Developer Frogwares has been making games about the world’s most famous detective for a long time now, but Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One is the most personal. A 21-year-old Sherlock has returned to the fictional island of Cordona, where he spent his childhood, kicking off a chain of events that leads him to uncover a missing element of his past: how his mother died. Cordona draws inspiration from real-world places that have changed hands many times, and different districts of the island display a melange of cultures. I once heard the athaan, or call to prayer, from a nearby mosque. Shortly after the prologue, the whole island opens up, and you can fast-travel around it in seconds as you dig into Sherlock’s cases.
These setpiece mysteries are varied in both tone and theme, and the solutions are almost always elegant. I won’t easily forget the case of the murderous elephant, or the siren serial killer. Crime scenes are where both the game and the protagonist himself are most at home. Evidence litters the scene; Sherlock surveys every piece, linking them to accounts given by suspects and witnesses, and pieces together what happened. You can manipulate the ghostly outlines of suspects’ positions and actions at particular junctures – a clever way to convey Sherlock’s thinking. Even after solving a case, the grand unveil always revealed some element that I’d overlooked.
Accompanying Sherlock is his imaginary friend, Jon – a role later to be played by his chronicler Dr John Watson. Unlike Watson, anche se, Jon is annoying. He whines when I don’t get the right solution, or ask the wrong questions, offering only criticism and no hints, which was pointless and off-putting. Eventually I had to turn off the volume. Frustratingly, the game requires you to piece together crime scenes, evidence, archival research and mind-palace deductions perfectly, but it’s not always clear what its version of perfect entails, and it’s easy to get it slightly wrong. I really could have done without having to listen to Jon berate me before every subsequent attempt.
Holmes has a detective-vision ability that highlights important objects with a small, white circle that looks like a crosshair, or a small yellow dot. As someone with a minor visual impairment I had to squint to make these tiny dots out – and then, at nighttime, fireflies appear, which are also small yellow dots. This is an inexplicably unfriendly visual design decision, made more annoying by the fact that detective vision needs a few seconds to recharge.
The doors of Sherlock’s decrepit, abandoned family manor unlock for him as he remembers more, slowly piecing together what happened to his mother. You can populate this place with paintings, furniture and possessions, filling out its character and history, a decent metaphor for your progress through the story and the game. This is a lively world, with wonderful smaller mysteries and an overarching story that brings you closer to its famous main character and his personal history. While there are some technical issues, and the game understandably lacks the glossy polish of bigger-budget titles, this is nonetheless something that I’ve been wanting for a long time: a properly open-world interactive detective story.