There is a dense air of mystery surrounding the dark London streets that Holmes and Watson must explore in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, not just within the twists and turns of the intelligent plot but also swirling around the entire game. It is something of an enigma: an adventure game playable from three distinct perspectives, bundled with the perplexment of the hidden object genre and finally intertwined with beguiling logic problems. Taken individually each part would be found wanting but together they create something of an entertaining and unique offering that can fill a few hours of the dreary approaching winter.
At a quick glance it would be easy to accept The Testament of Sherlock Holmes as a throwaway game. The sixth (excluding two portable games) in the series from developer Frogwares, each release being met with no more than mediocre critical response, feels as if it is deliberately trying to set your expectations low from the outset. The opening scene where a gaggle of children discover a mysterious book in their attic is so shockingly awful in every way that it fills the stomach with dread for what is to come. Fortunately you soon come to realise that this is an entirely irrelevant framing device and as you settle into the shoes of the great detective in the tutorial, your stomach also settles.
While that tutorial meanders towards a completely baffling conclusion, with the finger being pointed at a trained monkey of all things, the following plot for the rest of the game is clever, gritty, melancholic and surprisingly akin to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. After investigating the brutal murder of a clergyman (the game is not one for the faint of heart, displaying mutilated corpses and sections involving dissecting cadavers), Holmes’ story spirals into a pit of suspicion and desperation which sees him wanted for murder by Scotland Yard. While not without its fair share of Sherlockian clichés, it is a well told and gripping to the end.
Much of the game is spent trampling around the various locales of late nineteenth century London as either Holmes or Watson (as well as a peculiar section as Toby the faithful hound). The city is surprisingly well recreated complete with the polar opposite environments found at the time, ranging from resplendent Marylebone mansions to the horrific filth of Whitechapel where Jack the Ripper once ‘worked’. 221b Baker Street is also delightfully revived with interesting references to other cases Holmes has undertaken. Perhaps one of the game’s greatest strengths is its depiction of London’s social dichotomy, still relevant now, and the way Holmes seems to easily mingle in either. Sadly, despite the atmosphere being particularly embracing, the graphics and models are lacking the polish that one expects today and the game has a distinctly last decade look to it. That being said, the game is leagues ahead of the previous release: Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper, but there is still a long way to go.
Holmes himself is portrayed rather curiously. Miraculously more arrogant, more aggressive and more disconcerting than even the great detective usually manages while Watson, on the other hand, is overly trusting and oblivious to the point of idiocy, failing to see what is plainly in front of him. While it may be a requirement of the plot for both characters to act in such a way, there is still a counter intuitive sense to the proceedings as the player is forced to choose from very linear conversation topics that break the delicate connection between player and avatar. No one should want to control a character so conceited, vicious and conniving as this Holmes or as brain meltingly stupid as Watson.
A large proportion of time playing The Testament of Sherlock Holmes will be spent hovering the mouse around the screen hoping a useful blue clue symbol will appear. Clicking on these clue areas will cause our protagonists to spurt out information regarding whatever lies in front of them. In general all areas require you to have discovered most of the relevant clue areas to proceed, so careful and meticulous exploration is required. This is where the unique element of having three camera angles comes into its own. Switching between first-person, third-person and the more traditional adventure game hovering camera angle is a matter of efficiently hitting a button and often a change in perspective is rewarded with discovering something previously obscured.
The issue here is that often you will have figured out exactly what needs to be done far before the game realises, and hunting down those elusive final few clues becomes a chore. In one example it was clearly obvious I needed some cogs to attach to a machine to get it running in order to proceed, and yet the cog right in front of my eyes was unobtainable. It turned out I needed to click on a very small clue on the machine to make Holmes realise I needed a cog, which I then could finally pick up and use. And far too much of the game follows this frustrating route of enforcing the player to hunt every single useless clue. Holmes’ supernatural ability of finding all the clues with the touch of a button becomes extremely useful, however it is limited to only those in view so a lot of time is wasted running around hammering the space bar hoping to uncover that one missing clue.
Underpinning each section of the game is an array of logic puzzles, often taking the form of elaborate locking systems. These range from the delightfully devious to same tired old problems that seem to fester in all games of this genre. One clever little box required knowledge of the fibonacci sequence and magic squares without any real hints. Yet too many others are basic variations on block sliding problems, and a fan of the Professor Layton series should breeze through them all. As Holmes states far too often: "it is simplicity itself". For better or for worse, all puzzles of this type can be skipped entirely so they will never hold a player back from progressing the plot.
There are, as is ubiquitous across all modern games, a wealth of achievements in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. However rather than being interesting diversions they end up illustrating one of its main issues. One run through of the game's eight or so hours will unlock virtually all the achievements, demonstrating just how little depth or replayability there is. Sure, it's a common issue for adventure and puzzle games but Holmes’ requirement to uncover virtually every single thread simply hammers that point home.
Overall The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is an interesting little beast. A grisly and intelligent plot, rich environments and a unique utilisation of genre hopping camera angles all combine to create something truly refreshing. However at the same time the game is horribly scarred by sloppy production values, charmless characters and shockingly unintelligent progression. The resulting experience, rather like the London it portrays, is severely mixed with waves of genuine satisfaction by solving clever puzzles followed by terrible crashes of frustration when the basics fall apart. Perhaps Frogwares should take note of Holmes’ own words: “Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems”.
Not quite simplicity itself...