I confess that I was totally disappointed when Frogwares announced that their next foray into the world of Sherlock Holmes would be a prequel, examining when Sherlock was a young man, pre-Watson. Part of the joy of the Sherlock Holmes stories is that friendship he has with John. Then, seemingly missing the boat a second time in one game, I learned that Holmes would have a companion for the story, whose name would be Jon. So what’s the value of getting rid of Watson? The function served by Watson might be easy to replace but could they possibly capture the same feeling? Had Frogwares finally fallen off the lilypad?
On top of that, we were not going to be able to wander the streets of London. What’s the point?! I loved Frogware’s interpretation of Sherlock’s famous apartment. Why were they taking me away from that? And where is this strange place they did decide to go?
If I was uncertain, I need only have reminded myself that these are people very much after my own heart. They’d recently released the Lovecraft-inspired detective game The Sinking City and have a long history with Sherlock Holmes games. What I was not aware of at the time was that they are also Doctor Who fans. That does not mean I like everything they do and I still believe the absence of Watson was a mistake but we couldn’t have an early adventure with Watson since we know when they first met. Instead, Frogwares intended to take some liberties in giving us the origins of many of Holmes’ habits. This works extremely well and, to the best of my knowledge, no one has done it before, but it also hurts the character to some extent. Let’s look at the negatives first.
Sherlock Holmes as a schizophrenic was not something I anticipated. Yes, you read that correctly. Holmes had an imaginary friend named Jon who accompanies him into adulthood. Based on the story, when he experienced a major trauma in his youth, he began to believe Jon was real. Mycroft tries to dissuade him of these beliefs but comes off a bit of a heavy until the truth is revealed. Throughout the game, Holmes talks to Jon, even sometimes in front of other people. While they say it’s often a mistake to meet ones heroes, this was a letdown of major proportions.
Having said that, the bulk of the game is hugely rewarding to fans of the canon. If you play these games just for fun without the knowledge of Conan Doyle’s works, the Easter eggs take nothing away, but for the fan… wow! It’s a treasure trove. You find a letter to “James” about a paper on The Dynamics of an Asteroid; Moriarty’s seminal work. Holmes waits in a hotel room, #221. There’s a painting of Conan Doyle on a wall. We play the campaign that gives us the origin of the skull he keeps on the mantle and we see how he came upon his Stradivarius violin in a chapter called His First Bow, a title cleverly playing to the short story, His Last Bow. As he takes cases for the police, the chief of police calls him a consulting detective, thus offering us the origin of his title as well.
The game takes place in the Italian province of Cordona, which is broken into a number of provinces. I was inclined to think of this as a mistake to take us from his well-known haunts, preferring to explore the streets of London, but it doesn’t take long to be drawn into the narrative. Now, the map of Cordona is the biggest Easter Egg of all, featuring names that are right out of the stories: Reichenbach, Professors’ Rd, Doyle, Baskerville, Adler, Thor Bridge, Diogenes, Speckled, Vernet, Watson, Boscombe, Musgrave, Engineer’s, Wiggins, Lastrade, Clay, Moran… and my personal favorite (though unrelated to Holmes): Gallifrey! There’s even a “Sesame Street” but I never had to ask anyone how to get there. There are probably a number of them that I missed too.
The game offers a number of fun challenges too. There are fight sequences where you find a den of thieves and try to incapacitate them without killing them. Holmes is able to concentrate (read: slow-motion) and shoot them in non-lethal ways before smacking them into submission. A rather comical idea, but supremely enjoyable. You also get to buy clothing and disguise yourself. Certain locations will require you to look like the locals and finding the right attire is critical. Each garment has a blurb under it and some are very funny, but my personal favorite was for a fez: “Fezzes are cool”. Obvious really.
Like their previous work, Crimes and Punishment, you get to decide the outcome of many of the missions. I had one entirely frustrating experience with this where I had changed my answers after I had obtained more clues, but the resolution did not seem to reflect that. Admittedly, that was my first case, so it’s totally possible I had done something wrong. Later cases had me very pleased with the outcomes. One particular case had me investigating a series of murders of local sailors. When I found the murderer and understood what happened, I was given the choice to let her go free or have her arrested. I opted to let her go free under the promise that she would stop killing and received a warm hug from her as a thank you. This made me feel I’d made the right decision and it was that dynamic that made the game so enjoyable. (Having Jon tell me he agreed helped too.)
There is one side quest that did have me looking at a walkthrough but it was one that I felt was misplaced in the game. There’s a scavenger hunt in the town where you have 30 photos of places throughout Cordona. It’s your job to find those places but you have nothing to go on but the pictures. I probably pulled off about 20 of them without aid but did need to look up others so I wouldn’t end the game with an incomplete mission.
The graphics are really quite beautiful too. Some of the settings are desktop wallpapers in the making and many of the ramblings that appear onscreen are delightful. A personal favorite is around a faked Holy Grail. “His owner claimed to be an heir of King Arthur. He also insisted a deadly rabbit was hunting him.” There’s even some artwork and statues that could tie this game in to The Sinking City with elder signs and a statue very similar to the Great Old One, Cthulhu. (I won’t claim the game is flawless visually, though. I encountered one area where two men were walking under the street and only their hats were visible above ground, but I can accept the occasional glitch when it doesn’t impact gameplay!)
Every Frogwares game I’ve played as part of the Sherlock Holmes library has gotten progressively better. I had been playing some action games just prior to buying this and was a little reluctant to start, but once I started it, I wanted to play nothing else. If Frogwares stays on their current trajectory with their Sherlock Holmes games, I can’t wait to see what they do with the next one. If there’s any doubt about whether I’ll buy it or not, let’s just say the answer is elementary. ML