As fictional detectives go, Sherlock Holmes is quite possibly the most universally recognizable of them all; enough so that, as someone who has never actually read a Sherlock Holmes story, I know offhand his address (221B Baker Street) and what instrument he plays (violin). Frogware’s series of Sherlock Holmes games have been available on PC for several years, but The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is only the second one to be released on consoles. The game has some rough edges, but it’s still a solid mystery title that genre fans should check out.
The game starts by dropping Holmes and Dr. Watson right into the middle of a case regarding a stolen necklace, which serves as the game’s tutorial. Holmes recovers the necklace, but it is later determined to be a fake, causing some to claim that he is the thief himself. This shadow of doubt looms large as Holmes and Watson embark on their next investigation, the gruesome murder of a bishop.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is very similar to the classic point and click style of adventure games. Controlling Holmes and Watson, you travel around London searching for clues. Items you can investigate are marked with a blue magnifying glass; items you can interact with are marked with a hand icon. Investigating things like a body will take you to a closer view, allowing you to examine different areas. Once you have completely examined an area the magnifying glass turns green, making it easy to tell if you’ve missed anything.
If you’re stuck, or feel like a clue is eluding you, the left trigger will activate Holmes’ sixth sense, which highlights clues in your field of view. Some clues and items don’t become active until you’ve triggered them by finding something else or having a certain conversation, so you’ll find yourself investigating the same areas a few times, which can slow things down. The game is occasionally picky about your position, and sometimes checking the same area twice will require taking a few steps away and coming back.
As expected, you’ll come across puzzles in your investigation, taking a few different forms. Some closely resemble brain teasers that might be found in a Professor Layton game (in fact some are identical), requiring you to solve them in order to proceed. Others take the form of examining a scene and coming to the correct conclusion before being able to advance. In one instance, while examining footprints, I had to correctly identify how many different sets there were before I could move on. Some of the classic style puzzles can be skipped if they are too hard, and evidence puzzles can be brute force solved by trying all of the answers, so you’ll never get stuck anywhere.
Some evidence can be collected and analyzed in your apartment or other areas, where Holmes has access to different tools depending on the situation. You’ll be able to use a scalpel to extract a specific piece from evidence, use water to remove dirt, or analyze liquids to determine their composition. It gives the game a deeper, more hands-on feel, and is much more satisfying than simply collecting items. There are times though, that how exactly to handle a piece of evidence isn’t immediately clear, meaning that you need to try a bunch of different things until finding the right one. The control touchiness appears here as well, and sometimes you need to be in exactly the right spot to do what you need to, which can be a pain.
All of the evidence you collect eventually leads to your deduction board, where you will work out the case and determine your next move. The deduction board is essentially a large flow chart – all of the case elements are on the left, and using the facts you answer a series of multiple choice questions on how they relate. In order to proceed, you’ll need to make all of the deductions correctly, and there is no feedback until everything is right, meaning you may need to go back and try different combinations of answers. Like the evidence inspection, the deduction board is a neat mechanic that draws you deeper into the game, and most of the elements follow logically, but I did occasionally find myself stuck and shuffling things around until I hit the right combination.
The game’s PC roots become evident in the controls, which suffer somewhat in the translation to console. Movements, especially slight ones, feel jerky and stilted, and have a very unnatural look to them. There is often a noticeable delay between approaching a clue and actually being able to select it, which is irritating and breaks up the flow of the game. Like most third person games, the camera is mapped to the right stick, but the only option for inverting the camera inverts both x and y axis. As someone who normally inverts only the y axis, this meant that whichever option I chose one of the movements was unnatural for me, and it feels like a scheme designed by someone not used to playing things on a controller.
Another element of PC gaming that appears is the lack of an autosave system. To be fair, the game states explicitly several times that you are in charge of saving your progress, but pulling up the menu and saving periodically in a console game feels out of place. At one point, I lost an hour of progress when I exited a room and suddenly the game stopped responding completely, forcing me to restart. In instances like that, some sort of checkpointing or autosaving system is sorely missed, especially by a console audience who has largely come to accept those things as standard.
Graphically, TTSH is a mixed bag. The environments look terrific, and there’s a great sense of atmosphere that follows through the game’s different areas. Gory crime scenes and dingy alleys help to set the dark, ominous tone. The character models look good, but some movements, and especially speech, look very wooden and unnatural, almost like a ventriloquist dummy. It’s jarring, especially in the kids, who look downright creepy. In some scenes, background textures have a flowing, waterfall-like effect that is distracting, but nothing awful.
Like the graphics, the music really sets the mood, and has a generally dark and brooding feel that follows the story. The game is packed with dialog that is generally well done, and in particular Holmes’ arrogant and aloof attitude comes through loud and clear. During some conversations you have a dialog wheel, but it’s pretty useless – all of the topics are going to be covered, and the order you do them in doesn’t seem to matter. Even in the default order some of the conversations jump and don’t really flow very well.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. The story was compelling and made me want to continue, despite some clunky controls and elements that didn’t translate nicely to using a controller. The game has some head-scratching design (you occasionally switch to controlling Watson just to perform a simple task like walking across a room and getting a book), but systems like examining the evidence and the deduction board really help to draw you into the game. At $40, the annoying elements are easier to overlook, and for the price it provides a solid experience that mystery fans will enjoy.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.