Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One review

By Luke Albigés,
One thing is for certain: Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is definitely a Frogwares game. There's a specific flavour of jank that comes to the fore with most of the studio's games, but fans have come to see that as part of the games' charm — not every game needs to have the production values of something like Red Dead 2 in order to be a fun time, after all, and Frogwares games can be really quite impressive in their own ways if you're willing to put up with their quirks. Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is no exception.


The main eyebrow-raiser this time around is the weird combat. It's all gun-based, with no melee option until you've exploited an enemy's weaknesses to make them susceptible to 'arrest' via a QTE finisher. Young Sherlock's preferred methods of 'arresting' thugs are things like shooting them in the foot or boxing their ears, almost always followed by a nonchalant shove to the floor and a pithy one-liner. These encounters take the form of rudimentary puzzles with their own contrived rules (helmets can only be removed after stripping a target of all other armour, for instance) and while things like using the environment to stun foes is pretty neat, most encounters just feel like going through the motions while Sherlock quips "no more crime for you!" for the thousandth time, and they always outstay their welcome. Little wonder, then, that Frogwares decided to make these optional by including a separate difficulty for combat that allows fights to be skipped, although you'll need to be more frugal with your cash rewards from missions if you go down that route — the optional Bandit Lair combat challenges are one of the best ways to make a quick buck for when you need some new clothes for a disguise.

Aside from this strange distraction, much of Chapter One is exactly the kind of Holmesing we've come to expect. You'll use the various tools at your disposal to go from having just a few vague clues to having a case file packed with all the evidence you need to point the finger and close any given case, and it's really interesting just how differently each of the big cases plays out. With so many options in terms of extrapolating more info from clues, Frogwares has incorporated a handy icon system that shows how best to get what you need. Most clues need to be 'pinned' in order to wring the juicy details out of them, after which you might need to interview bystanders, cross-reference information at one of several archives, eavesdrop on gossip, or even do a spot of science via the interesting (if slightly easy) forensics mini-game. Clues lose their icon when nothing more can be gleaned from them, making it a process of elimination as you work your way through each and learn all of the facts before jumping to an accusation. Key cases are extended a step further, with pertinent details catalogued in Sherlock's Mind Palace where they can be pieced together to form the backbone of the case and point to the culprit, and it's always satisfying to see this spiderweb of detective work grow and eventually lead to a definitive (or sometimes not-so-definitive) perpetrator.

sherlock holmes chapter one

Considering how much he bangs on about hating lies, Sherlock sure doesn't seem to mind dressing up in outlandish costumes in order to deceive simpletons into giving up valuable information. Heck, some dialogue options (often ones associated with disguised conversation) are literally highlighted as being lies, and you can't even have Holmes stick to his moral guns if you want the completion as one achievement in particular is locked behind spending an entire case masquerading as a cop. The disguise system is otherwise really well done, with every item of clothing differently affecting the attitude of six distinct types of people, from nobility to vagrants, with a clear visual representation on the dress-up screen to show how you'll likely be perceived by the various demographics based on your current costume. You can double-check your mark likes what they see by profiling them to make sure they're friendly towards you before going in for questioning too, and it's always a good idea to do so as doing it wrong may net you nothing but a curt insult at best, or perhaps even a lost witness at worst. Specific cases of disguise trickery lead to Sherlock putting on some daft voices, but those are thankfully rare.

Another part of the investigation process requires you to piece together a mental map and timeline of the crime scene with the help of Sherlock's new partner-in-uncrime, Jon. Once you work out what happened, you need to work out how all the pieces slot together in order to spot inconsistencies or new details, done by placing virtual characters around key pieces of evidence to get the full picture. Early examples are heavily grounded in logic and easy to work out with so few variables, but some of the later ones are much harder to parse due to having many more locations to fill and options to cycle through — even though each node is multiple choice, you won't brute force the bigger reconstructions without first going insane from Jon's repeated single line of unskippable dialogue every time you try to lock in a wrong answer. Frequent failures in this or any other aspect of case management are recorded in Jon's diary (along with successes, for balance) and while this technically doesn't do anything, it still feels bad to have your best bud talking smack about your sleuthing skills. Jon often makes other requests during cases that have more of a tangible impact, things like finding the right person first try or going the extra mile to help people involved, and you can usually tick these off fairly easily for a nice pat on the back from Jon to offset those mean things he said about you in his journal. Jon's a fairly interesting character, and even if he can come across as a little wet, his playful nature and lighthearted attitude do serve as a welcome counterpoint to Sherlock's no-nonsense approach, as well as to some of the darker subject matter, actually.

sherlock holmes chapter one

Frogwares is no stranger to courting controversy — The Sinking City even had an achievement for goading (and subsequently murdering) a KKK leader — but Chapter One doesn't need one trigger warning, rather dozens of the things. With the game set against the backdrop of British imperialism, some of these should really come as no surprise. But on top of things like racism, classism, and slavery comes a shopping list of other sensitive topics. Sexual assault, homophobia, sexism, child abuse, transphobia, and plenty more also come up even without setting foot outside of the core cases, and it must be said that all seem to be handled quite well for the most part, addressed with a degree of delicacy and in the interest of presenting an accurate period piece rather than simply being included for the shock value of such taboo topics.

The big issues of the time are also well reflected in Chapter One's varied and relatively large map, and there's a notably different atmosphere in, say, Cordona's insurrection-ready old city to the glitz and glamour of the more recently colonised southern portion of the city where the elite live large. A smattering of fast travel points and the option to take carriages between certain locations will save you a little legwork after you've done a little exploring, but it can pay to put the effort in — local chatter could lead you to more clues or cases, while map-spanning side missions like the large-scale treasure hunt reward you for fully exploring the area. Key locations like the family home (which you can decorate by buying back auctioned furniture from local traders) and archives all have fast travel points on the doorstep, so after a brief tour of the map, it's rare that you'll find yourself groaning about having to walk too far. Best not get too close to the water, though... even a quick paddle is enough to see Mr Holmes pass out and be sent back to the nearest checkpoint, which Frogwares rather hilariously hand-waves with a loading screen tip explaining that he is "afraid of water." Not that said tips appear for long enough to read them in most cases — loads after the initial one are over in an instant, which makes the 'press A to continue' ones pretty redundant after the first. The Sinking City, this is not. Well, not in this one regard, anyway. In most others, it's undeniably cut from the same cloth, but I sure don't miss traipsing through random back yards full of skittering eldritch abominations, and that's coming from someone who likes eldritch abominations.

sherlock holmes chapter one

Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One looks darn good at times, but you can see why the devs decided to give the Xbox One version a little more time in the oven. Even on Series X, performance isn't too hot, with bouts of frame rate stuttering, occasional pop-in when an area first loads, and some sketchy animations marring what is otherwise a fairly pretty game. Sherlock himself is an especially pretty lad (one Wardrobe description even comments on this — a lot of these are actually quite amusing), although NPCs still run the gamut from looking great to awful, typically with a traceable correlation between quality and significance. Voice work too is the same kind of mixed bag, with some of Sherlock's brutal shutdowns potentially setting up a DLC case about why Cordona has so many burn victims when no fires have been reported, while other lines are clearly delivered completely wrong, sometimes even to the point that their meaning is altered. I'd recommend playing with subtitles on, just so it makes it a little easier to pick up on such misdeliveries in case they might impact a case outcome. A lot of the writing is certainly entertaining and got a good few giggles out of me, so it's a bit of a shame that the content as written is sometimes done dirty by the performances.

In terms of achievements, I hope you like missables. A good chunk of the list is made up of situational achievements that you'll only get one shot at, whether that be disappointing your brother by taking matters into your own hands, interviewing suspects and witnesses while wearing the correct disguises, or progressing and closing key cases in specific ways. I'd advise making extensive use of manual saves if you're going for this completion without a guide, as some of these one-shot achievements arrive pretty late in the story and missing them without the safety net of a recent save will mean another full playthrough. Everything up to Closing a Chapter on the list in its default order is chronological, though, so those ones at least are easy enough to keep an eye on — the rest are related to optional cases and collectables, so aren't as easy to keep track of. Seeing the platinum-style 'all other achievements' one sat at 0% is mildly concerning, although nobody here has actually done them all yet, so I'll just cross my fingers and hope that one isn't bugged, as these types of achievements so often are.

sherlock holmes chapter one


Summary

Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One deviates little from the established Frogwares detective game template, but that doesn't stop it from being a compelling adventure and perhaps one of the studio's stronger games overall. It's got a meaty and intriguing core story, loads to see and do off the main path, and some swerving cases that will take some serious sleuthing to come to the right conclusions — I'm not sure what more you could really ask for from a game like this besides that tried-and-tested trifecta, except maybe a little more polish. The lack thereof doesn't hurt the game too much, mind, so if you enjoy solving crimes while being really, really, really ridiculously good-looking, this mid-price mystery should definitely find its way onto your wishlist.
7 / 10
* Luke spent around 30 hours solving crimes, unlocking 27 of 39 achievements in the process. An Xbox Series X|S copy of the game was provided by the publisher.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.