The year is 2019 and small developer Frogwares has released their first open world title; The Sinking City. This game was an HP Lovecraft inspired game about a detective investigating strange incidents in a town that is still dealing with post-Innsmouth racism. The gameplay was very much inspired by Frogwares previous Sherlock Holmes games. The game had a mixed reception, mostly because the open world was hard to navigate, with a clunky boat and monsters that would appear just to kill you and send you back to the last fast travel point.
However all the less good elements of the game stemmed from the Lovecraft elements of the game, and all of the elements that Frogwares borrowed from their Holmes titles were solid. Plus it wasn’t like this open world design was completely bad, there were some cool elements like the complete lack of quest markers. Instead the game would rely on players actually reading where events took place and navigating the streets on their own.
How would a spiritual successor to Sinking City, but as an actual Sherlock Holmes game work? Well in 2021 we finally got the answer as Frogwares released Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, a game about a young Sherlock Holmes investigating the death of his mother on the island he and his friend Jon grew up on.
I absolutely love the Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games, this company has developed so many of them over the years and have mastered how to portray the logical process of a detective in video game form. Most people probably didn’t know this game was coming out but it was one of my most anticipated titles of the year. I had played the Sinking City again in anticipation for this game and had the complaints I outlined above. Did the game fix those issues and bring the magic of Frogwares Holmes games? Let’s find out!
The open world works almost identical to how it did in Sinking City, it’s fun to navigate with its complete lack of quest markers, still relying on you the player to find out where to go via reading street addresses and walking there, and the biggest issues of Sinking City’s world are gone. It’s actually easy to get from point A to point B as you no longer have to control a clunky boat to get across the various districts of town and you aren’t forced to take long detours to avoid monsters. You can just walk directly from crime scene to crime scene.
The world in this game is also filled with significantly more landmarks than Sinking City’s world. While there are a few areas that blend in together so much of the city looks unique and stands out. In my entire first playthrough I didn’t get lost a single time, an outstanding feat for a game with practically no location guidance.
The Mind Palace mechanic is just as cool as it’s always been. Piecing together two thoughts to create a line and eventually a web of logic is so satisfying and truly makes you feel like a detective. Of course being a bit dumb I just mashed together logic until I got the right thoughts together. Thankfully there’s absolutely no penalty for this.
Recreating crime scenes is a bit clunky with how long it takes to load in when you snap your fingers, but it’s still a good time. Combined with the fact that some of the crime scenes have models that can be similar to one another this is probably my least favorite mechanic in the game.
There are a few more mechanics that are a bit hit and miss. The first I’d like to talk about is scientific analysis. There will be a few items in the game you’ll need to analyze the chemicals of in a minigame that requires you adding and subtracting three different color chemicals that are attached to each other. I cannot do math to save my life so thankfully for me you can press a button to skip these.
The next mechanic is asking random passersby for information. This one can be hit or miss for me. While sometimes I can ask the correct people right away and get the answer I want, other times the correct thing to do is incredibly obtuse. One example off the top of my head is how you need to find a specific African woman and the solution is to ask any African on the streets for an answer.
Finally, there’s looking for info in the newspaper archives, police station, and city hall. This is a mechanic that was in Sinking City as well, however whereas in Sinking City I frequently needed to look up the answer for what to search in the newspaper archives this game made finding the answer easy enough for me to do while also making me feel smart for figuring it out incredibly fast.
That last part is really my thesis statement for Frogwares Holmes games as a whole, they’re incredibly casual and friendly in the greatest way. Anyone can pick up these games and quickly solve mysteries while feeling smart for doing so. It’s the perfect Sherlock Holmes experience.
That Frogwares makes shorter games also helps. This game only took me about two days to beat on my first playthrough and I was able to speed through my second playthrough in only five hours. This length is perfect for people who pick the wrong culprits on a first playthrough and get unsatisfying conclusions to cases. Picking other options on a second playthrough and seeing how things play out correctly is immensely satisfying though obviously using deductive reasoning to get it right on your first try is the most satisfying experience in this game. It truly makes you feel like a young Sherlock Holmes
I don’t want to talk about the plot of this game at all but there is one thing from the first five minutes of the game and by extension the entire game I must speak about. Probably the most well known thing about Frogwares early Holmes games is how Watson would teleport when the camera was pointed away from him. It had become a meme a few years back and it seems Frogwares has embraced that. In this game Sherlock’s partner Jon is just his imaginary friend and as such is constantly teleporting like you would expect. It’s a genius embracement of the meme and simultaneously results in some of the most emotional moments in the story.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One isn’t a perfect video game, but it’s one of the best Sherlock Holmes experiences out there. I still prefer Sherlock Holmes Crime and Punishments to it from Frogwares library but this game makes a fine second place. I look forward to Frogwares continuing to make Holmes games, I just hope no evil publisher screws them over as has happened to them in the past.