Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One Review: To A Great Mind, Nothing Is Little
It has been almost two decades since Frogwares first started developing video game adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary Sherlock Holmes character. Whilst the Frogwares has innovated and refined its formula over the years, the latest effort, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, is undoubtedly the most ambitious take to date on everyone’s favorite sarcastic yet endearing detective. For the first time ever, Frogwares has moved to a fully-realized open world, moving away from the more linear progression of previous titles. Does this shift feel worthwhile? Let’s discuss.
A Youthful Holmes
Not only is this entry in the franchise noteworthy as a result of using an open-world structure, but it’s also unique in that this is the youngest portrayal of Sherlock, which Frogwares has undertaken to date. Players will pick up with Sherlock as he journeys to the fictional Mediterranean island of Cordona, a place where he spent a portion of his childhood, and tragically, the final resting place of his mother who passed away on Cordona some years ago.
Sherlock is making a trip to pay his respects at his mother’s grave, and it’s immediately clear that the switch to this early segment of his life is going to give us an insight into Sherlock, unlike anything Frogwares has produced before. This timeline presents us with a drastically more vulnerable take on Sherlock. Yes, the witty banter and razor-sharp wit are still there, but as the story progresses and it becomes clear that there was more to the death of Sherlock’s mother than initially meets the eye, we see a young man struggling to make sense of, and come to terms with his past.
It’s a truly wonderful move on Frogwares’ part, to give us this glimpse into the life of a version of Sherlock who has yet to fully become the brazen, calculated, and almost emotionless detective that we are all familiar with. As the story unfolds and the conspiracy behind the death of Sherlock’s mother plays out, themes such as mental illness and loss are tackled, and we get to know the character on a more personal level which makes him instantly more relatable. It’s a stroke of genius in all honesty, as not only does it make for a compelling origins story of sorts, but it contextualizes the character and personality of the Sherlock we are more familiar with from Frogwares’ earlier works. The brashness of his later years almost starts to appear as more of a mask for how deeply troubled he is, which again just adds to that reliability.
A Masterclass In Mystery
I’m delighted to say that the incredible writing that props up Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One’s main narrative thread, is matched by the quality of the writing throughout each of the cases, which helps propel the narrative along. As is the norm for a Frogwares title now, players will have the main overarching objective, this time being that of uncovering the truth behind Violet Holmes’ death, and smaller cases that act as interesting standalone mysteries that also often feed into the main case.
Initially, these start out somewhat mundane, as you find yourself helping to locate the owner of a lost walking cane. However, things escalate quickly you’ll soon progress to uncovering the truth behind a diamond stolen at a séance, uncovering the mystery behind the death of a next-door neighbor, taking on drug smugglers, and even going on the hunt for a promiscuous elephant; and that’s all within the opening hours!
Thankfully then, despite the more emotional and personal main narrative, Frogwares has managed to retain that whacky and absurdly humorous tone that made me fall in love with their take on the character. Some may find the tonal dissonance somewhat jarring, but I adore how Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One can present the series’ most mature story to date, whilst retaining that trademark Frogwares storytelling flair that made me fall in love with their work many years ago.
Refined Investigative Action
From a gameplay perspective, it’s business as usual for anyone who has played a Frogwares game before. At this stage, the Frogwares adventure game formula has become so fleshed out and feature-complete that it’s no surprise to note that Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One does little to break the mold in this department.
Pretty much everything you do in Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One revolves around the case book. This is an interactive menu that sets out the various cases you have open, and within them, the various pieces of evidence you have accrued along the way. Evidence effectively acts as your objectives which need to be actioned in progressing a case, providing you with leads that need to be pursued in pursuit of being able to solve whatever mystery it is you are undertaking.
It’s a system that leads to some wonderfully varied gameplay. One moment you may be quizzing bystanders on a suspicious object found at a murder scene, which in turn produces another lead that could have you dressing up as a local so you can secure work at the local dig site owned by a suspicious archaeologist. You’ll jump from interrogating suspects and building character portraits, to performing chemical analysis on elephant urine (don’t ask) which you found using your concentration (which is effectively detective vision).
It’s a system that contains both incredible depth, and accessibility in equal amounts. The variety in evidence and objectives to complete is staggering, but Frogwares manages to categorize each piece of evidence with handy icons that indicate what you need to do to follow up on that lead. For example, find an interesting piece of backstory on a character, and the game may tell you that this is something that needs to be researched in an archive. Similarly, should someone mention a point of interest that contains locals who may not be overly welcoming, the player will be informed that they will need to locate the area and use a disguise to gain access.
If that all sounds rather on the rails, then don’t worry, it isn’t. Taking the latter above example, you’ll never be told where that location is; it’s up to you to not only find it on the map, but to use your best judgment and assess what type of disguise you will require. Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One expertly straddles the line between accessibility and depth; never too easy so as to make you feel as though your hand is being held, whilst at the same time being perplexing and vague enough to always make those eureka moments feel rewarding.
It’s all incredibly open-ended as well. Cases have multiple conclusions, and it’s entirely possible to come to the wrong conclusion depending on how you interpreted your evidence and followed up on it. Whilst this isn’t exactly breaking new ground for a Frogwares title, this game of chance feels very appropriate given we are stepping into the shoes of a younger, more naïve Sherlock. He has yet to develop as a detective, so knowing the decisions you are making could be entirely wrong feels extremely fitting.
The Headline Addition
So far, so good then. All the qualities you want out of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One are correct and present. We still haven’t discussed the headline change, however, and that is the decision to make this the first fully open-world title in the series. Unfortunately, the results of that design decision are more of a mixed bag than the rest of the game.
The entire island of Cordona is explorable from the get-go, once you have completed your first introductory case. At first, it’s invigorating, as you explore the admittedly beautiful environment, soaking in the sights and splendor of the central districts, before making your way to the run-down and dilapidated Old City. The environment feels believable and well-realized as you traverse from one district to the next. There is a good sense of place as wealth gradually gives way to poverty as you make your way across wide-open courts into cramped and winding backstreets. Locals will react differently to you as well, depending on the area you are in and the attire you are wearing, which again gives Cordona a real personality.
It opens things up from a gameplay perspective as well. Visit the police station, and you will find additional work posted to a jobs board. Stroll the streets, and you may overhear a conversation that gives you a lead on a new side-case; these side activities then provide additional income for spending on new outfits and furniture for your residence on the island. Ubisoft-style bandit lairs now also populate the map, though these aren’t much fun due to the simplistic yet awkward combat systems in Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One.
I was fascinated by Cordona for the first few hours of my playthrough, wanting to slowly take in the streets, eager to see what additional cases I could stumble across. This eagerness soon fell apart, however, when I came to terms with the fact that from a technical perspective, open-world exploration is a bit of a mess.
Granted, I was playing on pre-launch code, and we have been told that there is a day one patch incoming that will aim to mitigate the optimization issues. However, I can only review the experience I had, and at the moment, it isn’t great. Frame drops, odd stuttering, and distracting pop-in are but a few of the issues that hampered my time spent exploring the open streets of Cordona. The frame drops and stuttering became such an issue that within a few hours, I gave up on exploration and resorted to using the game’s generous fast travel system for getting around.
It’s shame that optimization is such a red flag at the moment, as I genuinely think the move to an open-world format is a good fit for the series. Frogwares has always excelled at creating detailed and intricate environments, and an open world platform really allows those skills to sing. At the moment, though, the performance issues are so prevalent that they shatter any immersion there is to be had by losing yourself on this mysterious island.
Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is a title that comes excruciatingly close to achieving greatness. When you are in the midst of one of the many mysteries that Cordona Island holds, cracking cases and soaking in Frogwares’ fantastic writing, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is up there with the best the series has to offer. Unfortunately, performance issues hold back the open-world exploration to an extent that drags the overall experience down. Nevertheless, even with the technical drawbacks, the main gameplay loop of cracking cases and solving puzzles is stronger than ever and well worth the price of admission.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available On: Xbox Series S/X (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC; Publisher: Frogwares; Developer; Frogwares; Players: 1; Released On: 16 November, 2021; MSRP: $44.99
Full disclosure: a Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One review copy was provided by the publisher.