We’re always looking for new and different ways to experience the stories and characters that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created that aren’t mutually exclusive to the BBC interpretation of the characters. One medium that has always fascinated us is that of videogames, perhaps the most advanced form of narrative engagement that currently exists. So we’re pleased that Holmes continues to make an appearance in interactive form thanks to Frogwares and Focus Homes Interactive, in this, the sixth title in their ongoing Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series.
Available on: PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Version tested: Xbox 360
In this twitch reliant, console dominated time it’s very easy to forget the simpler games of the past, where Adventure games were the biggest selling titles in the world. Point and click classics such as Kings Quest from Sierra and The Secret of Monkey Island from Lucasfilm Games (later LucasArts) formed part of this golden age (and also show this reviewer’s age) but are also great examples of titles that were reliant mostly on mental prowess, as well as brilliant writing and narrative. With the growth of 3D graphics in videogames, the dominance of the Adventure game began to die out, and now it’s arguably a relatively niche genre in gaming. It’s a pleasure then to see The Testament of Sherlock Holmes arrive on major formats in the last month, showing that there’s still life left for games that require you to think to progress.
Taking a robust 3D game engine that allows play from both first and third person perspectives, and bolting that to the traditional point and click interface and inventory management system, the title is an evolved version of the Adventure game rather than anything revolutionary. The interface itself highlights elements of investigation in the world with a magnifying glass icon, and a click of the action button provides either a vocal expression of disinterest, a 2D close up that can be manipulated further, or a challenging and possibly time consuming puzzle. After a relatively simple introductory stage (an interactive video version is available to try out here) the tutorial gloves come off, and we’re thrown head first into a dark narrative that sets out to undermine the friendship between Holmes and Watson and possibly tarnish the reputation of the former forever. It’s a fascinating plot, set after the majority of the canon stories, that takes those incarnations of the characters in new directions while offering some fascinating (and perhaps slightly and unintentionally unfortunate) parallels to original narrative events we’re familiar with in BBC Sherlock itself. To say anymore would be spoil the pleasure of experiencing it unfolding. Visually the game draws most obvious inspiration from the Granada interpretation of the stories, the character models and voice work of Holmes and Watson in particular bearing resemblance to Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwick. For the majority of the game you are in control of Holmes himself, with control amusingly switching to Watson in the early stages purely to go and fetch items and information inside 221b as Holmes can’t be bothered to move from his worktable.
The game has a minimum playtime of around twelve hours, with your mileage likely to vary on how easily you manage to solve some of the puzzles. These are widely varied but structured on a recurring pattern of investigation and elimination, and include chemical testing, lock-picking, code breaking and even an autopsy. Once enough evidence in a case section has been collected you can begin to form the final solution using a ‘Deduction Board’ inside Watson’s notebook, selecting and analysing events and evidence to come to the final conclusion. The central section allows a more freeform, non-linear nature, with three branches of the investigation that can be tackled in any order - including a trip around a slightly open world section of Whitechapel whose winding back streets can be thoroughly explored- as well as varying the game by adding some additional play styles. Most eye-catching is the chance to take control of Toby, the bloodhound enlisted by Holmes in The Sign of the Four, and navigate around a dank dockyard with the great detective on your heels (paws?). Later, as Holmes’ actions become more questionable you begin to assume greater control over Watson, coming to a sequence where switching between the pair is unlocked as an essential mechanic to solve the case immediately at hand.
A degree of investment in the plot is essential as well, as it’s probably not an easy game to put down to and return to after a long absence - a good memory is often needed to link objects together to come to logical conclusions, as you would expect from a product that has ‘Sherlock Holmes’ in its title. In terms of the actual play style, this is a gentler and more thoughtful game that circumvents any peril or action, with no ‘game over’ or restarts necessary if you are careful. It intentionally lacks any urgency but makes up for it fully through the numerous challenging and varied puzzles that punctuate its runtime, making it rather relaxing to play. The interface also works wonderfully on a gamepad. It must be noted that despite a lack of violent play there is very much the visual appearance of the aftermath of violent events, with plenty of gruesomely abused corpses and lashing of blood around crime scenes rendered in stark detail, fully earning the mature age ratings found on the box.
There are some very minor criticisms - this is very clearly not a top flight game title, with visuals, animation and some of the voice over from minor characters lacking the degree of polish you’d see from a more expensively funded developer, with the scenes that book end the narrative involving a group of children being perhaps the best example of this. Some minor clipping bugs also occurred during our play through, with Holmes and Watson infrequently becoming trapped while trying to open a door, forcing them to rigidly pirouette on the spot until hammering on every controller button freed them. There are also possible questions surrounding value - the RRP of the console versions in particular are perhaps slightly over priced for a title you can complete once with no need ever to return, with all honours (PC), Trophies (PS3) or Achievements (X360) easily obtainable from a single play through if you thoroughly explore the world. And while not a problem, it’s also worth noting this is the first console game we’ve encountered that is entirely dependent on manual saving, as a quicksave feature is not present.
These are all very minor quibbles however when it comes down to the product itself, which is engaging and highly enjoyable from start to finish. Sat in a lounge playing this game on a console is very much a change of pace from the usual videogame fare that lights up our televisions. It’s pleasurably thought provoking and challenging for the duration, with a distinct sense of achievement come the close. It’s also a valid continuation of these characters past the point Conan Doyle left them, with a resolution you likely won’t see coming. If you are looking for a videogame that requires mental agility over the speed of physical reactions, the twisting narrative and fiendish puzzles of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes should be right up your alley.
For information on where to buy, behind the scenes materials, downloads and even more, visit the official The Testament of Sherlock Holmes website.
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