Since their introduction to the world way back in 1887, the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson have remained one of the few constants in the pop culture lexicon. Seldom a year has gone by without some sort of Holmes media seeing release. One contributor to this phenomenon is Frogwares, who, since 2002, have developed an almost-annual series of adventure games creatively titled Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps best known for 2006’s fantastic Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, the latest instalment in the franchise is also the first to have been specifically developed for consoles, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes.
It is the year 1898 in London, and the prologue has you recovering a priceless pearl necklace through Holmes. Upon returning it to its rightful owner, however, it is found (very blatantly) that the necklace recovered by Holmes is nothing more than a cheap imitation–in fact, evidence points towards the idea that everyone’s favourite detective himself actually stole the true necklace and replaced it with a fraud. As the story progresses, more and more cases seem to suggest that Holmes was the true criminal.
The majority of Testament will see you controlling Sherlock as he inspects deliciously gory crime scenes for details that only his keen eyes can pick up on. It feels very much like a classic point-and-click adventure game, albeit in a three-dimensional, non-linear world. The investigations are all very much open–as Sherlock, it’s fully up to the player to decide which leads in a case might come to fruition.
You’re expected to perform every little task that Sherlock would perform in every case. If you find a suspicious compound under a victim’s fingernails, then you must bag it and take it back to your lab, whereupon you can perform chemical tests on it to determine its identity. Every square inch of every crime scene can and should be investigated. Upon gleaning all the information you think there is available at a crime scene, you need to open up your “deduction” screen.
In Testament, deductions are sort of horizontal flowcharts. On the left side of Sherlock’s notepad is a list of the factual information you’ve learned from investigation. Two of these facts connect via an arrow to a box closer to the right hand side of the screen. You have to make a conclusion based on the connected facts. For example, at the first crime scene, Holmes discovers that the victim’s shoes were missing, and that one of the murderers left the room in shoes different from those they came in. Thus, you deduce that one of the murderers left wearing the victim’s shoes. These deductions then lead to further deductions, which, once completed, can lead you to the overall motive for the crime.
All these features–logical deduction, chemical analysis, open-ended investigation, microscopic examination–I can’t stress enough how unique they are. As far as I can tell, nothing like this has been done in a video game before. It’s this ambition and creativity that drives Frogwares’ game forwards. While they’re obviously very different styles of game, the only other title I can think of that provides a parallel experience–a detective-based adventure game–is L.A. Noire. Testament bring so many new ideas to the playing field, though, even moreso than L.A. Noire did.
Unfortunately, with the positives there must also come negatives, and in Testament the negatives come in droves. While every environment looks aesthetically gorgeous, my PS3 copy suffered from frequent, very noticeable drops in framerate and horizontal tearing, especially during the more graphically-intensive areas.
Additionally, while it is a very inventive feature, the deduction mechanism is full of inherent issues. Quite often, incorrect answers make just as much sense as the story’s solution, making the entire mechanism more a deduction of which options are Frogwares’ intended pathway, rather than which are the logical conclusions. The flowcharts can get huge and internally tangled–if you’ve made one mistake right at the start, then the rest of your deductions could be correct but it’s impossible to tell where you’ve made a mistake. This can lead to some very frustrated walkthrough consulting, especially considering that often the incorrect deductions are equally logical.
Interspersing the detective-based gameplay are numerous, Professor Layton-esque puzzles, such as the Knight’s Tour on a 5×5 board. Strangely enough, they don’t feel too out of place, a surprising feat given how tacked on such puzzles usually feel in an adventure game. They can get a little tedious though, and are disappointingly unoriginal when compared to the fresh gameplay that makes up the remainder of Testament.
Testament also features very polarised incidents of hand-holding, which regular readers will know is one of my pet peeves in video games. During some sections–in particular, the deductions and the puzzles–Testament is brave enough to let you work out everything for yourself, without any hints or even nudges in the right direction.
General crime scene investigation, however, includes a feature that identifies every interact-able item in the field of view, essentially removing all the detective work. Additionally, while definitely inventive, the chemical identification sections are horrendously easy, making it seem as though Testament has absolutely no respect in the intelligence of those playing it.
Testament feels very much like a B-grade game. This didn’t have to be a bad thing, but voice acting and dialogue is of very low quality, seriously detracting from the overall experience. There’s a completely unnecessary framing device, in which a group of terrifying looking children discover a story book in their attic, which one reads to the others–the book details the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which is the primary meat of the game. Why do the children exist? I have no idea, they absolutely do not need to and Testament would have been a far better game without them. Additionally, the user interface is appaling–there are menus within menus and horribly long loading times. With a better menu system and button layout, Testament might have been able to vastly improve its user experience, but currently it feels a bit mish mash and unpleasant to navigate.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a game with potential oozing out of every orifice. There are some astonishingly good–and, most importantly, fresh–ideas on display, most prominently the idea of using detective skills to solve open-ended cases. Coupled with the surprisingly good, story and graphics, Testament could have easily been one of the best titles of the year. Unfortunately, it is let down by its user interface, audio, characters, and the ridiculous framing device. It does, however, stand out as the best Holmes title on the market, so if you’re willing to put up with the numerous pitfalls, Testament is a game well worth picking up.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes by Focus Home Interactive. The platform it was reviewed on was the PS3.