Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One Review

Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One Review

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Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One stumbles at times, but solving its fantastic cases scratches that investigative itch like few others try.

Richard Wakeling

The cobblestone streets of Victorian London are as synonymous with Sherlock Holmes as his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson, particularly as they pertain to developer Frogwares’ long-running game series. The Ukrainian studio’s latest entry, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One, ditches both the dreary, smog-filled setting, and the good doctor, by presenting an origin story for the titular sleuth. It’s a bold move that unshackles Chapter One from many of the familiar conventions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, allowing for some surprising and frankly absurd moments as you try to uncover the truth behind Sherlock’s troubled childhood.

The fictional Mediterranean island of Cordona provides the new sun-swept backdrop for Sherlock’s not-so-humble beginnings as a near-superpowered detective. The Londoner has returned to his idyllic childhood home to visit his mother’s grave, but he soon learns that there may have been more to her death than he was initially told. This sets in motion a sprawling mystery that covers the breadth of the picturesque island, albeit one that struggles to latch on and retain your investment. The plethora of cases you’re asked to investigate along the way are oftentimes fantastic and suitably intriguing–from solving a murder involving a rampaging elephant, to infiltrating a high society sex cult–but the central focus of uncovering what exactly happened to Sherlock’s mother lacks the same captivation.

This is mostly due to the fact you’re only privy to brief glimpses of Mrs. Holmes, resulting in her feeling less like a character and more like a contrived plot device. This makes it difficult to care about the details of her tragic fate either way, especially when there are more interesting story threads surrounding it. As a way to inform Sherlock’s character development, the central mystery also falters in this regard, too. The young 20-something Sherlock is presented as a novice, yet his supernatural powers of deduction are still in full force from the very outset. He can surmise a character’s entire backstory by glancing at the threads on their clothes or the bags under their eyes, so you never get the feeling that he’s coming into his own and finding what works when he already begins the game as a fully formed super detective. He might not always be as aloof or refined as older incarnations of the character, but Chapter One never gives the impression that Sherlock was significantly different in his younger years, or that the events of the game informed his future self in any way–aside from what occurs in the final few scenes.

The addition of a different sidekick does add a new wrinkle that explores Sherlock’s tormented psyche. Before John Watson came along, Sherlock had Jon, his imaginary friend. The pair have been constant companions since Sherlock’s father died when he was a child, and he serves a similar role to Watson, acting as a sounding board, confidant, and moral compass, while also assisting on cases. Unlike Watson, however, Jon is a bit of a cheeky chap who’s prone to moments of mischief. He affectionately calls Sherlock “Sherry,” and their fraternal relationship adds a lighter touch to the frequently dark subject matter.

Cordona is a detective’s paradise after all, chock full of murders, robberies, tantalizing conspiracies, and other heinous crimes. The Sherlock series has featured fairly large areas in the past, but Chapter One follows in the footsteps of Frogwares’ 2019 game, The Sinking City, by giving you an entire open world to explore. It shares more in common with LA Noire than Grand Theft Auto, essentially acting as an elaborate stage for various cases, but the open world adds another element of investigation to your skillset without being overbearing. Unfortunately, traversing the city streets is obnoxious due to the stuttering framerate on PS5. This isn’t an issue when inside or in smaller areas, but it does make navigating the world an unpleasant chore.

It’s a shame, too, because Cordona is also a character in and of itself. Chapter One is set in the late 1800s, so the island has predictably been colonized by the British empire. There’s tension between the inhabitants as a result, and the stark contrast between different cultures and classes is woven into the island’s five distinct districts. The British live in affluent neighborhoods where the streets are lined with opulent mansions and adorned with the Union Jack, while the local population’s melting pot of residents are crammed into claustrophobic shacks, selling wares in busy markets and working for the Brits in dangerous mines and factories.

It’s disappointing that this aspect of Cordona isn’t touched on more often in the game’s actual story, but perhaps this is for the best as Chapter One regularly stumbles whenever it attempts to tackle more nuanced topics.

It’s disappointing that this aspect of Cordona isn’t touched on more often in the game’s actual story, but perhaps this is for the best as Chapter One regularly stumbles whenever it attempts to tackle more nuanced topics. One of the early cases, for instance, features a trans man who Sherlock frequently misgenders, even when calling him by his chosen name. This feels unnecessary since it has no bearing on the actual case, yet Sherlock is also painted as a good guy for not revealing that the character is trans to anyone else, almost like Frogwares is patting itself on the back for doing the right thing in a situation it, itself, created. Another case uses sexual assault as a mere plot point in order to prompt a tough moral decision, and searching the city for an African refugee camp has you asking for information from the first Black NPC you can find. There are also some lazy caricatures, and Sherlock has a habit of doing dodgy accents when in disguise. None of this comes off as overtly malicious, but it’s evident of how Chapter One–though Frogware’s best-written game to date–is very, very dumb at times.

Like previous games in the series, Chapter One excels when you delve into the nitty-gritty of solving crimes. Sherlock’s deductive repertoire gives you a variety of ways to find the truth, and there’s very little hand-holding along the way. Surveying crime scenes is the simplest of the bunch as you gather and interact with different clues, from a blood-stained knife to an eye-opening letter. Sherlock’s Concentration ability is akin to “detective vision” seen in games like the Batman: Arkham series, allowing you to uncover details other people would miss, although this is most often used to tediously track footprints. You’re usually asked to recreate what transpired by positioning mannequins in Sherlock’s mind, much like how similar mysteries were solved in Return of the Obra Dinn. Sherlock’s case files nudge you in the right direction with character descriptions and detailed lists of all the evidence you’ve gathered so far, and you can use the Mind Palace to link different clues together until you have a clearer picture of what exactly happened.

You’ll also interrogate suspects, eavesdrop on conversations to filter out valuable keywords from otherwise irrelevant chatter, head to newspaper and police archives to track down people of interest, and don various disguises to infiltrate specific areas and talk to certain people. There’s no use in trying to get anything out of the intoxicated patrons at the Drinking Dutchman without dressing like a sailor first.

The lack of hand-holding makes it easy to feel like you’re arriving at your own deductions and unraveling every part of the case yourself. It’s incredibly satisfying, and Chapter One does a good job of ensuring each case maintains its forward momentum. There’s always a useful text description in your case files if you ever get stuck, and the red symbols attached to clues let you know when there’s more to glean from a particular piece of evidence without giving away too many specifics. It’s not always the most intuitive, since you’ll likely spend a considerable amount of time going back into Sherlock’s case files or checking out the “How to play” section to recall what certain symbols mean. Some clues also refuse to appear unless you pin them first, essentially marking them as your current objective, which feels like a superfluous extra step. Jon would’ve come in handy in these instances as a natural hint system, but the notes in his diary just berate you for getting it wrong without offering any solutions.

Jon will also write mean things about you if you kill anyone. Unlike Sherlock Holmes and the Devil’s Daughter, which featured a scattershot of mediocre action sequences, Chapter One only features the one, as you’re occasionally locked into a small area and forced to fight off waves of enemies. Sherlock is equipped with a single pistol, and each combat arena is filled with identical environmental hazards like steam pipes and lanterns. You can simply kill everyone or use the environment to stun and subdue enemies after a brief QTE knockdown.

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You’re rewarded with a miniscule lump of extra cash if you arrest criminals rather than murder them–and Jon won’t admonish you in his diary–but this is hardly an incentive to engage in the formulaic act of restraining enemies. The only things you can purchase with the money you earn are furnishings for Sherlock’s home and new disguises, but you can rent the latter for free so money isn’t really necessary. Killing everyone in sight doesn’t make the combat any less monotonous, but at least it’s over much quicker. You can also turn combat off completely if you’d rather not engage with it.

Despite these issues, it’s difficult not to get sucked into Chapter One’s web of intrigue. The central mystery is uneventful until its final moments, but the cases surrounding it are consistently excellent, and the role you play in solving them is incredibly gratifying. The open world is more of a backdrop than anything else, but it expands the game with dozens of side cases that are just as alluring as those found in the main story. Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One may stumble at times, but it scratches that investigative itch like few games even attempt to.

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