A young Sherlock Holmes visits Cordona Island to pay his respects to his late mother. It’s little more than a tutorial introducing you to the usual Frogwares detective mechanics. However, it’s also the first example of how Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is bigger, but not necessarily better, than its two most recent predecessors. What fans have come to love, while still in place, is hampered by frustrating new features and major technical drawbacks in a boring open world.
This is a much younger and exuberant Holmes; an inexperienced in comparison to his roles in Crimes & Punishments and The Devil’s Daughter. He has a boast that can only go in one of two directions: either you love him or you hate him. His personality shows in story-driven cutscenes and conversations, but the skills that eventually make him one of the greatest detectives in history still determine the shape and structure of Chapter One.
A worrying amount of crime is being committed on Cordona, and Sherlock just happens to be in the right place at the right time to investigate the perpetrators. The main narrative explores the suspicious circumstances surrounding his mother’s death, and many side incidents provide reasons to tour the island. All of them are solved in Mind Palace returning from previous entries. With this feature, you tie together clues and evidence to draw your own conclusion about what happened and then accuse someone of the illegal activity.
None of this is new to returning players, but the important thing to note is that functionality will remain solid all those years later. There’s nothing more than the Frogwares approach – being able to search crime scenes for clues and then dictate how they’re interpreted to draw your own conclusions is an enjoyable process. The game then fully implements the resource search options of the developer’s final title, The Sinking City. Go to the police, town hall, or the local newspaper to search their archives for specific terms. It’s all the Ukrainian studio did at one time; you could say this is the team’s definitive detective experience.
Well we wish we could say that. What Frogwares has already built in the past is absolutely consistent in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One. However, it is the new features and mechanics designed to take things to the next level that are starting to harm the sturdy foundation.
One of them is about eavesdropping. You are given a question and it is your job to find out if what NPCs are saying is related to the answer. In reality, vague sentences are presented on the screen and it is essentially a game of trial and error to find out if they are important or not. We had to repeat these frustrating sequences over and over just to figure out what to actually select. It’s all very unintuitive, especially when you have a time limit. Expect to need to repeat these over and over again to make progress.
Then there is a kind of detective vision ala Batman: Arkham Asylum or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which only works with certain clues. It requires you to spot floating circles in the area that may contain additional information about a place or thing, but they can be quite difficult to spot. They’re good once you get them in view, which eventually leads to scenes where you can re-enact crime, but just getting to that point is a much more difficult task than it needs to be. If you miss any of them (and they’re easy to miss), you can spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly in one place before stumbling over what needs to be done next. Previous Frogwares games have tried something similar in the past, but this particular attempt doesn’t quite work.
It’s not all bad, though. The game comes with a laundry list of customizable disguises that will decide whether or not a character will talk to you, and it’s one of the few positive steps Frogwares takes. This is a much deeper system than something like Hitman; You can change individual parts of your outfit like hats, makeup, facial hair, and glasses. Necessary to gain access to new areas and convince NPCs to give out information they would not otherwise divulge.
Another important addition to the Sherlock-Holmes formula is struggle, and we could probably take it or give it up. These scenarios are perfectly usable – better than the fight in The Sinking City, even if that isn’t a particularly high bar – but they’re not particularly exciting. Your goal is to arrest criminals instead of killing them, which will turn your bullets into contraptions that will distract the guards so you can pounce on them and handcuff their wrists. Sherlock isn’t a cop, but he’s allowed to act like one. Do not ask.
Either way, manipulating an enemy into a specific location can be a bit of a chore so that you can shoot a nearby gas pipe to temporarily stun them. But aiming feels appropriate, and a forgiving checkpoint system will get you back into action immediately if you fail. Even if it doesn’t always go with the tone, the fight is at least decent.
Bandit Hideouts are what you need to look for in the open world if you want to end any shootout, but they’re easy to spot on the map as there is so little else to do besides solving cases. Frogwares has once again chosen to tell its story in a big open world full of different districts, except that it doesn’t have the budget to fill it with interesting things to see and do. There are no random encounters, world events, or dynamic NPCs to distract you. It would be unfair to expect a developer this size to be able to do all of this, but it makes the open world feel empty. The linearity of Crimes & Punishments is still the best structure for a Sherlock Holmes title.
What makes matters worse is that it is in the open world when the game is technically at its worst. The frame rate tries to reach 60 but seldom hits it for an acceptable amount of time as large drops make traversing the map a chore. It’s an incredibly choppy experience made worse by constant visual clutter that leaves thin white lines on the corners of buildings. Texture pop-ins are abundant and random NPCs look like they were ripped straight out of the PS3 era. Then there are some bad animations and broken transitions in between.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One was supposed to be Frogwares’ best game yet on paper. It brings all those satisfying detective functions back to the past and combines them with new mechanics and interactions. However, many of them are either redundant or frustrating enough to sometimes spoil the overall experience. And in a lifeless open world that doesn’t do particularly well even in the best of times, not an easy recommendation. What fans loved from previous Sherlock Holmes installments is still there, but you have to work a little overtime to find it.