Sherlock Holmes is a man of many mediums. Making his debut in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 book A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has gone on to solves hundreds, if not thousands of cases across books, films, TV shows and of course, video games. Holmes is perhaps the world’s most recognisable private detective, with the majority of modern adaptations focusing on Holmes as an established and charismatic private eye. After releasing seven entries in the series, with their first launching in 2002, Ukrainian-based developer Frogwares decided to spread their wings and try something new, which resulted in the 2019 Lovecraftian detective game The Sinking City. But now Frogwares has returned to the nest, and instead of dusting off and wheeling out the same old Sherlock experience, the team decided it was time to shake things up and give players a different take on the Sherlock Holmes we’ve grown to love in Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One.
This time around players assume the role of a young and admittedly sexy Sherlock Holmes, who has swapped the bustling streets of London for the sunny and tropical Mediterranean island of Cordona. Set in 1880, Sherlock has returned to Cordona alongside his best friend Jonathan to pay his final respects to his mother who has passed away. However, Sherlock discovers that there might be more to Mother Holmes’ death than first thought. Like any good self-respecting sleuth, Sherlock decides to get to the bottom of the mystery and uncover the truth.
I was able to go hands-on with the first couple hours of an early build of the game to get a feel for what Frogwares has in store for fans and players when the game launches later in 2021. In the first mission, Sherlock arrives at the Hotel Cordona, and after a long and boring boat ride is chomping at the bit to put his powers of deduction to work. After Jon notices a cane that has been left behind in the hotel bar, he challenges Sherlock (or Sherry as he is referred to) to find the cane’s owner. This sort of challenge is like child’s play for Sherlock and the case acts like the game’s tutorial, introducing players to some of the game’s mechanics.
Solving crimes has never looked this good
It’s not long before you reunite the cane with its owner, and amazingly, by pure happenstance, the cane’s owner Lord Craven requires a private eye after one of his precious jewels was stolen from right under his nose during a session with a medium, which in turn leads to a murder investigation. Here we get our first proper look at how an investigation works in Chapter One and it’s immediately apparent that it shares largely the same DNA as previous Sherlock games and The Sinking City, although there have been some additions to the formula.
One addition allows players to pin evidence to their HUD and then question people in the hope that someone saw or knows something regarding that evidence, such as confirming whether someone was in the bar during a certain time of the day. While another new mechanic is Concentration, which lets players see traits and other useful info about people in the world. For example, when finding the cane, Holmes had to speak to a naval officer and by using Concentration, Sherlock was able to identify who he was looking for.
Players will need to search crime scenes for evidence, which allows Sherlock to get somewhat of an idea of what went down. You will need to find all the available evidence to complete that objective, and once you have, you’ll have to put it all together and come to a conclusion, which is done in Sherlock’s famous Mind Palace. At the very end after you’ve cracked a case you’ll need to make a final call on how you want things to play out. In the case of the murder, does the killer’s reasons for taking a life justify the crime they committed and earn your mercy? Or is no one above the law and justice must be served? The choice is yours and it’s one that ups the pressure more than I thought it would.
Let’s piece this puzzle together
Sherlock will also need to analyse suspects and other individuals to make judgements about what you’ve learned. For example, in the case of the missing jewel, Sherlock analyses Lord Craven’s appearance and you’ll need to decide if the information you’ve gleaned points to Craven being a keen drinker or suffering from an illness.
The second half of the demo takes place in the city of Cordona, which is bustling with activity. Thankfully, NPC behaviour, such as their walking patterns, is much improved from The Sinking City, where they often looked like nothing more than cursed Imhotep followers (shoutouts to The Mummy).
Our first destination after leaving Hotel Cordona is the cemetery, where Sherlock has come to pay his respects. However, Sherlock quickly realises that he is not his mother’s only visitor for the day. It doesn’t take long for Sherlock to find who else has visited Mrs Holmes’ grave and it’s here he learns that perhaps her death was not so cut and dry and that a police investigation was opened up.
After the cemetery, Sherlock heads to the police station to find out more about this potential investigation. Upon arrival, he’s informed that an officer has locked himself in the archives. Classic. Not one to pass up an opportunity to flex his skills, Sherlock offers to help the officer, which takes him to the scene of a robbery to obtain a sketch of the thief. Here we get a taste of Chapter One’s disguise feature, with Holmes dressing up to match the appearance of the perpetrator. Frogwares says that Sherlock will need to use disguises at various points in the game to get the answers he seeks, with disguises available to rent or buy from vendors scattered across Cordona.
Cordona – where you’d rather be
While investigation is the game’s forte, it’s clear that the relationship between Sherlock and Jonathan will play a large part in the story. The chatter between the two is enjoyable and like previous games Sherlock is excellently voiced, as is Jon. I am keen to learn more about their relationship in the full release.
Despite being younger, Sherlock still has that combination of cockiness and charm that makes you unsure whether you want to give him a clip around the earhole or buy him one too many drinks that results in needing your own private eye to locate the exact moment you lost your dignity the night before.
The only thing that concerned me was the lack of variety in the NPC dialogue and even Jon. It felt like after about an hour I had heard the same handful of generic lines several times. It’s certainly not a dealbreaker by any stretch, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t lessen the immersion a touch.
The answer won’t leave you scratching your head
Frogwares is a studio whose ambitions and ability grow with each game, and like The Sinking City before it, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One looks like being the studio’s best offering of its tried and refined investigation gameplay to date. The move to focus on a younger Sherlock is one that gives Frogwares a lot more creative freedom and whether it’s the relationship between Sherlock and Jon, the overarching narrative, or exploring the gorgeous island of Cordona, I am excited to go hands-on with the full game later this year to uncover all the secrets that Cordona hides.
Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One lands on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X&S, Xbox One and PC later in 2021.
Previewed on PC // Preview code supplied by publisher