If you’re one of the Sherlock Holmes fans fearful that Frogwares is doing the famed detective dirty in its next game, rest easy. I recently had the opportunity to play through the opening few hours of the upcoming Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, and I’m more than happy to report that the alleged focus on action is nothing but a marketing ploy. The game, like its predecessors, remains grounded in investigation. In fact, the settings include an option to skip combat completely.
Before getting into that, though, I want to talk about Frogwares’ latest interpretation of Sherlock. The studio has been working with the character for almost 20 years, but this new game casts the detective younger than ever before — it is Chapter One, after all. He’s younger here than in any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. That means no faithful Watson (kind of), but also a different Sherlock.
For one, he looks like he’s just stepped off a catwalk. He has a smoldering youthfulness a little reminiscent of Ninja Theory’s take on Dante. There’s certainly a sharpness to his features, but he’s not yet the thin, angular man described by Conan Doyle.
Frogwares’ depiction leans into the arrogance of the character. The literary Sherlock was always a bit of a show-off, and this game emphasizes that trait. He takes bets against his companion and tries to act like the master of every domain. It’s combined with a brashness and quippiness that highlights his inexperienced arrogance. These attitudes underpin a genuine sense of excitement in the unraveling of mystery. It’s a notable improvement in tone from the stoic characterization of Frogwares’ previous hero, Charles Reed from The Sinking City.
In other areas, however, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One owes an immense debt of gratitude to The Sinking City. The most obvious is the shift to an open-world setting and away from the linearity of previous series entries. Chapter One also adopts the gameplay structure of having to visit archives to gather additional information about cases, though the extent to which that will appear is difficult to gauge after this too-brief demo.
For this game, Frogwares has concocted another fictional setting, the Mediterranean island of Cordona, from which Sherlock’s family apparently hails. You are given no option but to follow an initial case, but once that’s complete, the world opens up. The developer has addressed a frequent concern of The Sinking City and made Cordona seemingly smaller than Oakmont. Even without access to any vehicles, traversal around the island is a fairly brisk and enjoyable affair.
Pleasingly, it’s a buzzing hub of life and activity, made up of five atmospherically distinct districts. Sherlock’s ritzy hotel is tucked away in the rich Grand Saray, but not far away is Miner’s End, where rickety buildings and tight alleyways make for a claustrophobic stroll. In Silverton, work-weary laborers cough and splutter. Maybe I imagined it, but the district also felt as if it had a smoky haze that cleared when I wandered into the middle-class residential hub of Scaladio.
Above all, the city is lively. Respectable numbers of NPCs populate the streets, and there’s a palpable sense of busyness. People go about their business, chat, work, and beg. In the poorer quarters, animals mingle with humans in the streets, and even though the city is highly stratified, you’ll still come across white-clad dandies in Silverton and little servant children running errands in Grand Saray. At one point, I took a turn past a pub down an alleyway and found some sausages sizzling on a barbecue with no one around. Taken as a whole, Cordona isn’t nearly as vibrant as the best gaming worlds, but it’s still a respectable effort.
Elsewhere in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, Frogwares goes hard on investigation and deduction mechanics. You’ll examine items in minute detail and comb through rooms for clues, observe NPCs to make assumptions about their personalities, recreate events from witness testimony, pick out key phrases from overheard conversations, and use Sherlock’s intuition to follow paths invisible to the naked eye. Then you analyze those clues, recreate chemical formulae, ask witnesses about objects you’ve picked up, and pop into Sherlock’s Mind Palace to piece together the information to draw conclusions.
Some of these mechanics are series staples, while others make their debut here. If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. And some of the means of investigation can be quite fiddly, though thankfully not overly obtuse. Handholding is also pretty minimal, so those hoping for a hardcore noodle-scratcher should be well catered for here. I just hope the initial investigation featured so many different mechanics to introduce them, rather than acting as a benchmark for what to expect. If not, it’s easy to imagine Sherlock Holmes Chapter One descending into an interminable slog of patchwork mechanics.
Nevertheless, the complexity carries through the entirety of the investigations. Again, as in The Sinking City, some clues and their combinations have multiple interpretations. You have to decide what is the more likely conclusion based upon the information present, then also choose the best course of action: to follow the judicial or moral imperative. While the literary Sherlock solved crimes, he was never a stickler for the law — and you have the same option here, at least in the opening mission.
As an aside, it’s quite clever how Sherlock’s head turns towards nearby clues as a subtle, intuitive way of alerting you to their presence. It’s also nice to see the literary character’s penchant for disguise appear here, as one mission has you dressing up to piece together an accurate police sketch. How deep the intricacies of that mechanic will run is unclear, though we can hardly expect it to give Hitman a run for its money.
This dazzling array of mechanics and ideas — without so much as a whiff of combat (and Sherlock can’t attack civilians, either) — is all introduced within the first two hours, at which point the story begins to unfold, and what brought Sherlock to this gorgeous island is more complex than expected.
Sherlock has come to face his past and his mother’s passing. Meanwhile, the initial case seems entirely unrelated to that, which seems like a double-edged sword. On one hand, the gameplay pacing kicks into high gear, drawing you in and embodying you as the character. On the other hand, the narrative suffers: It’s easy to forget that Sherlock is there for a reason. As such, it’s a little disorienting when the narrative reasserts itself as a wannabe emotionally engaging piece of storytelling.
A constant part of the adventure is Sherlock’s companion, a man named Jonathan. Jon (definitely not Watson) is apparently Sherlock’s childhood friend, and the interactions between the two do speak of a longstanding acquaintance (though a Skyrim reference is a little too meta). If you’re willing to overlook creative licence and assume Chapter One takes place within Conan Doyle’s storyworld, you’ll find yourself wondering about Jon.
I’m not sure if I missed something significant or if the demo contained some kind of narrative bug, but the question of his identity was answered in a random slip of information tucked away in the Mind Palace, stumbled upon with no build-up and no fanfare. Maybe that’s intentional because Frogwares wants to focus on other mysteries and stories, but it felt odd.
So, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One certainly isn’t without its foibles, particularly in the narrative design. Maybe that’s in keeping with the spirit of Conan Doyle’s work. After all, the cases were always more important than character or almost any sense of an overarching storyline. And of course, there will be other features that did not appear in this demo, like the combat and the mechanics centered around the Holmes Mansion.
From what I did get to see, though, Frogwares seems keenly aware of its strengths as a developer, and it is leaning on those strengths to deliver what could well be a genre-leading game.