Isn’t the public domain a wonderful thing? A certain amount of time after the original creator carks it, all IP becomes everybody’s P. Do you wish Tarzan was a West highland terrier? He can be, now! Do you want Captain Nemo to go into business selling children’s frozen dinners? Why not? He’s as much yours as Jules Verne’s, take that, you bearded paid-by-the-word French git. You may also know that fucking Disney have been lobbying for years to extend the public domain cutoff so they can keep a death grip on their copyrights, but lately it seems like they’ve been trying to create their own version of public domain, where instead of every motherfucker on earth being allowed to mess with IP as much as they want they’re instead going to hire every motherfucker on earth to direct at least one Star Wars movie. But I digress. Sherlock Holmes is a character who’s been buggered inside and out by public domain, and as many of the works imply, that’s exactly how he likes it. But no game developer has buggered him with greater enthusiasm than Frogwares, churning out Holmes adventure games for decades. Not without ambition, it seems, but when they did finally leave the paddling pool of the adventure game niche to dive into the shark-infested sewage treatment plant of open worlds, how strange that they chose to do The Sinking City first, a Lovecraft adaptation.
When horror is clearly not their comfort zone the way detective games are. Sinking City was just a detective game where half the witnesses look like discarded fish finger sandwiches, and that only distracted from things at best. Fortunately the universe now rights itself with the Sinking City formula being reused for a Sherlock Holmes game, namely Sherlock Holmes Chapter one. What, is Sherlock Holmes an XBox, now? Hey he’s public domain, he might as well be. No, this is a prequel story about a young Sherlock visiting his childhood home on a Mediterranean island to get to the bottom of his mother’s mysterious death and his own blocked memories of it. But wait, this is pre-Doctor Watson Sherlock Holmes. And how can Holmes work without Watson, the audience needs the everyman perspective to balance out Holmes acting like an intergalactic space computer running “Socially inept cunt ME”. Well, it turns out the reason why Holmes eventually shacks up with Watson is that in his youth Holmes had an imaginary friend who looked a lot like Watson and was also named Jon. That’s right, motherfuckers, it’s the new improved intentional Creepy Watson.
I assumed he just needed someone to go halfsies on the rent, but I suppose we have to crowbar new intrigues in wherever we can. Is this not a bit contrived, Frogwares? “Who cares? It’s public domain! Everything’s canon now, bitch!” You know what, I don’t get a cynical vibe from Frogwares’ milking of the IP. They do seem to genuinely love Sherlock Holmes. The street names on the map are all varyingly obscure references, the additions to his backstory have been crafted with the real emotion and ever so slightly psychotic care of a dedicated fan fiction writer, and, well, just look at how bloody pretty they made him in this game. The only reason he’s not smoking a pipe yet is that nothing can brush against those kissable lips without needing some serious Victorian-era hysteria treatment. Look it up, kids. And Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is an undeniably ambitious game. Ooh that’s a mealy-mouthed nonpliment, isn’t it. “Ambitious” is code for “overreaches like Doctor Octopus at a crowded breakfast buffet.” So at the core of things are the detective game elements of wandering around a crime scene waiting for little white dots to appear over bloodstains and footprints like moths with an interest in true crime podcasts, then randomly smashing bits of intel together until a conclusion chips off and hits someone in the eye.
Not sure how I feel about how at the end of every case you basically decide for yourself who the culprit is by reinterpreting all the facts the way you want, and the game doesn’t tell you if you picked right or not. Which feels stupid ‘cos a puzzle should have a right answer and a wrong answer, otherwise you could fill a crossword grid with little drawings of cocks and call it done, but then again maybe this is some deliberate artistic statement about how reality is created from our perceptions and more importantly at least gives the game replay value. And besides all that detective shit we’ve also got minigames up the tight public school educated butt. The chemistry minigame’s okay, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the science minigames in Spider-Man and that’s probably why I mentioned Doctor Octopus precisely twenty-three seconds ago, the eavesdropping minigame not so much. You’re supposed to circle all the relevant snatches of dialogue and reject the rest, but how the fuck am I supposed to know what’s relevant when this is the first I’m hearing about any of this shit. So I always fall back on trial and error. Is anal distension relevant to the recent train robbery? I don’t know, maybe, if that was where they hid the loot. And of course since we’ve put on our big boy trousers to play in the action adventure sandbox market we’ve got to have some fucking combat for when Days Gone tries to steal our lunch money.
A very token, very systematic combat that is whatever the opposite of a core mechanic is. You don’t randomly get in shootouts in the street, what happens is you walk into a room mysteriously full of random cover and shootable hazards, you roll your eyes massively, and then some random thugs burst in. And the game exhaustively trains you in the process of disorienting them by shooting one or more highly specific things, then running up and doing a highly specific quick time event, and if you get any part of the process wrong you get a highly specific knee in the clever clogs and start again. You focus on one enemy at a time like you’re in a Pac Man maze full of roaming join the dots puzzles until they’re all down, then you get shot because the game spawned three more of the fuckers behind your back and forgot to tell you or signal their arrival in any way. I’ve played worse combat systems – whoop! Nonpliments abound! – but I think the real issue here is the same issue that all detective games have trying to work in action or open worlds – hope you’re taking notes, LA Noire. It’s that detective games are about fine details. Combing the slightest elements of a crime scene and analysing a few deeply fleshed out characters right down to their shoelaces and opinions on the Academy Award nominations.
While open worlds and combat systems rely mostly on non-crafted procedural systems. So it always feels like a grinding of gears when nine random dudes burst in halfway through an investigation whom we then curbstomp and forget about. What, you don’t think any of these guys might have useful intel, Sherlock? I mean, ten minutes ago you noticed a rip in a suspect’s trousers that turned the whole case upside down and here’s nine new pairs of trousers ripe for the perving. The carefully crafted puzzle pieces of the investigation get tangled up against the game’s systematic elements like two egg whisks in an overloaded kitchen drawer. Also the game makes a big thing of how you can question random passers by and dress up as a local or a cop or an ice cream man to put them at their ease and get more intel, but in practice this almost never works unless a quest objective specifically tells you to do it and at all other times NPCs just gawp at you like a highly suspect sausage roll at a horse castration party. Honestly I kinda liked Chapter One for its plot and puzzles, I just wish it had spent less time smashing its Tonka Trucks together and more time finding voice actors that don’t deliver lines like they’re reading aloud the lunch menu in a lobotomy ward.