The world’s greatest consulting detective has seen a resurgence in popularity in the last few years with the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey, Jr. movies, the modern BBC series, and the most recent NBC Elementary series. But movies and TV shows aren’t the only mediums where the keenly observant, violin playing genius has an established presence. I’m of course referring to Frogwares’ series of adventure games.
I admit that when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, I’ve only read a handful of his adventures, but I find that the dynamic balance of Holmes’ observations and Watson’s narrative flair make for a ripping good yarn. Typically with visual adaptations of Holmes a certain amount of mystery is removed by simply showing and not needing to tell, as opposed to when reading one of Holmes’ stories, the narrative point of view tends to highlight my own personal amazed incredulity–reflected through Watson’s own astonishment. Quick camera sweeps and pans may intentionally focus on a subject long enough to allow a viewer to observe the same details that Holmes does. Whereas in the written works, there are moments when the observations are only revealed through a detailed explanation. Again the idea of show don’t tell works best in a visual medium.
But how do you create a game that offers plenty of visual and narrative twists without simply holding a gamer’s hand throughout the entire adventure? I’d love to think that I’m an observant person, but by no means could I ever possibly tie together some of the divinations that Holmes is able to pull off through his mastery of observations. To that end, Frogwares manages to strike a good balance of building an open world brimming with clues to observe, puzzles to solve, conversation trees to investigate, and logical deductions to make, which when combined make for a very enjoyable game.
While all of these various ingredients work together in the overall recipe, there is also an almost unfortunate side effect. The game is almost too easy. What I mean by that is all objects worth investigating are highlighted by either a magnifying glass or a hand. If the magnifying glass or hand are outlined in blue, then the object hasn’t been observed yet. If the objects are outlined in green, then the object has been observed and no additional time needs to be spent looking at that particular clue. Once an area has been swept of all observations the scene will either automatically move on, or Holmes or Watson will chime in indicating with a somewhat vague but pointed next step to take.
A classic problem with adventure games is what is also known as the pixel hunt. This is when the stumped player’s only chance at proceeding is to move the mouse over every object until the cursor changes. In a third-person (or in this particular game, the ability to switch to first-person–a very handy touch) fully realized 3D game world, pixel hunting is not especially easy to do. Objects aren’t necessarily on a fixed plane, and thus highlighting an object with a magnifying glass or hand helps to keep the game from feeling bogged down because a clue isn’t overlooked. Yet at the same time this also makes investigating clues a bit too easy. On the other hand, I found several clues to be difficult to locate simply due to the field of view that the camera allows even when switching between first- and third-person.
Even though clue hunting almost becomes too simple at times, that doesn’t take away from the events that can unfold once every clue is discovered. Throughout the game, clues and puzzles change often enough that nothing feels overly repetitive. Some clues are objects that can be picked up and stored in Holmes and Watson’s inventory, others are simply notes written in a diary style log. Puzzles range from traditional adventure game fodder where clues in the inventory combine to become either a makeshift ladder or an anesthetic (just two examples). Other puzzles are more complex and reference clues found in another part of a given area. The point I’m trying to make though, is that all of the puzzles feel organic to the game and environment. Nothing feels completely out of place or arbitrary.
While there are a few puzzles that take a bit of dexterity to solve, and others require a little bit of extreme logic in needing to combine clues that seemingly have no relation, the game also offers an opportunity to skip a puzzle if the challenge becomes too daunting. I for one am all for this. I admit that I skipped one puzzle that on the outset looked like a Zuma type gem matching game, but required getting all three color types separated into their own locations (I could get two of the three perfectly divided but not the last). When a game offers a strong story with great puzzles, the last thing I want to have to battle is not being able to solve one tricky puzzle to be able to move on. The ability to skip a puzzle is a brilliant inclusion in my opinion and something that is completely optional.
Of all the puzzle types created in this game, the one that Frogwares created specifically for this last installment is the deduction board. Clues gathered either through environmental observation or through direct interviews with suspects are laid out on a chart. As more clues are collected, more pathways are presented to help tie each clue together and help Holmes deduce a motive for a given crime. The deduction board starts off basic, but as more clues are tied together each clue offers two or three pathways of deduction to select from. While some pathways are obviously offered as filler, others are red herrings. Once a correct deduction pathway is selected, that particular card turns green to indicate that the correct path was chosen.
When environmental objects are examined they switch from blue to green (indicating no additional time needs to be spent examining them). When clues are correctly deduced on the deduction board they also turn green. You see a pattern? The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, while at times seems to be a bit obvious with its handling of clues, does everything possible to keep players motivated to move forward to the next step in the story. I enjoyed spending time walking through every space, examining clues to make sure I didn’t miss anything. The world is amazingly detailed, even for scenes that aren’t utilized for a particularly great length of time. If I felt like I was stuck or the progression of the story was obviously moving forward, I knew that I simply needed to spend a little more time walking about looking for a blue highlighted clue which indicated that I had missed something. To me this design choice is smart. I didn’t have to waste my time re-examining objects to find a clue I had somehow overlooked.
As was discussed in ourinterview with Frogwares back in August, the game was designed with console controller use in mind, but is also perfectly playable for the existing PC audience as the controls accommodate a player’s preferred input method very well. I played the PC version and chose to use an Xbox 360 controller, and finding clues, navigating the inventory, solving puzzles and the overall feel of the game works naturally with a controller. The game doesn’t feel like a port of a game where the stick control acts like a poor excuse for a mouse. The only time movement felt awkward was if I managed to move Holmes or Watson into a corner or ran up against an invisible wall and the camera would almost fight against my attempts at trying to turn the characters around to back away from where ever I had managed to get them cornered in.
As I mentioned before, the open world has an amazing level of detail added to props, as well as the various characters you can encounter. Character animations (particularly Holmes and Watson) are top notch and the voice acting adds another layer of depth and authenticity to the overall atmosphere of game. One exception to this is with the three children who discover Watson’s journal in Holmes’ attic. There is something just a bit off with the design or detail attended to these three. Fortunately they play such a minor part in the game that their look can be forgiven.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a wonderful adventure game. The story deftly switches back and forth from humorous to dark and brooding and has plenty of smart, organic puzzles that never feel completely out of place. Everything in the game is designed to help progress the story along and keep players moving toward solving a mystery that becomes more twisted and interesting as it unfolds, culminating in a satisfying resolution. If you like a good detective adventure thriller and are intrigued by solving mysteries, then you absolutely should not miss this title.
+ Smart, organic puzzles
+ Dark, twisting story
+ Great voice acting
+ Puzzles can be skipped if they are too difficult
+ Right detailed environments to explore
+ Game pad controls work naturally with the game
– Camera controls at times are fidgety
– No branching story to offer replay
– Discovering clues is made a bit too easy
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
Publisher: Atlus USA/Focus Home Interactive
Release Date: 9/25/2012
ESRB Rating: Mature
Source: Review code provided by publisher