The Testament of Sherlock Holmes
First posted on 10 November 2012. Last updated on 10 November 2012.
Arthur Conan Doyle's seminal characters of genius detective Sherlock Holmes and his colleague and physician John Watson have experienced a recent resurgence of popularity in popular culture, including films and television series based on or inspired by these characters. For French game developer Frogwares, this timing is fortuitous. Originally scheduled for release in 2010, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes has suffered from a number of unforeseen development delays. It is now finally released, at a time when interest is abound in the world's most famous consulting detective.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a decidedly darker installment for the series, following the titular detective as he is accused of committing a serious crime and forced to go underground in an attempt to prove his innocence by any means necessary—up to and including murder. These actions and accusations have even caused a rift between him and his loyal associate Watson. The change in dynamics present the player with differing and often conflicting viewpoints of the story, which makes clearing Holmes' name and restoring London's faith in him seem all the more impossible.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes also represents a new departure for the series, as it uses a new game engine specifically built for the game. Consequently, the graphics have improved dramatically as compared to that of the series' previous title, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper. Like the other games in the series, this game still uses the same standard point-and-click mechanics. However, it now implements a tri-tiered control system. At will, the player can switch between a first-person perspective and a third-person perspective suitable for keyboard and mouse combination or console styled gamepad. As well, the player can play from a third-person perspective using mouse control only. According to the developer, the decision to adopt this system is due to the fact that the game's primary platform is both the PC and consoles—a first for the series (Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, by comparison, was originally developed for the PC only but was only later ported to the consoles). Having played both the PC version and the console version, I can attest that the PC version indeed feels like a port, evidenced by some awkward control issues that are fortunately not insurmountable with a bit of adaptation on the part of the player.
It cannot be called a Sherlock Holmes game without any puzzles to solve, and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is no exception. The game is fit to burst with various puzzles—from number ciphers to classic chessboard puzzles to sliding block puzzles to inventory based puzzles. As is fitting for a detective of Holmes' caliber, many of these puzzles are quite difficult, due in some part to the fact that the game rarely provides an explanation as to what the player is supposed to achieve with any given puzzle. While the game allows puzzles to be skipped over if too much time is spent with no progress, there are a few instances where the option to skip a puzzle is presented to the player entirely not because the player fails to arrive at the right answer but because the player may not know what the game is asking. Perhaps this is a fault of the game; however, it may be forgivable when compared the feeling of accomplishment gained whenever the player is able to work out both the direction and the solution of a puzzle.
Among the new features promoted for The Testament of Sherlock Holmes by the developer is the introduction of open-world gameplay. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a misleading statement. In most proper sandbox style games, the player is given complete freedom of when and where to move once an area is initially accessed within the game. Unfortunately, in practice, the necessarily linear storyline in this game does not readily allow for such freedom, effectively trapping the player until every piece of evidence in a specific room has been found. Further, the in-game hint system, accessible as Sherlock Holmes' Sixth Sense, needs tweaking, as it can miss highlighting some evidence that is hidden off-screen (in a tree, for example) or is never close to Holmes.
It is a perquisite for a Sherlock Holmes game to have a good and engrossing mystery. Judging by this criterion, the generally well paced narrative of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes does not disappoint. Introducing a darker and renegade Holmes is a spark that this long running series has desperately needed to keep it fresh and interesting. Moreover, the decision to show the gory ramifications of the grisly crimes that Holmes investigates is a first for the series. The game's environments are well rendered and thoughtfully detailed—seemingly down to even the tiniest of minutiae—to immerse the player within the seedy underbelly of London in the 1880s. Additionally, the sounds (from music to voice acting) are well utilized and fitting for the game's context. Unfortunately, for each instance of a good design element in the narrative, there is also a questionable choice—whether it is an overly lengthy sequence of playing as Toby, Holmes' loyal scouting dog, or the unnecessary decision to retell the story in a modern day setting by using a group of children at 221b Baker Street as a framing device, these interludes are jarring and seem to only serve to take the player out of the ambience into which the game strives to pull and keep the player.
Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes series has been hit-or-miss with past installments. Despite a few dubious design choices and iffy controls, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes proves to be both a good start for newcomers and a welcomed return for longtime fans of the series.