Developer: Frogwares / Publisher: Atlus Games / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Use of Drugs]
‘Was Sherlock Holmes always such a self-righteous prick?’ I don’t remember him that way but thinking back, he probably was. Frogwares has done a brilliant job – despite the not-so-stunning animations and 1970’s kung fu movie lip-syncing – of portraying the rich personalities of two of the most iconic characters ever.
Holmes is arrogant and cocky. Sometimes you wish his trusty partner Watson could lean over and slap him. Meanwhile Watson, himself smart and endlessly polite in the face of Holmes’ condescending remarks and slave-labor requests, can sometimes seem like an oblivious fool.
That The Testament of Sherlock Holmes has managed to capture these characters so well, and slap them into a fairly well-executed point-and-click adventure for the budget price of $40, is to be commended. Frogwares has put together an enjoyable game here, but it could have been much better with a few months more polish.
Things kick off with Holmes and his partner called in to investigate the theft of a valuable necklace, but moves swiftly on to a more prominent theme in the game – brutal murder. Predicable, you might think, but things soon spice up when clues start to implicate the mighty Holmes himself, and the world’s greatest detective’s motives are questioned as he finds himself at the center of a deep conspiracy.
And the situation gets more intense, Holmes is forced to resort to increasingly unorthodox tactics to garner results – including threats, bribery, drugging someone and helping criminals – prompting even the eternally loyal Watson to question the motives of his heavily slandered partner. Your plight as the player is that you’ll even take control of Watson (and in one stage their dog Toby) for entire sections to investigate on his own merit.
It’s a great story, actually – if anything the gripping plot is the game’s strongest point. You may feel like slamming your controller on the ground at certain moments of extreme frustration, but you’ll also want to see the conclusion to this roughly 10-hour story enough to stick with it.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is exactly what you might expect – a slow-paced, thought-provoking, investigative adventure with conspiracies, top hats and posh accents. There are no kill streaks, curb stomps, or diving over tables and slicing off aliens’ faces – it’s a welcome departure from all that often brainless mayhem.
And so you switch off the macho dudebro inside you and put those brain cells to work, solving puzzles, analyzing evidence, and making logical deductions to unearth the mysteries of some genuinely intriguing scenarios. The game goes to great lengths to involve the player in the investigative process as frequently as possible – to make you feel like the genius detective – and achieves this with mixed results.
Your tasks are impressively varied. You search crime scenes for clues, solving a tricky puzzle here and there, and gather critical items as evidence. You’ll examine these specimens, sometimes using tools to clean or chemically analyze an exhibit before using the clues within to deduce Holmes’ next course of action.
The game also brings back the Deduction Board – a collection of at-first basic notes gathered from a situation and organized in a grid, within which you try to answer a series of logical multiple-choice questions that eventually lead to a significant conclusion. It’s a cool system – one that really tests your ability for logical thought, but also one that can frustrate deeply when you just can’t seem to enter the right answers and progress the story. Being stuck staring at a book for extended periods is no fun, and the ‘Sixth Sense’ hint feature – called on with a tap of the left bumper button – is almost no help.
Equally, rummaging around an environment can be an interesting but often long-winded grind. It’s a typical conundrum with this sort of game – blue icons appear over significant objects, which helps you find the things that matter, but it also becomes a game of walking around in circles looking for blue things to appear rather than intelligently observing your surroundings.
And I also often found myself thrusted head-first into a puzzle completely unprepared. I mean, I don’t want the game to hold my hand, but it’d be nice to at least know what the puzzle wants me to achieve. Sometimes that’s explained, other times it’s not. And instead of a dynamic hint system that would, for example, give you half the answer or a useful prod in the right direction, the game simply lets you skip puzzles. That certainly moves things along, but you’ll feel like an idiot.
Sure, completing such testing and unexplained teasers is satisfying – particularly that hallelujah-moment when you realize what’s going on – but all too often the game reminds you that while Holmes is a genius detective, you are most certainly not.
Oh, and I have one more gripe.
I’m an unapologetic invert gamer. Up is down, down is up – that’s just the way my brain works. But that doesn’t mean left is right and right is left. That’s just plain weird. This game, however, seems to disagree. It regards the reversing of the X and Y-axis a one-shot decision. Invert all or invert none.
This upsets me greatly. How am I supposed to convincingly play the part of ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’ if my control over Holmes is about as composed as a one-legged drunk man in an earthquake? I’m not asking for eternal life, a million dollars, or a steamy night with Megan Fox. All I want to do is invert the fucking Y-axis – a fairly standard configuration these days.
This unnecessary conundrum made the game’s third-person camera near unusable for me. Also, characters are slow and clunky to move, and the interactive item selection is often clumsy. Holmes too often stands paralyzed by my frustrated button-mashing. He can solve near-impossible mysteries, but opening doors and walking through them is seemingly more of a challenge for Holmes and Co.
Luckily there’s a first-person mode which gets over both the inverting issues and clunky player movements, but the fact that you’re pretty much forced to use this mode is a shame, because I wholeheartedly believe the third-person view – which lets you see more of the environment – is far better suited to this style of game.
You’ve got to take the numerous accomplishments of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes along with its many quirks. The average visuals, clunky animations, clumsy controls, and nonexistent lip-syncing represents a distinct lack of polish, but this doesn’t ruin the otherwise solid game tucked within.
The voice acting is, on the most part, strong; the investigative mechanics, while grinding at times, are varied and satisfying; and the plot is genuinely gripping – which is a real triumph for characters as old and familiar as Holmes and Watson. It’s a thinking man’s game that does a good job of intriguing and exciting those who’ve grown tired of the common and brainless ‘kill-everything’ formula of the dominant genres in modern gaming. And its $40 price tag certainly helps sweeten the deal.
7 / 10