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THE CASE OF THE
The Sherlock Holmes Video Game is Afoot
BILL WOOD | JULY 20, 2023
If you've read my previous blog you'll know that I am a huge fan of both Sherlock Holmes and video games. Fortunately for us wannabe sleuths, Ukrainian game developer Frogwares has provided a way of walking in the gumshoes of the master detective. Their series of Sherlock Holmes video games mostly succeed by laying out compelling stories accompanied by a series of increasingly intricate puzzles and mysteries to solve. At their best they do an incredible job of displaying Holmes’ wide array of detective skills—including crime scene investigation, interrogation, chemical analysis and lockpicking—while highlighting his unique talent for observation and deduction.
Like the now-classic L.A. Noire, perhaps the best part of the Sherlock Holmes games is the potential for human error in judgment. There are divergent paths along the way where the player's ability to reason is called to action. Have I explored every single detail, no matter how minor? Is this person fumbling their way though a lie or are they legitimately upset? Do Observation A and Observation B automatically equal Deduction C, or is there another aspect to consider? Of course there is a perfect solution for every problem, along with several that are less than ideal and not at all obvious. In other words, you are playing as the infallible Sherlock Holmes but the detective gamer in you can still screw this up.
Most Sherlockian games are well worth playing for detective fans, but they also vary wildly in terms of what they deliver in terms of presentation, quality and substance. Some remain staunchly faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original character while others deviate so far that they have little in common. For this reason, I’m detailing the five Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games released within the past decade, ranked in order of personal preference.
I’ve rated these games based on several criteria:
• Presentation of the Holmes and Watson characters
• Sleuthing and puzzle solving
• Story and character development
• Intangibles (innovative detective mechanics = good; gun combat = bad)
• Technical gaming details (frame rate, resolution, controls, etc.)
All games were reviewed on PS5, and all except one were Platinumed (100% completion).
5) Sherlock Holmes and the Devil’s Daughter ★½
My least favorite in the Frogwares series, this game re-envisions the legendary detective as a gritty Jon Hamm lookalike. I'm not sure what prompted the design direction for this particular game, but it seems the choice wasn't a terribly popular one as Frogwares promptly ditched it for future games. I do see the need to modernize Sherlock Holmes for younger generations, but there are better ways of going about it, just ask Benedict Cumberbatch.
Devil’s Daughter isn't a complete disaster. The sleuthing is classic Frogwares, old London is well represented and you even get to play as longtime Holmes' compatriots Wiggins and Toby. But ultimately, the game just doesn’t ring true as a proper Holmes adventure. Instead it feels like just another mediocre action-detective title with the name "Sherlock Holmes" plastered over it. Add to this an uneven story and some clumsy stealth and action mechanics and what you end up with is a thoroughly forgettable experience. As such, it’s the only game on this list that I haven't finished and can't recommend.
4) Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One ★★★
You have to give credit to Frogwares for delivering a Holmes origin story in a completely unfamiliar locale. This twenty-something version of Sherlock is bold, debonair, and ready to take on the world while uncovering dark secrets about his own past. Even if he is something of a diversion from Doyle's original character, young Holmes does feel more genuine than the action hero version in Devil’s Daughter.
Chapter One is also the closest thing to an open-world Sherlock game, with plenty to do in the fictional European town of Cordona. Far from linear, you can take time out of the main story at almost any time to partake in side quests, track down collectibles or simply explore your surroundings. When accompanied with the optional DLC (the Deluxe Edition is a good value), you'll find no shortage of tasks to complete and mysteries to solve. The only downside is that sunny Cordona—while diverse and teeming with life—isn't Victorian London, which is where we expect most of our Holmes adventures to take place.
Chapter One briefly loses its footing with combat-based set pieces that allow Holmes to murder his enemies in cold blood (seriously?!?) and a non-Watson companion that is hardly an apt substitute. There are also a few technical glitches such as stuttering and frame rate drops that detract from the experience. But if you’re in it solely for the sleuthing and don't mind the modern attempt at ret-conning the personal details of Holmes' early life, odds are you'll get a lot out of Chapter One.
3) Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened ★★★½
This 2023 remake of the 2007 PC original sees the Chapter One version of young Holmes struggling to maintain his sanity while unraveling a series of Lovecraftian nightmares. The pacing is fast and the puzzle solving and sleuthing is excellent. The scenery is vibrant and super-detailed, I’d have liked to have spent more time roaming the streets of London instead of Switzerland and New Orleans, but you can’t have it all (or can you? read on). In any case, here’s hoping Frogwares releases a Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper remake to properly scratch that Foggy London itch.
Sherlock Holmes is the star of The Awakened, so it should come as no surprise that the game leans heavily into Doyle-esque mystery as opposed to full-on Lovecraftian horror. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of Arkham-inspired madness to be uncovered within the game and the threat of the Great Old Ones is ever-present. But if you’re in it solely for the H.P., check out Call of Cthulhu or The Sinking City instead.
The Awakened is a bit on the short side, clocking in at around 12 hours depending on your detective prowess. There is optional DLC which I haven't played, but apart from that it's a fairly linear and straightforward experience, not surprising considering the game's origin. The Platinum trophy is also super-easy to obtain, so it's quite possible to 100% complete the game quickly. After that it's just a matter of how often you want to replay the story.
2) The Testament of Sherlock Holmes ★★★★
Number 1 and 2 on this list are so close in terms of quality that you may as well take your pick. Both feature the most authentic versions of Holmes and Watson you’ll find in a video game adaptation, based very closely on Doyle’s canon. Both feature a full supporting cast, including Inspector Lestrade, Mycroft Holmes, Professor Moriarty, Mrs. Hudson, and the Baker Street Irregulars. You even get to play as (Holmes' canine companion) Toby in both games! Testament takes chances by presenting a somewhat controversial version of Holmes, but it totally works in this case (no pun intended!).
The decade-old Testament was stealth-released on PS4 in June 2023, basically bringing it up to speed with its PC counterpart (60fps, high-res textures, etc.). The camera and controls still feel dated but it’s not too much of a distraction. My one issue with Testament are the puzzle designs, which range from immensely gratifying to borderline impossible to solve on one’s own. I won’t lie, I had to consult an online guide on several occasions. You can also skip over the lock puzzles completely, but these are hardly Sherlockian solutions are they?
On a personal note, Testament was the first Sherlock Holmes game I played as well as my introduction to the detective in general. Up to that point I'd read none of the stories or watched any of the movies, therefore this game will have always have a personal significance attached to it. It's not only a great way for gamers to get acquainted with Holmes, but a solid detective game in its own right.
1) Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments ★★★★
When it comes to Sherlock Holmes simulators, it just doesn't get any better than Crimes and Punishments. The sleuthing is smart and intuitive, the stories compelling. Of the six cases presented, two ("The Case of Black Peter" and "The Abbey Grange Affair") are based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s canon, and the all-original "Riddle on the Rails" shines as one of the series' brightest moments. Each case plays out as a self-contained mystery with a loose story arc about the Guy Fawkes-inspired Merry Men stitching everything together. You must initially complete the mysteries in a certain order, but after that it's easy enough to skip around to wrap up loose ends and improve upon your deductions if necessary.
As with Testament, Crimes’ lock puzzles can be irritating, but thankfully they are few and far between (and can be skipped if they're really getting in your nerves). Also, the save system is a bit unforgiving, with no option for manual or multiple saves, useful if you're exploring conclusions or wanting to play multiple cases at once. To be fair, you can back out of any conclusions you make. But once you start with a case, you're stuck with it unless you abandon your progress. Minor quips aside, the game is a stellar experience that plays out more like a series of Doyle short stories than one of his full-length novels, which also makes it a convenient "pick up and play" experience.
Crimes and Punishments is a fantastic detective title, and since it goes on sale frequently across all platforms it's definitely the one I’d suggest for newcomers to Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes game series. - BW