Date: February 2013
Release Year: 2012, Developer: Frogwares, Publisher: Frogwares, PAGODA Link
In a genre dominated by small companies and independent developers, Sherlock series by Frogwares is one of the few adventure game series that still retain high production values. As a result, the series have always been one step ahead of its competitors in terms of graphics and storytelling (since the company could afford paying an actual writer), and it seems like with this last game the budget is increased even more due to recent attention to Sherlock franchise (Ritchie Movies and the amazing TV series) and company’s decision to adjust the gameplay towards the console audience. Frogwares released the games in the series relatively frequently so far, except this last one which was delayed due to several production problems. Nevertheless, Testament of Sherlock Holmes (TOSH) is a great game and in my opinion it is the best game in the series so far.
New Motor, New Story and New Voices
Last 3 games in the series were based on so called “cross-over” concept, where another character/concept outside the Sherlock Holmes universe was blended within a Sherlock story. For instance, in the last game Sherlock was after the trail of Jack The Ripper, arguably the world’s most well known serial killer. This time, like they did on the 2nd game The Case of Silver Earring, Frogwares decided write their own original story rather than relying on the cross-over concept. I think this was a wise decision, although I really liked the last 3 games, stories felt really forced sometimes for the sake of blending the cross-over characters into Sherlock universe. I think it was the right time to write 100% original Sherlock story.
Game starts with investigation of a theft by Holmes and Watson, which looks relatively simple at first sight but gets more interesting as Holmes start using his supernatural deduction skills. The first thing that you notice is the old game engine is completely gone and we have new engine with 3 different camera options. The graphics looks simply amazing, especially attention to details and light-shadow effects really impressed me. It is really surprising to see an adventure game with graphics on par with today’s technology standards !
Second thing you notice is the the guy who voiced Sherlock throughout the series is gone and we have a new voice-over artist. This change really made me sad, because I think the former artist did an amazing job and to me he was “the” voice of Sherlock in my head when I was reading Doyle’s novels. The new guy grew on me eventually, but I still prefer the former. Fortunately Watson’s voice remained the same.
The third and final evident change is the new camera mode and the slight change in the control system. One of the trademarks of the Sherlock series was the flexibility in allowing you to play in both 1st and 3rd person camera modes. Developers have added a 3rd camera option, which I can describe as “stalker camera”, where you view Sherlock from a close-up on his rear. I think this camera option was specifically added for console players, since the game really plays like a shooter in this mode.
My only complaint about the new game engine is it’s relatively high demands on the computer hardware, even in the lowest settings game can get really sluggish in some places. The old game engine was much more forgiving in that sense. Anyway, I guess I can’t complain too much, since the companies needs to sell new hardware to players in order to make money right ?
Dark Side of Holmes
The plot of the game is a bit hard to describe without giving away spoilers. The only thing I can say is, unlike the former games in the series, TOSH’s story picks up very early in the game and it keeps increasing the tempo and tension right till the very end. Story keeps expanding with side events and new characters and there are several twists to keeps you guessing about what is is next to come. Fast tempo of the game reminded me of The Awakened, but the story is much deeper and complex compared to that game. It feels like writers figured out the weakest parts of the stories in former games and avoided doing same mistakes. Like I said before, Awakened had a very high beat story but it was a relatively simple tale. On the other hand, Case of The Silver Earring had a convoluted story but the storytelling was slow and a bit uninspired. It seems like writers finally figured out how to tell a complex story while keeping a fast pace. Of course if you really look for it, you can find holes and some cliches in the story but there aren’t any huge plot errors that can spoil your gameplay experience.
Before the release of the game, Frogwares claimed that this is going to be their darkest Holmes story so far. Although I think Holmes vs. The Ripper had a much darker and gory storyline, their claim is true in the sense that game contains the most erratic and violent behaviors demonstrated by Holmes so far. Very frequently in the game, Holmes does something that surprises the player (and of course poor Watson). Once again it is difficult to talk about it without giving away spoilers, but I can tell you that writers succeeded well in focusing the game on the darker side of Sherlock’s character.
Familiar Puzzles With New Twists
Overall puzzle design style of the game remains unchanged but there are several small updates. Designers once again tries to integrate real life investigation mechanics into the gameplay. The deduction board form Sherlock vs, The Ripper returns with an better interface and improved design. If you haven’t played that game, the deduction board basically takes the clues you found throughout the game and allows you to make multi-step deductions by selecting answers from multiple-choice statements. In the Ripper, most of the multiple-choice answers were very close to each other, which forced you to think and analyze the clues very carefully, however most of us (including me) ended up solving them by brute force. In TOSH, multiple-choice answers are much more distinct from each other, so there is almost no need to do trial-error. Overall, solving deduction board puzzles became more exciting and fun.
A particular puzzle that I really liked requires you to construct a timeline of events happened in a room based on the state of the objects you have seen in the room. I don’t think I have seen a similar puzzle before in any game, it was very entertaining and a truly Holmesian puzzle that is true to the spirit of novels. Another interesting addition to the puzzle arsenal requires you to coordinate actions of Holmes and Watson at the same time, which was also well executed.
Remaining puzzles are simple inventory puzzles and a bit more complicated mechanical/lock breaking puzzles we are familiar from earlier games in the series. Normally these puzzles requires you to match patterns/clues to the mechanisms so you usually keep notes of clues you have seen during the game. TOSH eliminates note-keeping and clue-mechanism matching by inserting the clue to the puzzle screen, so you can work on the puzzle while staring at the clue. I think this is oversimplifying the game mechanics and takes away the actual fun in adventure gaming. To me, taking notes and finding the matching between clues and puzzles are integral parts of adventure gaming experience, and these little aids kill the spirit of role-playing as a detective. I suspect these changes are specifically made for console players, who are too lazy to drop off the joystick to take notes.
Remaining puzzles are classical mind twisters such as positioning 7 Queens on the chess board or guessing the next number in a numerical sequence. If you can’t solve them under some time limit (I didn’t measure it but I guess it is around 5-10 minutes), the game tells you “OK man, don’t force it, Clearly you are not intelligent enough to solve this, here have this free skip the puzzle button”, so you can bypass all of these puzzles if you are too lazy to solve them. Of course we, the true hardcore adventure players will never ever choose to do that. You can clearly see that this option is also thought for console players, who are usually not the best puzzle solvers in the world.
Overall, the puzzles in the game are satisfying, but integration of puzzles in the game is not as well executed as the 4th game in the series, Nemesis. To be fair, that game was exceptionally brilliant in puzzle-story integration, so we can forgive TOSH in that sense.
TOSH is definitely worth to series fame. It is getting really difficult to find well produced adventure games today, so I think we should keep supporting Frogwares in that regard. I am looking forward to next game in the series.
The Good: Masterful storytelling. Superb graphics. Good puzzle design.
The Bad: Some puzzles fell forced into the story. Ending of the story may let down some players. There aren’t many wide open locations compared to previous games.
The Ugly: Old voice of Sherlock is gone 🙁 Some game mechanics are oversimplified for the sake of attracting more console players.