform the way you look. You can be a beat-up thug, a glamorous woman, an old man, or a young policeman. But, as you solve crimes and earn money, you can expand your wardrobe to one bigger than any famous American socialite! What I loved about this mechanic is you don’t simply change your look, you change the way every single NPC in the world reacts and interacts with you.
As a laugh, like I usually do, I decided to cross-dress Sherlock in a nice red dress, complete with a child’s pirate hat and a glorious beard and moustache combo. As I walked around the streets of Cordona, talking to the locals about the case I was working on, people referred to me as a lady, presuming my pronouns based upon the attire I was wearing. I know some people may think that’s wrong, but I found it hilarious as I love it when games let you mess around like this – I presume you’ll have to dress feminine (with makeup as well) later into the game.
I then decided to take on the elephant case, which I mentioned above, but I dressed as a policeman. I don’t think I had to do that, I had just got it so I thought it would be fun to wear it. Now, all the witnesses and suspects I talked to called me an officer and it felt like they were opening up and providing more answers due to them thinking I was actually one of the police officers. Basically, what you dress as changes how people react and what types of answers you get from people – it’s brilliantly implemented and a massive enhancement over how the mechanic worked in Frogwares‘ previous games.
The Sinking Sherlock
Just like we saw in The Sinking City, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One borrows and enhances many aspects from previous games, giving the overall product a distinct ‘Frogwares‘ feeling to it. Aside from the disguises I talked about above, solving the crimes is almost identical to the Lovecraftian action-adventure game, only more refined and interactive.
If you’ve not played The Sinking City, a big selling point was the lack of hand-holding and an emphasis on discovering clues and plotting destinations yourself. This feature has returned, allowing you to flick between the various cases and plot markers on the big map based on the information you’ve gathered, found via the various resource points (such as the City Hall or Police Station archives), discovered by talking to people on the street, or you’ve guessed based on landmarks and directions.
We also see the return of Sherlock’s ‘Mind Palace’, a place where you combine clues and evidence to form conclusions and theories. You can then make moral and strategic choices to arrive at differing conclusions, alternating the final outcome of that case in one of many ways – will you arrest someone, set them free, blame a different person, or kill the animal involved – it all boils down to how you perceive the data you uncover. However, just like The Sinking City, coming to a conclusion isn’t the be-all and end-all, you can change the outcome when interacting with your suspect – you can even undo and try another route before committing to the one you chose.
I love the moral choices and outcomes Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One gives you, there doesn’t appear to be a right or wrong answer in some instances, but the short-term narrative and some subsequent events change based on what you decided to do.
Sherlock likes guns…
One of the big changes in this game over previous entries, not including the open world rather than a more linear adventure, is the combat. You’re going to either love it or hate it – I’m starting to like it. The combat segments are dedicated arenas that mix real-time shooting with QTEs and slow-motion adrenaline effects. Technically, outside of the initial training exercises, you can shoot the enemies to death with your deadly boom-stick, but that’ll cause Jon to think less favourably of you. So, the best course of action is to disable the suspect then engage with QTE fisticuffs that lead to their arrest.
The process is quite simple – when you begin to aim you’ll use some adrenaline, slowing down the world and granting you ‘Sherlock Vision’ – highlighting useful distractions and weak points on your foe’s body. For example, shooting the ammo pack on their back will result in them being shocked by the noise, allowing you to interact and follow the simple QTE to knock them out. Alternatively, you can shoot lights so they fall on them, wine barrels so they gush liquid out, or attack the flour bags to create a cloud of ‘smoke’.
I personally didn’t click with the combat at first – mainly because the build we’re using is very unoptimised so the response wasn’t as fluid as I’d hoped, so I kept missing the QTE actions. But, after I adjusted my PC settings, played for a few hours, and beat up a few criminals, I started to enjoy it – it’s a nice distraction from the detailed crime-solving you’re doing for the majority of the time. That’s right, combat is quite rare during the cases we were given, but you can also enter Bandit Lairs and aim to take down a certain number of enemies to unlock new items and money.
Whatcha talkin’ about?!
Earlier on, I talked about the disguises and how Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One has perfectly integrated the mechanic into the game – forcing you to dress and look appropriately based on who you’re trying to get information off and where you’re trying to gain entry to. Well, there’s another new mechanic that’s an enhancement from The Sinking City, one which further pushes you to use your head and really think about what you’re trying to do at that point in time.
As you gain new info, clues, and evidence, you can ‘pin’ the key document regarding this to Sherlock’s mind. Once pinned, every time you talk to an NPC, you’ll be asking them if they know anything about that particular subject. It’s so simple, yet it works perfectly, requiring you to think about what you look like, where you are, and what you actually want to ask that person. Similarly, if you’re trying to recreate events or recall certain memories, you have to have the relevant document pinned for them to even appear so you can interact with them – making the game far more immersive than any previous game from the developer.
Also, as a side activity, Jon will occasionally throw curveballs into each case, asking you to find something or talk to certain people. If you complete these optional extras, you’ll often get a reward that will further fund your obsessive clothes shopping addiction!
Speaking of buying things, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One has something I simply adore – base building! Okay, it’s not ‘base building’, but your family home has been stripped bare as all the assets were sold upon the death of your mother. As such, one of the side quests is to scour the local markets as the game progresses, buying all the furniture and art which once belonged to your family. As you populate the house with more items, you’ll uncover more memories of the past and unlock new rooms to explore.
On command, you can enable Sherlock Vision (the game calls it Concentration, but it’s Sherlock Vision to me). This blue-tinted ability allows you to pre-judge every NPC you’re looking at, displaying three characteristics for that particular person. But why? Well, take the first case – returning a cane to its rightful owner. You’re given a vague description of a person who was talking to the owner, using that info you can determine if you’re looking at the correct person by enabling the SV mode and seeing if their key observational features match the info you’ve got pinned.
Sherlock the spy
Frogwares love throwing you into a world and then watching from afar, giggling to themselves as you run around looking for the next step or case. They have a very hands-off approach, wanting you to gain the satisfaction of working things out all by yourself – hence why the manual map plotting has returned. Also, finding new cases is sometimes missable, requiring you to keep a keen eye and ear out for things such as people talking on the street. If you spot a few nattering NPCs, listen in and decipher their conversion to gain intel on a new issue or crime. I personally don’t like this minigame as much as I wanted to, but maybe I just don’t fully understand it (or it’s not 100% complete in this build).
Sherlock the chemist
One of the minigames we had access to involves working out the elements within chemicals and liquids you find at the scene of a crime. These are solved by placing other liquids with various stats onto the table and then either splicing multiple together, inverting the numeric values, or increasing the value using a catalyst. It sounds more complicated than it is, see the image above. I enjoyed doing these as they become more challenging as you progress – it’s better than simply following instructions to create a clone as we saw in previous games.
I have a feeling this isn’t the extent of Sherlock’s abilities, the build we had only gave us access to a few cases and side missions, so I’m sure we’ll see more when the full game releases.
I’m not going to talk about the performance, as it’ll be unfair due to ongoing optimisations and the fact my PC has an old GeForce GTX 780ti in it. However, I did crank the game up to Ultra and slap on a 30fps cap so that I could see how the game looks at its finest (right now). I was very impressed, the game is more detailed than The Sinking City (PS5 edition) and looks fantastic – especially which it’s midday and the sun is lighting up the whole island.
Hopefully the images I’ve used in this review showcase just how colourful and detailed both the environments and characters are – they were all taken from my PC at 1080p. There is no official photo mode (something I hope Frogwares adds at some point), but Nvidia’s screenshot mode (Alt+F2) works a charm, allowing you to add a number of filters and even force the game to literally max out all settings so you grab the best looking image possible.
In terms of the voice acting, I had doubts that I’d like it initially as I’m used to a more older and mature Sherlock. However, every single voice within the game, especially the two protagonists, are brilliant. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, it’s very polished and well-presented – I seriously can’t wait until I can get my hands on the remainder of the game!
I can’t wait for Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One to release on November the 16th, the eleven hours I’ve spent wandering around Cordona so far have only further increased the hype and anticipation I have for the final product. Although I am eternally grateful for having the chance to play the game early, I’ve been teased and I want more! I had no doubt that Frogwares would deliver another outstanding experience, actually seeing how they’ve enhanced the mechanics and processes I’ve used countless times in previous games left me very surprised and impressed. If you like The Sinking City and the developer’s Sherlock Holmes games, you’re going to love how the two come together in this 40+ hour mystery adventure.
Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is coming to the PS5, Xbox Series S|X, Steam, GoG, and the Epic Games Store on the 16th of November, 2021. It’s also coming to the PS4 and Xbox One, but those versions have been delayed by a few weeks due to further optimisations needed. But, looking at the PSN and Xbox pre-order pages, it appears you get both last-gen and current-gen editions with the same purchase, so if you wanted two platinums on the PS5 – for example – you should get the PS4 version ‘free’ upon its release.
If you decide you wish to pre-purchase the game now (on any platform), you get access to the brilliant Crimes & Punishments immediately (I reviewed it HERE). Also, if you’ve played the game previously, it was re-released last year, with a new platinum trophy list! You also get a ‘Victorian Starter Pack’ which includes a quest, in-game credits for buying furniture and disguises, and a few outfits – including a vampire! Alternatively, if you pick up the Deluxe Edition, you get the above as well as the season pass – this includes two quests and two questlines (which I presume are multiple quests). Only one is there on release, but the others will release throughout the year.