An origin story is an interesting concept for a Sherlock Holmes game. There are so many iconic adventures of the fictional detective at the top of his game, masterfully unraveling tales such as the Hound of Baskervilles or challenging the nefarious Professor Moriarty. However, rarely have we seen a tale that unravels the masterful detective, where exactly he came from, and what drives his commitment to logic and the truth. With Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, Frogwares aims to fill that gap. And fill it they do with an engaging mystery narrative that takes players on a journey through an open-world Mediterranean island with mystery around every corner and smart, devilish twists in every case.
Back where it all began
Chapter One sees a very young Sherlock in his 20s making a voyage to the fictional island of Cordona. Cordona has been settled by many a people in its time and is split up into great riches, commoners, traders, the poorest of the poor, and bandit gangs lurking in the underbelly throughout. It just so happens this island is also where Holmes grew up and where his mother died of tuberculosis… or so he thought. Seeking to find his mother’s grave, pay respects, and gain closure he didn’t get as a child, Holmes discovers troubling holes in the facts of her death. It sets him off on an investigation across the island to learn the truth of what really happened.
Holmes isn’t alone in his endeavors. Joining him throughout his adventure is the enigmatic Jon. Not Watson mind you, Jon is very specifically a figment of Holmes’ imagination (cited very early by him as an imaginary friend and his only friend at that). Jon appears through the world, accompanying Sherlock throughout every journey. The reason for his existence is, itself, a mystery, and an engaging one at that. However, I also enjoy how Jon works. He’s a fun-loving and lighthearted foil for Sherlock to bounce his more serious and rational nature off of. He also shares genuine care for Sherlock’s decisions and well-being and challenges him with unique tasks and optional investigations from time to time.
This is a good time to remind players that Frogwares also developed the earlier Sherlock Holmes in which Creepy Watson exists, appearing at different areas staring at Sherlock as players advanced through those games. Jon seems very much as though Frogwares leaned into Creepy Watson and gave context to it in a fun and creative mechanical and narrative way. Where much of this game is voiced and voiced well at that, I really enjoy Jon and Sherlock’s banter the most out of the game's dialogue. The only weird thing about Jon is that I ran into some moments when the game was loading where he would be standing and drift into a pose he was actually supposed to be in as I walked into the area.
Cordona is also a delightfully varied place. The island wields diversity quite well, even if it's somewhat discriminatory. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One starts off with the disclaimer that the game takes place in the 1800s and employs certain unsavory moods and prejudices thereof. It’s never senselessly handled though. The castes of rich and poor, worker and wealthy, beggar and trader, and even men and women are weaved into the world with sensible understanding that sometimes the dispositions around these classes were wrong and cruel, but they were also real. And honestly, the island becomes a rich tapestry of environmental and societal difference for it, although I will say that for being voiced throughout and the city being very active, some facial models are a bit still or robotic-looking. Nonetheless, I genuinely felt like Cordona itself was a character and continually enjoyable to explore and unravel.
It also helps that the entire city and the mysteries are aided by a delightfully pleasant soundtrack of stringed instruments and other relaxingly classic-styled instrumentals that aligned with Sherlock’s suave nature and the island’s Mediterranean background. All of it came together to make a story, music, and visuals that were, for the most part, pleasing throughout.
The vast tools of deduction and truth
What is a Sherlock Holmes game without extensive mystery and the solving thereof? We don’t know, but Sherlock Holmes Chapter One provides a lovely web of investigation, clue-hunting, and mystery-solving. As mentioned, Cordona is full of life outside of Sherlock’s hunt for his own truths, and that inevitably means engaging in some of Cordona’s problems. Whether it’s a murder mystery, theft, or other investigation, Sherlock Holmes and Jon find themselves pulled into these conflicts and many of them are just as fun to explore as the main mystery.
It helps that Sherlock Holmes has a deep way of pursuing clues and evidence. Whether it’s checking a crime scene for notable details, talking to folks related to the case, or piecing together the details of what happened at a scene, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is full of tools and activities to get to the bottom of an investigation. Particularly, I enjoyed the way evidence is both separated into various individually selectable items in Sherlock’s casebook and the way they are labeled. As if they were equippable weapons, you can pin a piece of evidence or a lead to make it active, using that specific topic to question people and change their dialogue or using it to reveal clues and connections in an environment that otherwise might not be there.
It helps that each item is labeled with an icon that tells you what you ought to be doing with it if there’s something left unanswered in its details. Are you looking for a maid that broke her shoe? Then an icon of multiple persons tells you that Sherlock should be talking to relevant bystanders to figure out who that shoe belongs to. Is there an eye icon next to it? That means you should be looking around the environment with that lead equipped to discern further details about it. When you’ve fully unraveled a lead, these labels disappear and you’ll know you’re wrapped up with that angle. It helped me so much to figure out what I should be doing and kept the game moving forward. There were only occasional times where I felt that the solutions to a matter were heavily esoteric. However, when solving them, I always felt the answer was justified and sensible, it was just me being unable to immediately make the connection.
The answers to a mystery can often be intense and provide difficult choices as well. Truth is never concrete and there are times where you must decide the fate of an investigation based on the evidence you have. It can lead to some bittersweet conclusions or all-around ghastly results. It’s not that this game has a strict morality compass of “good” and “bad” so much as it puts truth in your hands and challenges you to decide what to do with it. It even sometimes gives you the option of concealing the truth in your conclusions, which makes for some interesting twists. I really like the nature of investigation, the trail to the outcome, and the varied answers Sherlock Holmes Chapter One allows you to choose in this way.
One of the parts I feel is a bit ham-fisted is the combat. For the most part, Sherlock Holmes is an investigative game. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto or even L.A. Noire. However, there are times when the only answer is force and that’s when Sherlock is locked into arenas with waves of goons he must disable with his pistol and martial arts to arrest. These combat segments are largely samey and don’t really add much value to the game in my opinion. They’re not horrible, but much of the rest of the game feels so much better that even if these segments fit an investigation’s context, they’re kind of a bothersome aside. Fortunately, in the case of combat or even investigations that are stumping you, Sherlock Holmes has options that can ease the difficulty or even allow you to skip past segments that are stopping you cold.
Elementary, my dear Jon
I was impressed with my initial dip into Sherlock Holmes Chapter One in a previous preview and I really love how the full game expanded upon that. Cordona is a fantastic island to explore and its mysteries, whether directly related to Holmes’ journey or not, are quite fun to solve. Some animations are iffy and I kind of wish the combat wasn’t there, but I constantly felt like my logic and rationale were engaged by the clues the game presented me with. It also helps that Sherlock Holmes Chapter One has options to skip past annoying segments when they don’t feel worth it. Overall, however, I felt like the entire investigation was worth it and this is an origin worth exploring for any fan of mysteries or the great Sherlock Holmes.
This review is based on a digital PlayStation 5 copy supplied by the publisher. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One comes out on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S on November 16, 2021, with PS4 and Xbox One versions coming at a later date.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One
- Solid investigative mechanics throughout
- Enjoyable mysteries well worth solving
- The island of Cordona is fun to explore
- A lot of side activity to explore alongside the main mystery
- A very good soundtrack blending classic and Mediterranean style
- Animations are sometime glitchy and stiff
- Combat is boring and feels forced in
- Mystery solutions can sometimes feel esoteric