Beyond any grisly homicide or nasty insurance fraud arson case, the biggest crime suffered by LA Noire fans was the shuttering of developer Team Bondi, since any prospect of a sequel has seemingly been snuffed out with it. The announcement of Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, a reboot of developer Frogwares’ long-running detective series that shifts its established sleuth-’em-up gameplay into an open-world, revived hope for a second coming of Cole Phelps and company, but I’m afraid those have been dashed as well. Chapter One’s underfeatured open world and uninspired combat prevent it from solving the case of the missing great detective game.
Chapter One sees the world’s second most famous detective (sorry, but Batman has a better marketing team) return to his childhood home on the fictional Mediterranean island of Cordona after he learns that there may have been more to the death of his mother than was initially reported. Sprawling in size and rich in period-accurate detail, Cordona gives the initial impression of an Assassin’s Creed-style sandbox in which you must solve the murders rather than inflict them, using Sherlock’s razor-sharp intellect in place of a hidden blade. However, a disappointing lack of interactivity means it’s not nearly as interesting to inhabit or as dense with discoveries as it first seems.
Uncovering what really occurred within the walls of Stonewood Manor becomes the focal point of Chapter One’s story, but getting to the bottom of this central mystery requires solving a roughly 12-hour-long series of intriguing and diverse detours; from tracking a stampeding elephant to sneaking into a sex cult, a number of which resolve themselves in surprising and occasionally comedic ways. When was the last time you solved a crime using a homemade inflatable elephant love doll? (Please say, “Never.”)
This young Sherlock is presented to us as being a novice private eye, but he’s already got a near-supernatural perception of the superficial, able to effortlessly surmise suspect behaviour from studying the abrasions on their skin or the bags under their eyes. The problem with him being a superhero out of the gate is that I didn’t really get the impression of him being anything less than a fully formed investigation sensation from Chapter One’s outset, which meant there wasn’t even the potential for any sense of skill progression to allow the crime solving process to evolve over time.
Really, the only thing missing from Sherlock’s toolkit is his usual offsider, John Watson. Presumably he’s still serving in the military when the events of Chapter One take place. Instead, Sherlock is flanked by his imaginary friend Jon, who’s similar to Watson both in name and purpose in that he acts as a sounding board for Sherlock while he studies each crime scene, using the established concentration and evidence-corroborating techniques that return from previous games in the series.
Ace of Case
Unlike the overly simplified nature of the investigations in Sega’s recent Judgment games, Chapter One gives you a little more latitude when it comes to solving each case. Chasing a lead doesn’t merely require following patronising markers generated on the map, but actual methodical legwork; poring over a crime scene for clues, visiting the archive room at the local newspaper office in order to track down the last known address of a suspect, and then slipping into an appropriate disguise in order to talk your way past the landlady when you get there. When you fall into a rhythm, Chapter One does a convincing job of making you feel like a proper sleuth arriving at your own deductions, which can be genuinely gratifying for stretches at a time.
The trouble is that the general lack of hand-holding can sometimes mean that identifying how to advance an investigation can become a bit too obtuse at times. In one case I had to track down the whereabouts of a pregnant refugee using only a photograph, and I spent about 20 minutes showing it to countless shrugging citizens until I finally happened upon what seemed to be the one pedestrian in the city who could give me directions to her secret camp. In another, I tried to infiltrate a shelter for the poor but was continually turned away by the doorman who kept referring to me as “moneybags” no matter how dirty and dishevelled I rendered Sherlock’s disguise. What kind of rich person wore commoner clothing in the 19th century? Internet billionaires hadn’t even been invented yet.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One Screenshots
It’s in progress-halting instances such as these that Jon could have perhaps played the role of some sort of organic hint system, but all he ever does is tell you you’re doing it wrong without offering any useful alternatives. As far as imaginary friends go, Jon is less Tyler Durden and more of a whining burden. Each investigative misstep is also marked by the exact same scribblings in Jon’s diary, and by the end of Chapter One’s campaign I found myself thumbing through pages and pages of the same repeated sentences as though I’d hired Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining to be my own private secretary.
Running into roadblocks during a case wouldn’t be so bad if there were other things to do, but Chapter One fails to provide much in the way of interesting diversions to indulge in. The surprisingly large Cordona setting is certainly postcard-pretty in parts, from ornate cathedral spires down to the beautiful boat harbour, but there’s just not enough to do in it to inspire or reward exploration beyond a nice bit of sightseeing – if you can put up with the constantly stuttering framerate on the Xbox Series X.
On rare occasion I would eavesdrop on a conversation that would blossom into a substantial side case, like hunting for the culprit behind a string of sailor murders through Cordona’s red light district. Yet for the most part I’d just walk around desperate for something to interact with, besides stopping to stare at the same handful of reused NPCs, from the British dandy to the guy perpetually pissing against a wall (the repeated NPC types also make canvassing a crowd for clues more confusing than it should be). With so little to distract myself with along the way to each destination I became increasingly reliant on fast travel to teleport around, thus making Chapter One’s open world feel not all that different from the more segregated settings of previous Sherlock games.
Sherlock ‘n’ Load
When Sherlock isn’t poking holes in witnesses’ testimonies, he’s blasting holes in bad guys’ chest-imonies. Often, either at the climax of a case or on the occasion you opt to enter an enemy compound via the use of force rather than fraud, Sherlock will become trapped in a firefight against waves of increasingly powerful thugs. Whether it’s a bar room or a boatshed, these arenas are all more or less identical in layout and feature the same sort of environmental hazards you can use to your advantage, such as lanterns that can be shot to momentarily stun an assailant before you rush in and trigger a short quicktime event in order to arrest them.
However, it doesn’t really matter if you cuff them or snuff them, since aside from a light admonishment from Jon – a slap on the wrist from someone who doesn’t even exist – there are no moral repercussions for just murdering every goon you come up against. Given that Sherlock has unlimited pistol ammo, it’s far simpler to shoot baddies in the head than it is to try to slowly maneuver them next to a rupturable steam pipe in an attempt to subdue them non-violently. It’s true that you’re awarded more cash for arrests than for kills, but I wasn’t really motivated to earn more money given all there is to spend it on is newspapers or furnishings for Sherlock’s house. There are also some bizarre rules of engagement at play, like how you must first shoot the armour plating off an enemy’s shoulders before you can throw Sherlock’s snuff powder into their eyes to temporarily blind them. How exactly does that work?
The only instance in which a Holmes-inflicted homicide isn’t the smartest strategy is when you’re tackling the optional Bandit lairs that can be found scattered across Cordona. These are exactly the same as every other enemy encounter in Chapter One, but since Sherlock must raid them on the police’s behalf, any enemies killed in the process results in instant failure. Needless to say, I found the combat in Chapter One so monotonous that I completed the first of these Bandit lairs, received little in the way of meaningful compensation, and then hung up my Bandit-busting badge for good. To Chapter One’s credit, you can hop into the menus and disable combat entirely if you wish to, although that does mean there’s even less gameplay diversity outside of the main investigation fundamentals.