Sherlock Holmes Chapter One

Sherlock Holmes Chapter One

The famous detective leaves London and embarks on his most personal adventure yet.

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Despite him starring in more than fifty original stories, and later several plays, movies and video games, it's remarkable how little we know about the greatest detective ever, Sherlock Holmes. Sure, most people know that the character has a sharp mind and loves to demonstrate it, but much of his personal life remains shrouded in mystery. That is until now, as the Ukrainian developer Frogwares aims to tell a dramatic backstory in the aptly named Sherlock Holmes Chapter One.


The game opens with Sherlock and his childhood friend Jon (no connection to his usual aide Dr. John Watson) arriving by boat in the fictional Mediterranean island of Cordona. In this version of the character's universe at least, Sherlock grew up on the island and has now returned to pay his last respects to his deceased mother. This is a young Holmes, with barely any stubble on his chin, but he will soon have to prove his worth, as Cordona has a murder rate per capita that makes cities like Tijuana and Cape Town seem like quiet suburbs. As the police seem hellbent on arresting the wrong people, if anyone at all, Holmes is quickly involved in several different cases, some of them containing clues that might shed light on the character's past.

Solving these cases requires the usual legwork. You must comb the environments for clues, question suspects and present evidence, before you can finally add it all together. The basic mechanics are solid enough but lacks a bit of depth compared to other detective games. On the other hand, the more imaginary parts of the imagination really impress. At times you'll have to reconstruct the events that took place at a crime scene. In these cases, Holmes takes a quite literal back seat, as he sits down and closes his eyes in deep concentration, while his friend Jon and you, the player, try to add up the pieces. Alternative interpretations are beautifully visualised as artistic sketches, and choosing the right ones requires careful attention to both visual and written cues. Once all the pieces have been collected, they must be assembled in the so-called The Mind Palace, where you once again must take care not to draw the wrong conclusions and risk sending an innocent person behind bars - or worse!

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Sherlock Holmes Chapter OneSherlock Holmes Chapter One

Like the developer's previous game, The Sinking City, your investigations take place in an open world, and there have been some obvious improvements to the formula this time around. First of all, Cordona is just plain beautiful. The way the sun filters through boarded windows in the poor districts, or the fireflies dance around the sharply cut bushes near the waterfront promenade, envelops the whole island in a both magical and mysterious atmosphere that is only heightened by an excellent soundtrack. Also, the streets are brimming with life, and instead of just wandering about like zombies, the many NPC's perform different tasks like frolicking at ponds, repairing broken furniture or, in the case of the ever-present police, patrolling the city.

What really brings the world to life though is how realistic it feels. At the surface, Cordona might seem like a harmonious melting pot of different cultures, but under the oppressive lid of the British colonial government tensions are constantly boiling. The mainly Ottoman population in the Old Quarter hold old grudges towards the British rulers, a group of impoverished immigrants are on the brink of rebellion, and the upper-class citizens pretty much resent anyone beneath their own rank. Each district has its own social and architectural make-up, and there is something new to discover around nearly every corner whether it's a beautiful sight or a shadowy secret. Graphically the game can't quite compare to newer releases from larger developers, but that hardly matters when everything is so meticulously designed.

Sherlock Holmes Chapter One
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Frogwares has been making Sherlock Holmes games since 2002, and over time the detective's mental tool case gradually came to seem more like an overfilled shed brimming over with all sorts of unnecessary mechanics. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One removes many of the worst offenders (thankfully, no more lock pics) and adds quite a few new ones that all serve to enhance the open world experience. For example, eavesdropping, while I felt it could be more organically implemented, let's you overhear chatter and gossip which leads to new clues and, at times, even brand-new cases. You can also ask pedestrians for directions or clues - providing you know whom to approach of course.

To assist in approaching the right persons, the game recreates one of Holmes most famous characteristics: his knack for knowing all there is to know about a person at first glance. It functions a lot like a similar feature from Watch Dogs, but as there are no phones to hack in the late 19th century, the detective instead uses his power of deduction to create a miniature portrait of whomever you look at. It's a great way to interact with the world and might lead to some amusing results such as the little child I spotted who apparently was a hostile, genius, Albanian scholar. Now, you might have been told not to judge a book by its cover, but Sherlock cares little for such considerations in his relentless pursuit of the truth, and that also shows in the way he dresses. Often people will only reveal information to people of the same class and culture, and so you will have to wear fake beards, local clothing and much more to extract information or get admitted to restricted areas.

A lot of these disguises would probably be considered somewhat culturally insensitive today, and, at the very least, it's very deceitful. In a rather clever way, the question of his methods actually gets incorporated into the story. At the beginning of the game, the idealistic Sherlock comes off as a little arrogant, a kind of Enlightenment superhero, for whom the truth matters more than any other thing in the world. As the story unravels though, Sherlock is confronted with several moral dilemmas, and questions start to arise: Is it really fair to use lies and trickery to get to the truth? And should the truth at times be hidden? In many instances, you must answer these questions yourself, as you can choose freely to condemn people or let them get way with their crimes, depending on the circumstances. There are even four different endings to the main story depending on your conclusions.

Sherlock Holmes Chapter OneSherlock Holmes Chapter OneSherlock Holmes Chapter One

With interesting cases, well written dialogue and plenty of surprises, the story is another highlight. Even the banter between Sherlock and his partner Jon, which I found annoying at first, ended up growing on me as I learned more about their past connection. My only real complaint is about the ending that came as quite a shock, and not in terms of what was revealed - I was simply surprised it ended so abruptly. I have a sneaking-suspicion that the main story must have been scaled back at some point during development, as it only takes place in three out of the five districts on the island, which is quite a shame.

Despite the large open world, the game will only take you about 12 hours to complete, if you speed through. That would really be a fool's errand though, as Cordona is meant to be explored in every nook and cranny and generously rewards every player who does so. Certain objects will remind Sherlock and Jon of events in their childhood requiring you to recreate their exploits; you can decorate the Holmes' family mansion with furniture and objects; and the many side missions at times rival the main ones in terms of complexity. You can even tailor the experience to your liking, disabling, and enabling various gameplay assists. The same goes for the simple but fun shooting mini game, that doesn't feature as heavily as the trailers might imply, but still can be completely turned off if you prefer to use your mind instead of brute force.

In short, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is an excellent game. Where prequels often have been a sure mark of creative bankruptcy in storytelling, and the same, to a certain degree, has been the case with open world game design, this is certainly not the case here. Instead, story, mechanics and world building harmoniously enriches the experience on nearly every level, giving us one of the most ambitious and exciting adventure games since the golden days in the 90's. It's not the greatest detective game ever made, as the gameplay is a tad too simplistic, and the main story ultimately promises more than it can deliver. But on the other hand, the game really moves the genre forward, and in some ways feels like the realisation - albeit on a smaller scale - of what Team Bondi tried to create with L.A. Noire a decade ago: a true investigative sandbox. Selling at a reduced price of £/€44.99, it doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that this is worth a buy for fans of the genre.

Sherlock Holmes Chapter One
Sherlock Holmes Chapter OneSherlock Holmes Chapter One
08 Gamereactor UK
8 / 10
An incredible open world. Interesting new mechanics. Well written and thought-provoking story. Solid graphics and presentation. Plenty of content.
Main story ends too abruptly. Investigative mechanics lacks a bit of depth.
overall score
is our network score. What's yours? The network score is the average of every country's score

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