Review: The Testament of Sherlock Holmes (Microsoft Xbox 360)

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Frogwares
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 09/25/12

Sherlock Holmes has seen a fairly large amount of popularity in the past few years, thanks in large part to a blockbuster movie, Sherlock Holmes, starring an absolutely resurgent Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, as well as a fantastic show, Sherlock, on BBE One that casts the character in modern times, and the recent premier of Elementary on CBS that… casts the character in modern times. Oh, and Lucy Liu plays Watson, so. The character has been seeing a strong resurgence in the gaming world prior to his reinvigoration in cinema and television, however, largely thanks to the company Frogwares. While Sherlock’s cinematic endeavors have been about modernizing the appeal of the character with a change in setting or explosions and action, Frogwares has taken the opposite approach, choosing to take the character as he was imagined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle originally and casting him up against some more off the wall opponents. Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened threw the detective against Cthulhu-worshipping cultists, Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis pitted the detective against the great thief Arsene Lupin, and Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper… well, you can probably guess what that one was about. Frogwares has taken a break from their crossover titles with The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, however, and decided to go in a somewhat more interesting direction this time around. Here, the question isn’t “can Sherlock Holmes take down a famous opponent?”, but rather, “what if Sherlock Holmes himself was the villain?” and while that’s not quite the case, it’s an interesting plot point to base a game around. Let’s see how the final game handles this point, shall we?

As the story begins, Sherlock Holmes and Watson have just finished up a case involving a stolen necklace… which becomes a major production when said necklace is discovered to be a fraud the next day. This rapidly escalates into numerous accusations against Holmes being a fraud, as more and more unfortunate events occur to turn others against him until even Watson has turned against him… perhaps for good reason. Plot-wise, this game shines; without a celebrity villain to focus on and establish, the game gets to focus more on the universe the prior games have been developing, and the end result is a plot that is complex without being overly so, as well as numerous developments that are actually surprising as the plot goes on. Frogwares also continues to nail the Holmes and Watson characters, working with Holmes’ generally less-than-moral approach and turning it against him while Watson gets several moments to step out of Sherlock’s shadow and be the competent character he was in Doyle’s stories. The game also does a better job of tying the seemingly disconnected casework performed during the game back to the main plot, something prior games have had an issue with, so you’ll find that something that was seemingly a waste of time earlier in the game actually meant something later on, which helps validate your time spent as you go along. The plot actually seems to be better for the lack of a celebrity villain, to be honest, as the plot feels more connected and interesting than that of prior games, as the characters get to be in the spotlight over their targets, and the storyline is better for it.

The visual engine has been updated for The Testament of Sherlock Holmes and, for the most part, the update is an improvement. The character models show the most obvious improvements, as the characters, from Holmes and Watson down to the nameless bystanders you’ll see here and there, have a higher quality look to them when compared to the prior games. The characters generally look better, in general and when in motion, and the environments and lighting effects also look cleaner and more appropriate in comparison to the prior games. Young children tend to look a bit… off, however, which is unfortunate given that the story is bookended with a group of small children reading the story in their attic, and while the game looks better overall, it’s still not really pushing the limits of what the 360 can do. The game also has issues with texture rendering in random instances, as the odd unimportant details in the background, such as signs and pictures, can appear blotchy, which hurts the attention to detail a bit. Aurally, the music is as fantastic as ever, consisting once again of Victorian-era period music, which fits the mood of the game perfectly. The sound effects are mostly quite fitting, and the ambient noise of the locations you visit, when applicable, makes the experience feel quite immersive and lively. The voice acting is outstanding overall, as the voice actors for Holmes and Watson return to their roles once again and basically knock their performances out of the metaphorical park for yet another game. The secondary cast also do a fine job with their voice work, though there are once again a few voice actors who are kind of unpleasant (such as, once again, the Baker Street Irregulars), though their voice acted parts in the game are often kept to a minimum.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes plays similarly to its predecessors in the series, which is to say, like an adventure game based on a first person shooter engine, meaning that you’ll be performing the standard item fetching and puzzle solving the genre demands, but you can do so from a first person or third person perspective as you prefer. The controls are simple enough to figure out on their own, though the game walks you through things in the beginning as well to help you out. The left stick is used to move your character around, and when in first person view the right stick can be used to turn your view, as one would expect. The A button is your default context sensitive interact button, the B button cancels actions, the X button allows you to switch between first and third person views on the fly, and the Y button pops up your character menus whenever you need them. The bumpers can be used to cycle through the items presently in your possession if you need to use something on hand but don’t want to go to the menu to select the item you need. You can now hold down the Right Trigger to run instead of toggling this with the Back button, and the Left Trigger kicks on your “Intuition”, allowing you to see all objects in an area that can be interacted with, in case you’re having trouble finding an item in the environment. You can also use the Left Trigger to display the instructions for how to complete a puzzle when working on one if you’ve forgotten your objective, though the remainder of the controls work as you’d expect.

Most of the game is spent doing what you’d expect to be doing in an adventure game, to be frank about it. Holmes and/or Watson will have to visit a location for some investigative reason or another, meaning you’ll have to talk to people at the location, look around for items and clues, solve some puzzles and figure out the sequence of events in order to progress the story forward. Regardless of whether you’re playing as Holmes or Watson, or whether you’re using first or third person view, the flow is the same: you’ll wander through the environment, and any time you can interact with something, an icon will appear over it, be it a person, an object or what have you. You’ll essentially have to talk to people, examine locations, and take or use items as the situation dictates to accomplish whatever short-term goals need doing to ultimately resolve your long-term goals throughout the course of the game, and again, fans of adventure games will pretty much be prepared for that up front. The game is streamlined a bit from prior games, as most conversations usually just start and end without requiring much input, and when input is required, you can just select an option from a conversation wheel, watch the results, and move on, so there often aren’t whole conversation trees to plow through. You can also bring up your character menus as needed, to review the inventory for using and combining items, your map to travel to new locations, your deduction board for solving a sequence of events, your list of notes, and a recap of the dialogue up to that point, in case you want to review the information available to you before you move on. These, too, are streamlined from the prior games a bit; you won’t often have to combine items in your inventory, for example, and the game rarely forces you to change locations through the map unless you’re moving on to a new case, which makes the experience more friendly on the console than its predecessor.

As with prior games in the series, you’ll have to spend a decent amount of your time solving puzzles to progress, and deduction boards return, though in a reduced capacity. The puzzle solving elements will hardly be shocking to fans of the genre, of course; at various points in the game, you’ll have to resolve some sort of logic puzzle in order to acquire an item or gain access to a location before you can progress. As with prior games, however, the puzzles here are fairly diverse and interesting, ranging from moving a chess piece across all possible spaces on a board to picking locks to partially dissecting a body to assembling a functional bomb, among other things, and while they don’t always make sense, they’re often fun to solve. New to the game this time around is the option to skip puzzles outright, so if a puzzle is beyond you, instead of going online to search for a solution, you can simply bypass the puzzle altogether and move on if you want to get to the next sequence of plot. Deduction sessions, again, make their return, and as before, they help to put over the idea of this being a detective story over a simple adventure game. When you come upon a crime scene of some sort, you’ll be provided with either a display of notes or a display of the scene, and you’ll have to deduce the sequence of events from what you already know to resolve the logical conclusion. In both types, the requirements are the same: you’ll investigate the area for clues, which will be added to the deduction board, and once you’ve exhausted all the options to investigate, you’ll then be able to populate the board with what you know. When dealing with note-based boards, you’ll simply place your known information on the board and tie it together to unknown resolutions, where you’ll have to make the conclusions required to progress forward. In scene-based deductions you’ll have to establish the sequence of events based on what you know in order to progress. Either way, however, you can keep trying until you establish the right information, so it’s as much a matter of detective work as it is trial and error if you’re not sure of what’s going on. The game also incorporates an option to switch between Holmes and Watson in the character submenu, which revolves around one sequence where both will have to work together independently to investigate a location, which is an interesting, if underdeveloped idea.

Now, as one would expect, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes carries many of the same genre-specific and game-specific issues of its predecessors, though there are also some minor issues related to this game exclusively. Addressing the genre-specific issues first, the game is unfortunately typical of most adventure games in that it’s quite linear and, once you’ve run through its ten hour campaign, you’ll have no reason to return to it. True, there are a full compliment of Achievements to earn in the game, but of the lot, only five can be missed (A Very Fine Loafer, Homesian, Blackmailer, The Brain, and Pea Souper), and those five can be earned easily in a single play session along with all of the other Achievements that will pop automatically. As such, there’s no reason to return to the game once you’ve completed it, which is problematic, given that the game is forty dollars new. The game is also, as with its predecessors, linear to a fault, meaning there’s no variation to the story, but it ALSO means that there’s really no chance of failure; you either get the right answer or you try again until you do, the end. Now, in fairness, the game is really about the experience, and failure or dying isn’t a necessity, but SOME sort of variety might have been nice to make the game feel like it wasn’t holding your hand all the way to the end, and the fact that you can skip puzzles only adds to the ability to literally plow through to the end with little difficulty.

Insofar as the game itself goes, several of the puzzles in the game, once again, feel completely out of place, and several others are incredibly obtuse in their design. The out-of-place puzzles are sadly common in the genre, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to make the player figure out how to move a Knight across every square on a chess board, no matter how novel it seemed at the time. There are a few puzzles like this, where there’s no real reason for the puzzle to be there and yet it is, and the only logical conclusion for this sort of thing is that the developers wanted to extend the length of the game a bit, which feels like cheating. There are also some obtuse puzzles that pop up, such as puzzles that require you to figure out a numerical sequence with only the vaguest of hints, and while they’re solvable with some guesswork, they’re often out of left field and obtuse in how they’re designed and implemented when they pop up. There’s a difference between feeling smart because you SOLVED a puzzle and being frustrated because you had to figure out how the puzzle even WORKS, and the game has too many of the latter puzzles in it, albeit less than its predecessors. The game also still has the odd bit of busywork here and there that doesn’t feel like it’s connected to anything, which makes the game feel like it’s trying to pad itself out, though, again, not to the extent of prior games. Also, specific to The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, it’s rather boggling that the game starts off by saying “This game doesn’t auto-save, make sure you save manually”, not because the warning isn’t helpful, but because it’s 2012 and that’s an amazing thing to see in this day and age. Further, the game basically only adds one new thing to the formula from Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, in swapping between Holmes and Watson to search a location, which is an excellent idea… that the game actually uses all of once before abandoning it entirely.

Oh, there’s also an entire section spent playing as a dog, which is… different. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is an improvement over the prior games in a lot of respects, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the series or of adventure games in general, though it still suffers from the problems of its predecessors and doesn’t expand on its good ideas as much as it could have. The story is amongst the best in the franchise, easily, and the visuals have been updated fairly well while the game retains the generally solid aural presentation of the prior games. The controls work well enough on the 360, and have been tinkered with slightly to make the game more friendly for console players. The mechanics have also been streamlined somewhat, cutting down on the need to jump between menus or locations unless necessary to make the experience flow and transition better than it might otherwise, and the puzzles and unique mechanics remain intact but are somewhat less onerous than in the preceding titles. The game is as linear as its predecessors, however, and it’s still nearly impossible to fail, and while the puzzles are often less onerous, there are still puzzles that are obtuse and/or completely unrelated to anything that pop up enough to be obvious. The game also doesn’t do as much as it could to differentiate itself from its predecessors, except to provide less deduction sections and more obvious puzzle solving, and the one neat concept, swapping between Holmes and Watson to solve problems, comes up all of once before being cast aside. If you’re fine with only getting one playthrough from the experience and either enjoy the series, the genre, or Sherlock Holmes in general, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes will definitely keep you interested, but otherwise it’s a game you can plow through once and never touch again, sadly.

The Scores:
Story: CLASSIC
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: BAD
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

FINAL SCORE: ENJOYABLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes carries on the traditions of the prior games in its franchise, but unshackled from the concept of associating with a famous opponent for our protagonist, delivers a better story in a game that is friendlier to the player in some respects, if not all. The story is arguably the strongest in the series, thanks to some excellent focus on Holmes and Watson over the villain of the piece, the visual upgrades (though not without issues) are solid and the audio is as pleasant as ever. The game works well enough on the 360 console, and the mechanics have been changed up a bit, not only to make console play friendlier, but also to streamline the experience a bit, so as to make the game less ponderous in its menu transitions and location changes for the less patient player. The game is sadly still linear to a fault and nearly impossible to fail at, and while the puzzles have become somewhat less frustrating and do allow the option to skip them altogether, puzzles that seem to be related to nothing or puzzles that are obtuse in their design do still pop often enough to be frustrating. The game also makes use of the same concepts of its predecessors without bringing anything new to the table, save for an odd dog sequence and a sequence where you swap between Holmes and Watson to investigate a location that is never touched again afterward, which is disappointing. If you like the genre, the series or Sherlock Holmes, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a strong experience with solid writing and complex puzzles that should entertain you a bit, but there’s nothing to come back to once you’re done, sadly, and not much you haven’t seen before if you’re a fan.

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