Adventure games are all about story and puzzles, sometimes working and sometimes failing in both departments. As Sherlock Holmes is a character who stands for suspenseful storytelling in which mysteries are found and solved, what better way than putting him into a game? French developer Frogwares shows how it should be done with its point-and-click adventure title The Testament of Sherlock Holmes.
The murder of a Bishop, the accusations against famous Sherlock Holmes’ investigative manners by a ruthless news reporter and many other sinister plot strands run together in his most personal case.
Telltale story and illustrated characters
The Sherlock Holmes games have always been about a story which starts out with a seemingly easy case becoming more and more complicated. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is no different, and with its playtime of 15-20 hours, it certainly delivers on a suspenseful crime story with an emphasis on investigation, but unfortunately fails at the end with a kitsch ending. The frame story of some children finding out about Holmes’ past adventure in an attic also appears to be an interesting deviation from the rather linear narration of former Frogwares games. But after a while these interruptions are more annoying than intriguing, especially since they are in stark contrast to the grim, often brutal and bloody murder scenes.
The cast of characters and the number of locations to visit is quite impressive and don’t only make for a long playtime, but also for variety and therefore a good representation of Victorian England. This becomes apparent when walking through the Whitechapel district which is lively with its population who go on their daily business. It’s not exactly GTA quality, but compared to other adventure games which are devoid of story-irrelevant NPCs, this is a refreshing change in the series and for the genre as a whole. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is as poignantly characterized as ever, even if the master of deduction’s attitude becomes quite unrealistic near the end. The other characters might not be the most original or memorable, but at least they seldom feel as only being a part of a puzzle the player has to solve, as so many adventure games exemplify.
Many streets to traverse and decisions/deductions to make
There is also a bit of non-linearity, i.e. the player can decide in what order he wants Holmes to investigate certain leads. Of course all places have to be visited and suspects interrogated, but the freedom to choose where to go next and in some cases go back to other locations creates the feeling of being part of an open world, something which is good for a convincing Sherlock Holmes-investigation. It’s too bad then that the ingame map is pretty useless: As a simple 2D drawing, it doesn’t help much in a 3D game where locations like the Whitechapel district have too many identical-looking streets.
What makes the game feel like an actual Sherlock interactive story is how the deductions are performed by the player. These are done on a board where connections to the cases and evidence are drawn while correct answers to leading questions open up new brances of investigation. This can be quite fun but also frustrating, as there aren’t any hints to what’s wrong and right, so a very small detail can result in the player getting stuck without knowing what he or she should do differently. It’s also seldom clear how Holmes reaches these conclusions, so guess work replaces rational thinking, something which runs against the general idea of deduction.
Puzzling thoughts and gaming world
The same difficulties can be found in the puzzle design and general progress in the game. Like so many other adventure games (Gray Matter springs to mind), events are only triggered after a certain number of objects have been looked at, picked up or the surroundings surveyed. Of course this makes perfect sense for an investigator, but in a game it can quickly lead to the dreaded finding-all-the-hotspots-in-the-hope-something-happens situation. The Runaway syndrome (finding something new in a place one has scrutinized before) should be a thing of the past, so it’s unfortunate that this still happens here.
Another problem is how the puzzles are incorporated into the game world and storytelling. There are both inventory-based combinations and logical conundrums which make for a varied gameplay experience. But they often feel as if they’re only implemented to please adventure fans who like a puzzle challenge better than actually think about its logical inclusion. It’s not even as if the tasks are especially original, like the typical who-sits-next-to-whom problem found in a classroom to open a box. This seems to be what one is doing most of the time: looking for clues to open something. If the story weren’t so engaging, boredom would quickly set in with the forced puzzle design. Frustration definitely comes into play when some objects can be picked up while others can’t or how they’re combined, often ending up in constructions which only make sense after they’re complete or used with the environment.
It’s simplicity itself with dear Watson or Holmes… or Toby the dog
This of course doesn’t mean that puzzle solving isn’t without its merits. Throughout the game, switching between Watson and Holmes is already quite interesting and doesn’t only turn up the difficulty, but also gives the storytelling a different-perspectives touch by creating tension and unexpected revelations about Holmes’ strange behavior. There’s also one section in the game in which their trusty dog Toby can be controlled to follow a suspect’s trail. This in itself is a fun idea which is unfortunately hindered by some clunky camera and movement controls and ends up in less than fun walking around without knowing what to do, as hints are rare where to go next.
The hint and help system is actually a nice idea to give less seasoned adventure gamers a chance to enjoy Holmes’ story without getting stuck too often. This works to a certain degree, as a hotspot key highlights specific items or indicates which objects can be combined. Additionally, some puzzles or mini-games can be skipped as well. Obviously, this is a way to quickly pass over most of the brain-teasers and result in a go-from-one-place-to-another formula hoping to find out what the developers want the player to actually do with the hotspots. The deduction boards are left alone, which is a bit weird, because these can often lead to frustration as well. It often feels as if too many ideas are thrown into the game just to please every gamer’s taste, so nonsensical labyrinths, chess games, tile moving and other mini games are found which break the illusion of a realistic investigation in Victorian times.
Move and break a… controller
It has already been mentioned that the controls aren’t the best in case of the dog character, so it’s no surprise to find the same problems with the two-legged protagonists. Switching between a first and third-person perspective is recommendable, as it also prevents motion sickness for those who can’t play first-person adventures. But it happens quite frequently that this perspective has to be used in order to look at certain objects which are too fiddly to be inspected with the other method. As strange as it may sound, opening doors can become a chore as well, because the characters seem to need a special animation to perform this action, and depending on where they stand, they simply refuse to do it. This is a shame considering that the rest of the game plays rather well.
Looking and sounding good in the old times
The presentation is pretty good with some realistic-looking facial features and detailed locations which unfortunately don’t have the best textures on the console version and suffer from performance issues (something I couldn’t test with the PC as I only had the Xbox 360 review copy). Voice acting is very good throughout with some appropriate accents and a high standard of intonation, except maybe for the children’s acting. Music and sound effects are used to a dramatic effect and can even create some creepy scenes, especially in combination with the nice lighting effects. Unfortunately the soundtrack becomes repetitive and doesn’t always reflect what’s happening on screen. This might also be due to a limited number of tracks to listen to. Character animations are a bit wooden at times and lip synchronization isn’t always up to scratch which renders the many long dialogues at some points rather dull.
An ambitious game of Holmesian propoportions
Frogwares’ Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a good adaptation of the source material without simply copying well-known stories, but reinventing the main character. The story succeeds on many different levels: It’s suspenseful, at times even scary and offers enough twists and turns to stay engaging throughout the game. So it’s unfortunate that the ending is so disappointing and detrimental to Holmes’ development.
Puzzle design could also need some improvement, as many tasks don’t necessarily mean more fun, as the illogical inclusion in the main game world testifies. Making deductions and using all kinds of investigative tools works much better, even though these elements don’t come without their frustrating problems.
What remains is an entertaining mystery/crime adventure with a good presentation (and very beautiful one apparently on PC) and gameplay which could have needed a bit more polish. But as a third-person point-and-click hybrid and an adaptation of classic detective literature with a great story in its own right, it’s much easier to forgive most of its shortcomings when having such a long playtime and so many puzzles to solve.
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