The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has been a long running series from Frogwares, beginning in 2002 with a series of PC mystery-adventure games featuring the world’s most famous detective. While they were not top of the class in terms of graphics or gameplay, they provided a challenging and rewarding experience that still holds up well today. The series made its console debut in 2009 with Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper, and it did a respectable job of giving console owners the quintessential Sherlock experience. The newest entry in the series, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, brings us the darkest, bloodiest and most challenging adventure yet. With Frogwares and Atlus at the helm, they have also delivered the best story and gameplay experience of the entire series.
Set a decade after the events of Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack The Ripper, we catch up with Holmes and Watson near the tail end of a case in which they successfully recover some stolen jewels. Unfortunately, the jewels he recovers turn out to be fake and Holmes finds himself accused of stealing the real ones. This is only the start of his worries. He then goes to visit a high-ranking bishop with whom he had an appointment, only to find him brutally mutilated and murdered. This is the first in a series of dramatic events, with the story taking several twists and turns into dark territory along the way. Conspiracies, high-ranking political involvement and a serial poisoner are all part of the intricate plot that gets revealed, though I would be spoiling key plot points if I revealed any more than that.
While past games in the series have veered away from the darker subject matter, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes confronts them head-on. In Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack The Ripper, the graphic violence was toned down in favour of making the game a straight case study, however it is shown in full here. Investigating the murder of the bishop will have you making a close inspection of his mutilated body, getting up close and your hands dirty. Likewise, when another body is found later on, you examine and even perform an autopsy on it. This is a contrast to earlier games in the series, and recurring themes such as poisoning people and Holmes’ own questionable methods make this a game aimed at an older crowd. Personally, I feel that it provides an edginess that the series needed.
The plot in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is as much a character study as it is a case study. Holmes has often been portrayed as an eccentric genius, with a keen sense of deduction and an eye for detail that far surpasses anyone in Scotland Yard. In this game, he definitely possesses those latter qualities, however he is shown to possess a cold, calculating and unruly personality. He is rude, abrupt and unconcerned with how others perceive him. His primary concern is solving the case by any means necessary, with little regard given to the morality or legality of his actions. This frequently puts him at odds with both Scotland Yard and Watson, and the tension only builds up as the game progresses.
Fans of classic “point and click” mystery games on the PC will find a sense of familiarity with the Testament of Sherlock Holmes, as will those who have played modern mystery titles like L.A. Noire. As Holmes, you set about the various 3D environments, searching for clues that will provide you with leads, talking to people to gain more information and analysing the clues to determine your next steps. While the game is billed as “open world”, your freedom of movement is limited to very specific locales. These include your home on Baker street, crime scenes, the slums of Whitechapel and various other locations. You can visit these areas by selecting the location on a map, however you are unable to deviate from your determined path.
With each location you come across, your main task is scanning the environment, pick up key items and then make deductions based upon available evidence. It sounds simple enough, but even the most astute players will find it challenging as you really need to pay attention and draw the right conclusions based on small, often cryptic clues. While the tendency in modern games is to give hints and visual aides to help the player along, you are completely left on your own in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. You have a log book and a deduction board that you can look up, however I found myself having to make detailed notes while playing. Paying attention is crucial here, since knowledge of the clues are essential to solving puzzles that you come across.
As brain-bending as the cases may be, you are given a few lifelines to make the experience less taxing. When perusing an area in search of clues, relevant items are highlighted with a blue magnifying glass icon, which is your cue to examine it. Once you have finished with it, the icon turns green. Your NPC allies, such as Watson, and various other people you meet along the way, will also give verbal hints that point you in the right direction. Unfortunately, these aren’t always available on demand. One of the hints the game gives is to try asking Watson if you get stuck, but whenever I did that, he simply said “What should we do next, Holmes?” Not overly helpful, I must say.
While you mainly fill the shoes of Holmes throughout the game, you are also given the opportunity to play as Watson in a few key segments. In the later half of the game, you are given the option to switch between Holmes and Watson. This is important because achieving set objectives requires them to work together. One of the stand-out segments, and not necessarily in a good way, is the part where you play as Toby, a hound dog that Holmes uses to sniff out clues. Controlling the dog is a cumbersome and painfully slow experience, but thankfully it is not often a requirement. While there is plenty of action in the game, there is no combat or action sequences you take part in. Your focus is solving puzzles and finding clues, while the action conveyed through the cutscenes.