Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super sleuth Sherlock Holmes has seen a massive resurgence in the media over the past few years, with no fewer than three revisionist takes on the detective in as many years. Guy Ritchie’s version of Holmes injected bareknuckle action to the character, whereas Steven Moffat and CBS’ takes on the character (Sherlock and Elementary, respectively) transplanted Holmes and Watson to modern times.
For years prior to this Holmesian resurgence, game developer Frogwares was happily plugging away at their own take on Holmes with a series of canonically accurate games, starting with The Mystery of the Mummy, which kept the tone of the game delightfully close to the source material. As the games progressed, however, a decidedly darker tone emerged, finally coming to a horror-filled head with games like Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened (which pitted Holmes and Watson against the cult of Cthulhu) and Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper (‘nuff said), which gave the games a brutal, M-Rated twist.
Now, Frogwares has released The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, an adventure that finally brings to light the more unsavory aspects of Sherlock’s psyche as he investigates the savage murder of a bishop, which slips right into pure psychological horror. Holmes, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote him, had unsavory traits including drug abuse and sociopathic tendencies, and Testament explores these with some deep, dark questions that leave even Holmes’ stalwart sidekick John Watson questioning the great detective’s methods and sanity. Could Holmes finally go so far off the deep end as to commit murder?
These questions are asked in a game so tonally oppressive that the horror—as sparse as it seems at times—becomes amplified to gruesome heights that are somewhat unexpected from the character, even in the wake of the previous, horrific entries. By game’s end you’ll have examined horribly mutilated corpses, crept through red-hued opium dens, investigated desecrated graves, and dove deeper into the fragmented psyche of Holmes than any other adaptation has before.
As deep and involving as the story can be, it’s presented in the logical but flawed form of an adventure game, complete with the nonsensical puzzles that all but killed the genre in the 90’s. After a deductive investigation which includes examining the mutilated, burned, and broken body of the murdered bishop, nothing takes you out of the mood quicker than a puzzle which involves moving a knight across a chessboard to open a safe. These sort of ham-fisted puzzles crop up fairly frequently, reminding you constantly that you are playing a game, and not a particularly well-designed one. There is a pleasantly Holmesian element in the game’s Deduction Board, which tasks you with taking all of your collected clues and deducing the game’s events, but it happens far more rarely than the game’s offensive puzzles. I want to spend a Sherlock Holmes game sleuthing and deducing, not poisoning opium den patrons with bong water and ashes (that’s an actual puzzle, I swear to god).
The other issue stems from the game’s ”open world,” which simply does not exist. Those expecting a Grand Theft Auto level of freedom as they creep around London to catch a killer will find themselves in a still-limited world. London is a series of small sections of the city, which you navigate to using a static map. Once you get to each section there is a certain degree of freedom in your investigation, but it’s pretty far from the “open world” that the developers promised.
It’s a shame that The Testament of Sherlock Holmes had to fall back on clunky adventure game mechanics in order to tell its tale. The developers show a clear affection for the classic source material, from the flustered frustration of John Watson with Holmes’ unorthodox methods to the character designs ripped right from the classic Granada TV series. It’s a classic take on a classic character that, unfortunately, is hamstrung by its reliance on antiquated adventure puzzle tropes to fill out its gameplay.