The Testament of Sherlock Holmes review for PC

Platform: PC
Also on: PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive, Atlus
Developer: Frogwares
Medium: Digital Download
Players: 1
Online: None
ESRB: T – Teen

You may not be aware of how smart Sherlock Holmes is, but that’s because it’s only as smart as is convenient for the plot. So he’s relatively smart. Relative being to normal people like you and I, who are stupid. Are we on the same page? If you find yourself interested in the Testament of Sherlock Holmes based on any other previous adventure games, books movies, novels, graphic novels, or a funny story you heard about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at a holiday party, then you’ve come to just the right place to figure out what happens in this version of Holmes.

Also this is a ‘version’ of Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know if that’s important or not, but if Robert Downey Jr. is somehow definitive in your eyes, then you can still keep it that way and wonder what this comparatively dry character has in common with an action movie.

Dear reader, the story of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes revolves around some FMV kids in an attic reading a journal from Watson detailing how he’s trapped in a partnership with an intolerable genius who deliberately withholds information for dramatic intent. Sometimes this is told from Watson’s point of view, and other times it’s told from Sherlock and other characters, which is jarring to have an assortment of characters play the part of a detective when the game was contradictory throughout– telling me there was only one greatest detective in London. At the end I had to assume it was just being clever and that I, as the player, possessed an intuition that could rival one of fiction’s smartest smart people: me as Sherlock Holmes.

Eventually, a Bishop is found dead, and once Sherlock is done poking at the body and shrugging, he tricks everyone into leaving so he can thwart them by doing nothing but repeat all the questions he had originally about why the Bishop was murdered. He then drags Watson throughout London to commit several felonies and a few murders, solves some puzzles, and then the game ends with more FMV child acting.

Does this mean when Sherlock kept telling me that the solution was elementary that he knew some kids were reading about this game in a book and that it was just a literary comprehension level? I’ll never know.

Normally, a game will balance great gameplay with an interesting story. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes would rather juggle an insufferable protagonist — Holmes as an arrogant and perpetually annoyed sleuth — with puzzles that seem to be designed with the goal of being more obtuse than an obtuse angle. Thanks to this new direction, you’ll never have to worry about enjoying the game as a whole.

It might sound like I hated this game, but that’s not the case; I only hated that it wouldn’t knock off its aggressive, self-important attitude. I don’t have a lot of investment in Sherlock Holmes, and approached this as an entry point in one of the detective’s great adventures. I was greeted with an unfamiliar asshole who regularly belittled everyone down to his colleague, and then served situational puzzles with little to no direction as to what mechanics existed for operation. Had I understood how coldly the game intended to treat players, then I could have prepared by lowering my expectations as to what end I should bother.

On the other hand, I did appreciate some of the approaches taken towards the adventure genre. Having the option to play the game entirely in a first or third-person perspective was refreshing for what I expected to be a point-and-click ordeal, while still offering the traditional control scheme as what I assume is a force of habit. I also enjoyed a lot of the character and set design, as the art direction helped bring a Late 1800’s London to life in an elegant and realistic vision. Whitechapel looks appropriately like a shit hole while Baker Street and more upscale neighborhoods were a delight to visit. I would have loved to see more venues such as Baker Street’s interior or the judge’s mansion fleshed out, but also appreciated the variety of locations throughout the game with few repeats to draw out the experience.

The great disappointment of this game may be that while the settings were wonderful and intricate at times, that the scenarios taking place in them were more tedious than riveting. It says a lot about a game that can suck the life out of unraveling the various subplots taking place alongside each other in an old prison work environment, or bore me to tears while spamming the space bar for Holmes’ ‘sixth sense’ to kick in and show me where the final piece of copper is located on a half acre of property.

At one point I thought that I was just being an idiot and not paying attention somehow to what characters were saying, but in fact the game simply provides very little direction in its mechanics. While the player is instructed on a few basics such as movement and how to interact with the environment, quest items are no different than items in one’s inventory, and their application sometimes requires components to be combined in the inventory before use is available– a particular mechanic that I found myself having either forgotten or never learned at 7 hours in when I discovered that re-allocating my inventory produced a gear icon that was communicating an action previously unknown to me. I could have sat for hours listening to a sound bite tell me that ‘I need something!’ had I not stumbled upon this oft-used mechanic beyond that point.

Additionally, semi-regular activities such as the chemistry set (or any old puzzle for the most part) will simply present text for an obvious goal; such as, ‘Use the chemistry set or whatever to figure out what the answer is,’ instead of more precise instruction on how to operate or interpret what you’re looking at. This is at times not an issue, but generally a few minutes of trial-and-error can be assumed for just about any logic puzzle you’ll come across. This wore down on my will to persevere and eventually lead to frustration that the game is working against players in order for them to progress. While it can be argued that more transparent puzzles would simulate the ease that Holmes can solve puzzles with, the goal seems to be in players finding accomplishment in discovering the mechanics of puzzles which are a regular pain in the ass to solve. Maybe the game is trying to tell us this is hard for Holmes.

… Even though he’s always going on about about how these trials are child’s play.

To the game’s credit, the most challenging puzzles are optional (with an achievement hiding behind some of them for completion), although that just compounds on how inept someone pushed to give up would feel in the first place. This doesn’t save poor design from shrouding half of the game’s scenarios in mystery.

The linearity of the game is useful for pacing, but when at one point I lost a good half hour of progression and encountered a bug that locked me in a classroom with no way to continue, the order in which things need to happen revealed itself to be easily broken. This was a successful analogy to the product as a whole, I decided in the end. Why should trial-and-error end up resulting in a game-breaking bug that is only going to punish the player? It would only make sense, as up until now there was a regularly occurring struggle between my wanting to progress and the game substituting usability on its part for asking players to go an extra mile.

Obviously this instance was an oversight in an environment where puzzles were meant to be approached in a modular fashion, but the fact remains; the direction is so precise that it’s as if the game was made for one type of person who would play it in a manner which everything made sense. If we begin to look behind the curtains, there is clearly someone behind the scenes who is forcing players to stay the course without concern as to whether it’s worth it anymore. Players are forced to decipher gameplay mechanics, forced to endure Holmes’ personality, and then when presented with contrivances and convenient plot twists, must necessitate a blind eye in order not to witness how the story is forced into a shape around what could have been a wonderful entry in Sherlock’s adventures.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is conflicting for me. I liked its subversive art direction in a day and age of games that need to blow my socks off with special effects and set pieces, and appreciated the horror of each victim’s physical state in contrast to the milquetoast demeanor of the everyday universe it created. Investigating bodies was always interesting, and the deduction board was a productive method of leading players to concluding their investigations without having Holmes outright exposit the plot. Conversely, I’m lukewarm about the voice acting, and obviously took great issue with the plot and gameplay instances. I would have liked to see the game branch out more as an adventure title; just as it gave players flexibility in a control scheme, why should its systems be so staunch and unmoving? Even when in the last few hours the title begins to branch out and explore some well-established foundations of adventure games in basic character swapping, and taking puzzles outside of static graphics and into the game environment, there are only a few hours left to glean some potential before it’s over.

All I can say is if you’re a maniac for Sherlock Holmes stories or adventure games, then there’s going to be something here for you.

I’m not sure what I’d call it, but it’s definitely something.

Grade: C