This suspiciously Mark Strong looking Sherlock Holmes’ adventure has been available since the 20th of September, but Frogwares’ throw-back to classic adventure games require a lot of time and concentration. Something we reviewers don’t have is a lot of time, and often we don’t have space for too much concentration. I’ve made my way through this hearty adventure now, and I suppose all I can say is: better late than never.
I furiously enjoyed their 2009 hit Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper, which introduced a new fully 3D engine into the game and began Frogwares pursuit of AAA visuals, so I was excited to see another, more classical tale from the same developer that delivered in 2009. Right off the bat, it’s important to recognise that their Sherlock Holmes adventure games aren’t spoofs of the literature, and they’re not barbaric modernization’s of adventure game mechanics; Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes adventures are old-school adventure games, and they’re damn good ones.
Retailing at £24.99 originally, the title got reduced only two weeks after release to £17.99 in one of the Steam sales. This sales tactic annoys me somewhat because it almost punished day-one buyers (and I had to wait around a week for a patch that made the game playable full-screen,) and when I asked about why they made that decision on the Frogwares Facebook page, they got very annoyed at me. Life goes on. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is well worth the now-asking price of £24.99, though, with AAA visuals, brilliantly written dialogue, and a fun and dynamic story that serves as a somewhat more accurate portrayal of Holmes than – say – Robert Downy Jr, but not by much.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes marks Frogwares 8th Sherlock Holmes title, and their second AAA quality installment. The environments are intensely detailed, with meticulously detailed decorative assets sprawled across each playable space to an almost superfluous extent. Sifting through hundreds of objects to find exactly what you need is the core mechanic behind any adventure game, but instead of the cartoony, obvious triggers in some of the 2D adventure games, the muddle and decorative tones in Sherlock Holmes makes searching all that trickier. It often feels like literally searching for a needle in a haystack. This headache is reduced by the introduction of Holmes’ “Sixth Sense”, which will briefly show you an interactive object in your field of vision if you press the space bar, allowing a little time for the “sixth sense” to replenish.
The story of this installment follows more closely the relationship between Holmes and the press, ultimately culminating in a more intricate and layered story than past releases. Holmes is being slandered by a snarky journalist who sees him as an elitist vigilante (which I suppose he is), trying to grow a disdain for his methods and legend. Meanwhile, Holmes works behind the lines – this time in lieu of of the police, rather than for them. He has been framed for a crime he certainly didn’t commit, and Watson and Holmes must uncover the the connection between the press and the perpetrator of the original crime, and murders in between.
I suspect you are a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and I can offer at least a basic comparison between Frogwares’ Sherlock and Conan Doyle’s. As we know from the literature, Holmes was an erratic eccentric who operated in polar-opposite moods albeit with consistent brilliance. It’s written that he almost floated swiftly through crime scenes, fiercely animated, only relaying deductions once a full picture had been developed privately. Often on very little sleep, Holmes stimulated himself with cocaine and playing the violin in equal measure, with little malice but no charm. Frogwares Holmes mirrors more early television accounts of the legend. Although he doesn’t don the ridiculous Deerstalker, he is slow, deliberate, and actually quite callous. Frogwares have painted a more enigmatic Holmes who treats Watson as more of a lap-dog than a comrade, where Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson relationship seemed much more realized. At many points in the game, I thought to myself “why is Watson putting up with this crap?” A thought that didn’t really cross my mind in any of the novels and short stories…
Each of the characters in this story are modeled exceptionally well, though, and Frogwares captured Holmes purported Roman nose and elongated features with great care, making Watson an equally accurate depiction of the late Victorian, early Edwardian doctor. Interestingly, there are some similarities between the characters visuals and actors from the American films.
Fans of the series should expect more puzzle solving, but this installment really ups the ante. There are a mix of puzzles with varying difficulty, some original and some recurring. The above image shows Holmes deducing the chemical compound of various objects he finds in the game world. Doing this is merely a matter of counting the dots on the tray once applied a chemical, and tallying the results on a chart. This is more of a “mini-game” than a major puzzle, and one of many that occur back at Baker Street in between pivotal story moments. On the harder end of the spectrum, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes offers truly challenging but usually fair brain teasers. Frogwares have largely avoided cultural implications in the puzzle solving, such as mathematics, and generally the key to success is a little logical thinking – and it is logical, not a matter of merely learning the game mechanics.
The trickiest puzzles usually coincide with a need to get into a box. If only Watson carried a hack-saw! If these include numbers, they rarely involve any real mathematics so much as spotting basic number patterns. The thing I found devilishly risky about the puzzles in this installment is that there is absolutely no indication as to how they’ve to be solved. This could have gone very wrong, but it actually works incredibly well. For instance, you look at what’s before you, and you first try and work out what must be done. Are we looking for symmetry? Do we need to get from point A – B? What are the rules? Are there any physical clues on the object itself? Are we looking at logical patterns in numeracy? In a nut-shell, this is an IQ test. There have been a few times where, if you weren’t familiar with the method, or pattern, or formula, you’d not have spotted what you had to do – such as touching a knight (chess piece) on every square of a chess board only once. This is something taught and not really something inquisitive so was a little cheeky, but usually it’s basic logic that anyone could figure out in varying time. They’re very clever though, and supplement the tone of the game very well.
The dynamic of this installment is as follows: the story is split between around 7-8 major plot turns, each broken up with a trip to Baker Street to read the newspaper, examine evidence, and discuss with Watson. In between those segments, you search various properties and areas over London, looking for clues and combining objects to un-do the red-herrings and efforts by the antagonists to hide their tracks. The dynamic doesn’t really vary, and long play sessions can get quite tiresome – intellectually so – and being around a 15-20 hour game, you’re going to want to break up your play-through over a matter of weeks. It comes dangerously close to spamming the left click everywhere on a map to spot everything and collect all the evidence, as all adventure games do, but the environments are so varied and beautiful, and dialogue upon inspecting something so interesting and well voiced, that the mere process is broken up by flare and polish.
Combining the right object for the job unlocks more options to search for more clues, and I never really felt like Frogwares were simply being assholes in their endeavor to trick me. Everything is logical, and using the “Sixth Sense” makes searching rooms on long play sessions a little less of a head-ache. I did find, however, that later in the game the sheer amount of puzzles and objects needed to examine the room was a little too full on, but at that point I was too invested in the story to look back.
What’s most important to me is that this is a genuinely Arthur Conan Doyle quality Holmes adventure. And whilst it might only be the old ‘so and so orchestrated the murder of so and so’ theme that the earliest books portrayed, it plays a little with orient infatuation, although not nearly to the extent as the novels. Still, playing in 19th century London is fascinating, even if the street is plagued by a foggy draw distance that could, I suppose, be justified with an historic look at the smog of London that perpetuated crappy vision until 1952. Still, that didn’t seem to exist in 2009′s Jack the Ripper which, strangely, seemed to tackle open streets with a little more authenticity (although it was usually at night).
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is an absolutely fantastic adventure game which, to me, serves as the flagship title in the genre. Everything is close to perfect, except for a fairly generic story that feels very slightly like a cash-in of the characters in the recent American films (although these characters – no spoilers – were indeed present in the novels.) You may not feel that way, though, and those who haven’t read the books or watched the films will still enjoy this for what it is – a solid and logical adventure game with absolutely beautiful visuals – even if they do think Sherlock Holmes is a bit of a dick. Slightly stripped of character, and slightly on the generic side, Frogwares 8th Sherlock adventure is devilishly clever, and generously logical. It is lengthy, gorgeous, and well voiced. There are wide variety of “mini games” or puzzles, from deduction boards to pattern analysis and safe-breaking. I can’t recommend it enough for fans of adventure games, and, of course, of the Queens English!
Oh, and if the notion of intellectually strenuous tasks has put you off – you can skip 100% of them, if you want.