It’s fair to say old Sherlock Holmes is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance in popularity lately, from the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. movies to the TV shows Sherlock and Elementary. But few current adaptations want to take Holmes back to his Victorian detective roots; they either want to modernize him or, dare I say it, make an action hero out of him. Enter Frogwares, long the purveyors of Sherlock Holmes adventure games, to once again give us a slice of good old fashioned British sleuthing. It's hard to believe they've been at this nearly a decade, but the experience is clearly paying off. In The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, the seventh game in the series and the first to be designed for cross-platform release, Frogwares delivers their best adventure so far, and arguably the greatest Sherlock Holmes game ever made.
This latest investigation is full of references to not only Conan Doyle's Holmsian universe but also to the developer's established canon of games, largely based on their own invented stories. I’m sure everyone has their favourite (personally I loved The Awakened) but Testament feels like the game Frogwares have been building to for a long time. There’s a maturity to the gorgeous presentation, puzzle design and interface accessibility that can only have come by learning from their previous games.
Testament undoubtedly involves the series’ most intriguing plot yet, and a lot of work has gone into making it fit together. Eschewing the darkness and violence that has been a prominent feature in recent titles, this is instead a well-lit game with few corpses. There are still some grisly crime scenes and uncomfortable subject matter to be found here, rendered in vivid detail, but on the whole this is a far brighter affair. The “darkness” of the game’s tag line (“His darkest adventure yet”) comes from the psychology at play as Watson struggles to understand the motives behind his long-time friend's disturbing behaviour.
The last three games have relied on a ‘crossover’ hook (Cthulhu mythos, Arsène Lupin and Jack the Ripper) but in this instalment it’s all about Sherlock, and from the title alone you’ll know he has a lot to answer for. Unusually, the story kicks off at the end of an investigation. Holmes and Watson have just solved the case of the Marquess of Conyngham’s missing Samoan necklace, only to find the trinket to be a cheap fake. Upon returning to Baker Street, Sherlock is astonished to find the newspapers are pointing the finger squarely at him as the culprit for the switcheroo. Cannily knowing there’s more to this sudden slander than meets the eye, Holmes and Watson endeavour to clear his name by following leads that take them on an adventure all across London.
But is Holmes really innocent? As with previous games, the story is narrated from Watson’s point of view, meaning we’re not party to all of Sherlock's movements. You’ll control both Holmes and Watson in this game, but if at any point Holmes is called away from Watson’s side then it is Watson we stay with – inevitably leading to something horrific happening ‘off camera’ with Holmes looking like the guilty party. Before long, even Watson doubts his old friend after Holmes is attached to an increasingly violent string on incidents. The intrigue mounts throughout the game as you try to piece together the clues that will reveal the truth behind his seemingly criminal actions.
A few loose plot threads aside, the story works brilliantly. Although not formally divided, the game plays out in three acts: the introduction, where Holmes and Watson investigate the circumstances surrounding the fake necklace, the chase after the evidence becomes overwhelmingly stacked against Sherlock, and finally the confrontation when all is revealed. However, with so many twists and turns as the plot progresses, I couldn’t possibly go into further detail. Suffice it to say that Frogwares have been playing a long game with us, and there are plot threads dating back to The Awakened for the keen eye to spot. No knowledge of the previous games is required as everything is explained here, but series fans will be well rewarded for their attention to detail. There are even some returning characters like Lucy from Jack the Ripper and good old Inspector Lestrade.
As well as a brave new story, Testament also sees a radical overhaul of Frogwares' game engine, which includes new motion and facial animations as well as high definition background graphics, three distinct control methods to suit different playing styles and a much more user-friendly approach to puzzle solving. The whole package feels like a much slicker operation than their previous instalments, and the graphics are the crowning glory. It’s rare to find a fully 3D adventure game these days, especially one that looks this good. The locations you visit are all beautifully crafted down to the minutest detail; a particular highlight occurs early on at the Bishop of Knightsbridge’s house, a small cottage in a leafy suburb where shadows playing off the side of the house and vivid garden colours give a real sense of beauty to the scene.
The streets of London are also bustling with life to add to the vibrant backdrops. You’ll visit various locations around the city, from a dank prison to grimy Whitechapel, where there’s a real buzz in particular. It’s possible to interact with background characters, but there are no lengthy dialogue chains, merely one sentence interactions like “Alms for the poor.” When you do engage in conversations, a wheel appears at the bottom of the screen with the dialogue options available. Anyone who has played either Mass Effect or Dragon Age 2 will be familiar with this mechanism, and it's clearly designed for console players, though it works just as well on PC. Regardless of platform, however, it can be a little unclear what Sherlock will ask once a word is selected.
The character animation is a marked step up from previous games; people will sway and look around more naturally, and there are more dynamic facial expressions during conversations. It’s still not perfect, as the lip movements don’t sync with the words being spoken. Similarly, character movements can feel a little light, like floating down steps with little connection between the feet and the ground. Yet by adventure game standards, this is probably the slickest presentation we’ve seen since L.A. Noire or Portal 2.Continued on the next page...