Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One features a younger, almost criminally good-looking version of the famous detective, but all his legendary skills are still well established. In a hands-on with the new game from Frogwares, we got to try them out on a seance turned murder, and take a trip to a graveyard for a bit of Holmesian origin story.
As the baby-faced detective, you arrive in Cordona, and while waiting for your hotel room to be ready end up embroiled in a seance that has led to the theft of a diamond. It's up to you to figure out what happened to the jewel, and later, to find out who murdered the person who took it. Luckily you have plenty to work with. In Concentration mode, just a hit of a bumper away, you can get a quick impression of someone with a glance, and for more crucial NPCs, zoom in on things like their hands, the condition of their clothes, stains, and scars to form a portrait of their character.
You can perform a similar trick on the crime scenes, noting things that are out of place or could be key evidence. Find a mysterious substance, say, leftover ectoplasm, and you can even do a chemical analysis at the scene to determine what it's made up of with a quick minigame. Evidence you do find can be pinned in your casebook – a new feature for the Sherlock series – so you can ask people about it, and anything pertinent will go into your Mind Palace. This is essentially a flow chart where you can combine the disparate facts and come to conclusions about what they mean, and finally make your decision about who to accuse.
Sherlock's superpower is his mind, his ability to laser-focus his insight on the clues and suspects and leap to the right conclusion. What any fan of the iconic detective really wants is to feel their own small piece of that power, even if they're the sort of person who in reality is constantly outwitted by the self-checkout stand when they're buying a coke. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One – at least in this small slice – gives you a taste of brilliance, but it's hampered by the UI which has you fumbling through your casebook to pick the right evidence to question people about, or running around while Watson shouts at you.
Detective dress up
Once you've fingered the right person for the seance murder, you're finally allowed out of the hotel and into the town of Cordona. With this freedom came a picture of how the bigger game will play out when you're let off the leash. There's a clothing shop where you learn how to disguise Sherlock with hats and outfits and make-up, and a police station where you can search through the archives by combing three different factors to find accounts of old cases. The mechanics borrow heavily from the studio's previous games, its elder Sherlock Holmes series and The Sinking City, but swapping the Lovecraftian supernatural Retrocognition for the more scientific reconstruction. At least here, you're not confined to exploring the city on boats to escape sodden monsters.
There's a real love for the subject matter here, but just occasionally that's overshadowed by the aesthetic. While the game looked great on PC, some of the NPCs I spoke to had the rictus look of possessed ventriloquist puppets, and either Cordona has a problem with clones or the game could do with a few more character models in the hotel section. One NPC I did enjoy was John Watson, here rocking a hipster f*** boi haircut and – no spoilers – is revealed to be a very different character than I was expecting. His role in this part of the game seemed to be making sarcastic remarks, betting Sherlock he couldn't deduce things like the owner of an abandoned cane, and gently mocking you when you're running around an area in desperate need of a clue. He also keeps a diary where you can keep track of your progress, and the developer hints that your interactions with him could have deeper consequences later in the game.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is really just the old Frogwares detective games after some very serious anti-aging treatments, but this demo proved it still fills a niche for fans of crime-solving and investigating that is hard to find anywhere else. No one knows the Baker Street brain quite like Frogwares at this point, so it's exciting to see what story they'll give the dapper young version of the character. Personally, I'm excited to see the Holmes family mansion in the final game, where you can pick up quests but more importantly, decorate. Expect to see more justice, and perhaps some wallpaper swatches, before the game is released later this year.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One will be released in 2021 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X.