DDeveloper Frogwares has a long history of making games about the world’s most famous sleuth, but Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is the most personal. A 21-year-old Sherlock returns to the fictional island of Cordona, where he spent his childhood, triggering a chain of events that leads him to discover a missing piece of his past: how his mother died. Cordona is inspired by real-world places that have changed hands over and over, and different areas of the island showcase a mix of cultures. I once heard the athan, or call to prayer, from a nearby mosque. Shortly after the prologue, the whole island opens up, and you can quickly run through it in seconds while digging through Sherlock’s stuff.
These centerpiece mysteries are varied in both tone and theme, and the solutions almost always look elegant. I won’t easily forget the case of the elephant killer or the mermaid serial killer. Crime scenes are where the game and the protagonist himself are most comfortable. Evidence littered the scene; Sherlock examines each piece, relates them to the accounts given by suspects and witnesses, and reconstructs what happened. You can manipulate the ghostly outlines of the positions and actions of suspects at particular times – a clever way to convey Sherlock’s thought. Even after I had solved a case, the big reveal still revealed something I had overlooked.
Accompanying Sherlock is his imaginary friend, Jon – a role to be played later by his columnist, Dr. John Watson. Unlike Watson, however, Jon is boring. He moans when I don’t get the right answer, or asks the wrong questions, offering only criticism and no clue, which was unnecessary and off-putting. Finally, I had to mute the sound. Frustratingly, the game forces you to perfectly piece together crime scenes, evidence, archival research, and mind palace deductions, but it’s not always clear what its version of Perfect entails, and it is easy to be slightly mistaken. I really could have done it without having to listen to Jon berating me before each subsequent attempt.
Holmes has a detective vision ability that highlights important objects with a small white circle that looks like a reticle or a small yellow dot. As a person with a minor visual impairment, I had to squint my eyes to make out these tiny dots – and then at night fireflies appear, which are too small yellow dots. This is an inexplicably hostile visual design decision, made more annoying by the fact that Detective Vision takes seconds to recharge.
The doors to Sherlock’s decrepit and abandoned family mansion open for him as he remembers more, slowly piecing together what happened to his mother. You can populate this place with paintings, furniture and goods, filling its character and history, a decent metaphor for your progress through story and game. It is a living world, with wonderful little mysteries and a comprehensive story that brings you closer to its famous main character and personal story. While there are a few technical issues and the game naturally lacks the glossy polish of bigger budget titles, it’s nonetheless something I’ve wanted for a long time: an interactive, open-world detective story.