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May 2022

Sherlock Holmes Chapter One

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Frogwares
Release Date: Nov. 16, 2021

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PS5 Review - 'Sherlock Holmes Chapter One'

by Andreas Salmen on Dec. 27, 2021 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

In this story-driven detective thriller, a young Sherlock Holmes struggles to prove himself as he navigates an exotic, dangerous island in the Mediterranean to investigate the mystery of his mother’s death.

One of the key pillars of success is to do what you do best, and that applies to everything, including video games. Frogwares takes this to heart with its impressive history of detective adventure games. After taking a break from its long-running Sherlock Holmes series, it tried its hand at an open-world detective game with The Sinking City. While not a perfect game, it successfully introduced an open world and basic combat mechanics that suited its puzzle-solving gameplay loop. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One serves as a reboot of the series for Frogwares, and while it incorporates a lot of what made The Sinking City a great detective game, it doesn't manage to uphold the level of quality elsewhere.

I appreciate the fresh tone of Sherlock Holes Chapter One. Instead of gray and depressing London streets, this adventure takes place on the fictional tropical island of Cordona and features a young Sherlock Holmes. As the name suggests, Chapter One sets the stage for further entries down the line, and it does a good job in functioning as an origin story of sorts. The overarching tale revolves around Sherlock returning to the island where he grew up with his mother until her mysterious death. He and his (seemingly imaginary) friend Jon solve local crime cases and unlock memories that eventually construct a clear timeline of what happened to Sherlock and his family on Cordona years ago.

You constantly walk around town to solve new cases, which provide fodder for Sherlock's memories to unlock more sections of his childhood home and the associated memories. The main storyline features a good selection of cases that feel quite different from one another and are fun to solve, while Sherlock's family history provides ample motivation to keep going until you arrive at one of the game's several endings. While the stiff animations impede the title's efforts in telling a compelling story, the narrative is endearing and interesting to follow.

While story and setting are important for any adventure, detective work is at the heart of a Sherlock game. Chapter One takes the general framework from The Sinking City and expands on it with a few intriguing ideas. Most importantly, Chapter One won't hold your hand or spell out solutions to cases. On the contrary, as soon as you've completed your first steps, the game leaves you to your own devices, and that works very much in its favor. Each case is constructed so you can choose different outcomes based on the collected evidence, and cases aren't necessarily black and white, either. There were several cases where a piece of evidence determined the guilty party, and even then, there were situations where I was torn on determining the right call.

At its core, Chapter One satisfies the basic detective game fantasy that I expect from a Sherlock title, and it does it well. Solving cases involves listening to witness accounts, questioning suspects, and finding incriminating clues at the crime scene. Everything you collect ends up in your case book and, if relevant, in your mind castle where you can connect pieces of evidence to form conclusions. As mentioned, two different pieces of evidence may allow you to draw different conclusions, so you must be mindful of where your case is going, but you can change your conclusions as you see fit as long as you have not already incriminated a suspect.

Different clues must be handled in different ways. Some are visual and require you to pin the evidence and then go into visualization mode to gather additional information. Others are vague pieces of information that require you to search the local newspaper, police files, or town hall archives to get a name or an address. Even then, you'll only get approximate street locations that you need to pinpoint on the map yourself.

So far, most of this is similar to the detective work in The Sinking City, but one key addition is disguises. Sherlock Holmes can acquire additional clothing that comes in handy to access closed-off areas or interrogate certain NPCs that would otherwise refuse to talk. This mechanic isn't quite as open as the game would like you to think, and in most situations, you must dress up in the exact way the game tells you to. I hope a sequel can expand on this more, but it adds another layer to the detective work. I had fun solving cases in Cordona, both in the main quest and the side content, although the latter can vary in quality. I was thoroughly entertained in playing an almost juvenile version of Sherlock Holmes and solving cases across the tropical landscape in the roughly 15-hour campaign — at least until I encountered combat.

Chapter One features combat. I rarely wish something was scrapped from a game, but this is one of the moments where I'd rather have less variety than sit through the combat. They are not overly frequent, but they were consistently not fun. Although he's soon to be a master detective and a man of many words, Sherlock Holmes solves every altercation with weapons. You can shoot whoever confronts you or distract them by shooting something in the environment or armor (and conveniently placed explosive bottles) on their body to complete a QTE takedown. It's repetitive at best and clunky at worst. It feels like a disconnect from the character to become a master marksman instead of finding more ingenious ways to avoid an altercation or get a target to submit.

Alas, that's not the last of the missteps. Given the multiple endings and allowing you to reach your own conclusions — even if they're incorrect — Chapter One isn't quite as linear as previous entries. Cordona is a fully explorable open world that you can discover as you please, but there isn't a lot to do. It's a visually beautiful place, and Frogwares poured a lot into making Cordina look phenomenal, but the city is empty when you run through it, with few distractions apart from some side content and a few clothing or furniture shops. After a few hours, you'll be sick of running through the same dead streets, but at least there is a fast-travel system, assuming you have uncovered that fast-travel spot. It's best if you uncover all travel points early on to save on legwork down the line. As a city, Cordona is a letdown once you see beyond its facade.

I've already mentioned that the game is a visual step up from previous Frogwares games. It looks very pretty and sharp, with plenty of surface details on clothing, cleaner character faces, and environments. However, it still has the same central issues as previous games. Animations are stiff, especially facial animations. In a game where you look at characters' faces almost all the time, the stiff animations are jarring and frequently break the mood and immersion.

This extends to the same bland NPC character models and areas that look like they were copied and pasted in the process of creating a game much larger than expected. What's worse is that the game struggles to run smoothly on the PS5. Once you try to sprint in the open world, which I tend to do because there isn't much else to do, the game constantly stutters. Every few hundred meters, you can see the frame rate crumbling even when it seems like nothing taxing is shown on-screen.

Sound is another issue that limits Chapter One's potential. Music is usually good and fitting for the game and situation, but the voice-overs range from mediocre to bad. Main characters usually fare better, but as soon as you talk to a minor personality, things don't fit as well. It sounds like random people reading lines from a teleprompter without any awareness of the situation. Since this is very much a game that requires listening to dialogue, it significantly disrupts the experience time and time again.

I've struggled to properly rate Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. On the one hand, it does some great things in terms of the cases and the provided tools to solve those cases. I enjoyed that it never gave me an answer, and I had to arrive at my own conclusions given the evidence I'd found. On the other hand, the game is in a rough technical state with frequent frame rate issues on the PS5, basic animations that feel robotic, an empty open world, and voice acting that can pull you out of the experience at times. Fans of Sherlock Holmes or adventure games can check out Chapter One, simply for everything that it does right.

Score: 6.8/10

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