REVIEW – In Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, the famous English detective investigates for the first time in an open-world game. Is this new episode up to the standard set by Frogwares?
Still, in the creative team’s hands at Ukraine’s Frogwares (Sherlock Holmes, The Sinking City), Sherlock Holmes breaks with the formula of the last trilogy and returns to the younger Holmes. Simply called Chapter One, the episode takes the British detective to a lonely island of his childhood; corruption-ridden Cordona is the scene of the mysterious death of his former mother. As he tries to close old family wounds, our hero stumbles into some severe crime.
Open world investigation
The first chapter of the prequel, set in the late 1880s, introduces us to a tart and still naïve young man in his twenties; Sherlock Holmes is as insensitive to his fellow man as he is to the idea of impartial justice for all. His sidekick is not yet Watson, but another Jon, a slightly more dapper and sarcastic, enigmatic sidekick, who we don’t know who he is or where he came from. Although he is never helpful, the pair’s relationship gradually becomes valuable in the slowly unfolding plot. Jon primarily listens to Holmes’ complaints and allows him to reveal layers of his personality. And note that their English dubbing is truly first-rate.
For the first time, Holmes and I can investigate an open world that can’t compete with the open world of Assassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto V, but it does have some extra options. A fast-traffic system, with rickshaws parked here and there, offers the possibility of instant travel on the map. The graphics aren’t very nextgen and detailed, but the environment is nicely composed, from the poorer quarters of the old town to the breathtaking views from the balconies of the wealthier middle-class houses. The developers say Ottoman-ruled Greece, Gibraltar and Malta inspired them. The Cordona, a Mediterranean haven, is shaped by British colonialism and the separatism it has engendered; each central district has its own social class. All in all, it is a charming place to wander, with character. And although the city also abounds in narrow streets, they are always open, at least enough so that you never feel trapped within four walls.
Wandering around the town of Cordona, you can also hear significant sound effects that perfectly match the atmosphere of the place. All in all, Frogwares has done a lot to recreate the atmosphere of this Mediterranean city. My only regret was that it left out classic London, a town linked to Sherlock Holmes.
This fictional universe has some drawbacks: the buildings are too often impenetrable, the inhabitants have a mechanical gait and a tendency to repeat the same lines of dialogue repeatedly. Unfortunately, to the shortcomings of the exploration, we must add the all-too-frequent framerate drops experienced on PlayStation 5 and screen tearing in places. However, it should be noted that during the testing of the game, the development team indicated that they are still working on some technical improvements, including correcting the crowd behaviour and optimising performance.
All in all, the adventure can be completed in about fifteen hours if you go in a straight line. But the thirty or so secondary stories are available to double the time; if some are anecdote-like, others are surprisingly connected. When Sherlock is called to the scene, he naturally sets about investigating the first clues, often already numbered by the forensic investigators; a critical step before reconstruction work.
In concentration mode, more hidden clues can be revealed. When activated, a white circle is drawn to indicate a point of interest. It also allows you to profile passers-by by displaying some of their characteristics and motivations at a glance, a feature not often used. All your essential observations are then recorded in the case book. In this way, some of the evidence can be used for further research in local archives, interviews with witnesses, or even chemical analysis. The range of possibilities is quite impressive, but these manipulations become rather tedious in the long run. The process remains more or less the same, as the investigations almost always follow the same pattern. It should also be noted that the latter is difficult to learn at the beginning of the game, as the menu and analysis systems are not very user-friendly.
Frogwares had an excellent idea to sprinkle in a few refreshers to compensate for the overly classic map. Mention in particular the few benign challenges that John suggested in his review, which are optional but welcome. The studio also relies on a few action sequences; Holmes, under attack but fortunately always armed with a nifty firearm, must exploit his surroundings to stun his opponents without taking their lives. Even if our protagonist is relatively rigid in gunplay, the premise is entirely plausible, especially since he knows how to be casual. However, in exchange for a few coins, you are free to break into the robber gangs that dot the map. In isolation, however, activity is minimal.
Who could be the killer?
Our hero has five major cases to unravel in Cordona while also trying to shed light on his mother’s death mystery. It all forms a heterogeneous thread, of which the second part seems to be the most consistent. Thus, the story starts a little slowly in the first hours, improves in a darker investigation full of dilemmas to a moving finale. Holmes must assert his truth through the player’s more difficult choices.
Unfortunately, the overly stiff character animations don’t help you see the truth in their eyes that L.A. Noire was able to do ten years earlier. Physical detail is used to paint the best picture of the person; are the red spots on their nose a sign of illness, or are they a dull alcoholic? These are fun details.
The culmination of the investigation is the identification of the culprit. The clues must be connected in Sherlock’s “mental palace” (which is effectively the mind of Holmes), where the suspect can finally be charged. Holmes’ judgement is still too poorly assessed, and all we get to know is the local newspaper as he sums up the implications of his latest closed case. But it’s not very clear whether all of Holmes’ decisions were correct – to find out, you have to make do with the statistics available in the menu, which show the score of solved cases.
Great story, with a bit outdated presentation
For an ambitious origin story, Frogwares has chosen an open world that provides plenty of scope for a fair number of investigations. These give the game an excellent lifespan. On the other hand, the game is not up to the technical standards of the time due to slowdowns, stiff animations and screen tearing. However, the story of Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is captivating, and the ending is epic. The adventure lies in the interconnected cases and the investigation, which unfortunately follows an overly self-repetitive pattern of sleuthing.
+ The investigation is still enjoyable
+ Great story
+ Cosy location
– Self-repeating gameplay
– Frame-rate drops, screen-tearing
– Rigid animations and unnatural NPC behaviour
Genre: detective adventure game
Release date: November 16, 2021