Despite frustrating puzzles, Holmes' genius shines through
It seems as if Sherlock Holmes is more popular than ever; whether it's Robert Downey Jr.'s slow-mo charmer, Benedict Cumberbatch's gruff genius, or Johnny Lee Miller's American-based version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective, audiences cannot get enough.
Sherlock Holmes has been a fixture in PC gaming for a number of years now with an ongoing series of adventure games recreating his most famous cases, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles, or facing off against Jack the Ripper. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, however, pushes Holmes and Watson to their limits in an all-new case.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Frogwares (PC), Spiders (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive (PC), Atlus U.S.A., Inc.
Release: September 25, 2012
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a wholly original story which makes for a much more interesting experience over an adaptation of one of the original novels, although there's a slight thematic tie-in with the conclusion of the second BBC series.
After solving a seemingly simple case of a stolen necklace, Sherlock Holmes finds his reputation tarnished in the press by a vindictive journalist. After the savage murder of a Bishop, Holmes trusted partner Dr. Watson is dismayed by the great detective's seemingly irrational and out-of-character behavior. He becomes reckless, intimidates witnesses -- even trying to shoot a suspect rather than have the police arrest them. Eventually, Holmes goes on the run and Watson must pursue him.
The story has a disjointed feel at the start, mainly as the player can select their own line from two choices. Because of this, the first half of the game feels a little all over the place. Plot points concerning the Bishop's murder and an imprisoned poisoner are pushed aside as Holmes and Watson investigate the journalist's accusations against Holmes, leaving the first half of the story feeling unresolved.
Gameplay is fairly standard point-and-click action but with a few interesting additions thrown in. You can move either Holmes or Watson by using the WASD keys and your mouse, a first-person viewpoint, or by clicking on the environment as you would in most adventure games. There's never really anything that will require fine movement, aside from one surprisingly enjoyable level where you control Holmes' faithful bloodhound Toby.
Another useful addition is a mechanic that allows you to fine tune your selection of clues and items on screen. If you click on a single clue whilst there are multiple on-screen clues, you can use the WASD keys to rotate through them. This makes identifying and picking up objects much easier and less frustrating. Unidentified clues are marked as blue, but once selected, they'll turn to green, which again makes things easier. Both Holmes and Watson have a sixth sense to identifying clues that can be easy to overuse but is on a cooldown, so you can't just repeatedly press it when searching for items.
Unlike most adventure games, combining items and objects to solve obstacles in the game world, you will be identifying clues and using them to further your investigations. Often there will be Professor Layton-eqsue logic puzzles -- it seems many London residents use safes and lock boxes with complicated locks. One of the game's big frustrations is that almost all of these puzzles come with no explanation as to what you have to achieve to complete them; you're thrown in blind most of the time and are left struggling in the dark until you can maybe figure them out. That being said, too many wrong answers will give you the option to skip the puzzle. Whilst this does mean you won't get stuck, it leaves too much temptation to simply breeze through the harder puzzles. Skipping will also stop you from getting achievements for some of the puzzles as well.
The other annoyance is that when the game does need the traditional adventure game manipulation of objects, it's not always natural or easy to do. Combining items in the inventory screen was fidgety and there's more than one occasion where you'll feel you have the right tool for the job only to be told "I can't do that." Mercifully, if you're lacking the necessary tool or object, then you'll be told so.
There's a pleasant amount of actual deduction and criminal investigation involved in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. One of the big parts of Holmes' investigations is the deduction board; once Holmes and Watson have gathered enough information, they can begin to deduce what has happened during a crime. The board consists of interlocking scenarios with three options each. Choosing the right scenario will unlock the rest of the case, but sadly, it can sometimes devolve into simply clicking on all combinations until the board is marked as correct. There's only a few times this is used in the game, just like Holmes' chemical analysis machine.
Graphically, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes looks great. Despite being set in late Victorian London, the art style shows the city in some bright and colorful ways. Instead of the usual foggy streets, there's some lovely backgrounds in gardens and pathways.
The characters of Holmes and Watson are well-voiced (modeled more closely on ITV's 1980-1990's adaptation starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes). The former is always cool, logical and seemingly in control, whilst Watson is always two steps behind and befuddled by his friend's descent into criminality. Some of the facial animations are quite poor, however -- the children that you see at the start are perhaps the worst offenders.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes manages to elevate itself above being just a point-and-click game by adding some genuine investigative elements into the mix. Being based in a real-life historical setting, albeit in a fictional story, the clues and puzzles are all grounded in logic and never take the wild flights of fancy that many adventure games do.
That said, it isn't without frustrations. Chapters can finish with an abrupt end, which leaves the story feeling disjointed and unsatisfying. There's also a function in the menu for the player to alternate controlling Holmes and Watson during a case, but it's only used twice towards the end of the game and throwing players into a puzzle with no idea as to what they're doing is poor design.
Despite complaints, it's a compelling story with some standout moments and surprising twists. Even more surprising is that the narrative does make sense in the end; a Sherlock Holmes story needs to be tight and logical, which this game manages to pull off overall. Even with the sometimes fractured narrative, it is hard to not want to get to the bottom of the cases that have led to Holmes behaving in the way he does. Watson's growing anger and desperation with his friend becomes touching and it's gratifying to reach the conclusion with all of the threads tied together. A little more care with introducing the puzzles and a little more deduction would have gone a long way in making this one of the best detective games of recent years.
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