Release dates: September 20, 2012 (Europe), September 25, 2012 (N. America)
Platforms: PC (digital download -- reviewed), Xbox360, PS3 (retail)
When last we left Sherlock Holmes he was confronting that other legendary Londoner Jack the Ripper. However, I haven't played that game so the last I left Sherlock Holmes, via Frogwares at least, he was facing down that French scamp Arsene Lupin in Nemesis. I was very impressed by that game, the fourth in the series (after Mummy, Earring, andAwakened), and only faulted it for somewhat clunky first-person perspective and for a few irritating plot devices. Now, in the series' sixth entry, we get The Testament of Sherlock Holmes. What is the Testament of Sherlock Holmes? Well, you'll have to play the game to discover that. But I can reveal to you that, like Ripper, the new title deals with dark and at times grisly subject matter. So dark and grisly that it has earned an M-for-mature rating.
It takes quite awhile, in fact, to discover just who the heck Holmes and Watson are battling in Testament. The story begins rather frothily but then turns quickly somber. Watson is quite put out because it seems his great friend has turned to the dark side to pursue his latest inquiries. He starts freeing hardened criminals, tries to gun down unarmed men, resorts to blackmail, breaks into houses and safes -- at one point he even bullies a couple of street urchins! What the devil is going on here, Watson and you wonder. Not to let the cat too far out of the bag, because the plot is one of the best features of this newest adventure, you and the good doctor and of course Sherlock will go through a number of sharp twists and turns before the overall dastardly plot comes full to light. So you, like Watson, should just hang on for the ride.
While the story is good and engrossing if at times a bit gruesome, the most impressive thing about this new game is its engine. My main gripe about Nemesis was that the first-person perspective 3D gameworld, while impressively detailed and large, was ultimately frustrating. You, as the player, had to run around bumping your nose into virtually everything, like some kind of horribly near-sighted madman. Now, in Testament, miracle of miracles, there's not only the option to play in third-person 3D mode, but in old fashioned point-and-click mode. Yes, three separate gaming modes that you can switch between at your discretion. At first I thought someone had finally listened to one of my criticisms, and then I realized that this innovation was probably brought on by the need to gear this game to consoles. Ironically, in designing the game for PS3 and Xbox 360, Frogwares has made it a better gaming experience for us poor neglected PC gamers.
The 3D gameworld really is amazingly detailed, large and fluid. The game uses Nvidia's PhysX, which my first encounter with, in Jekyll & Hyde, was not pretty. But here it runs beautifully and on my modest laptop to boot! It was when I was searching Sherlock's bedroom at 221 Baker Street and noticed people walking past in the street below out the window that I realized something different was going on. Sometimes the game will plop you down on a street in the middle of London and you'll have no idea where the streets end. You get the feeling you could wander around for hours. For adventure gamers, this is a chance to explore one of those wide open action game environments without the massive graphics card.
It's this incredible sense of realism and immersion in the London of 1898 that's the best part of the game. Testamentthus becomes primarily an exercise in exploration. Normally in a modern adventure game, exploration means sweeping your mouse around one room, or pressing the space bar to highlight all the hotspots. But here you will be going out the door and into the yard. And then into the next yard and find yourself wondering what's going on in that building three blocks away. You can still hit the space bar to highlight the hotspots, but the areas to search are often so big you'll only see a few pop up anyway. And sometimes none. (Appropriately enough for the sixth entry in the series, Testamentoffers something called Sherlock's "Sixth Sense" to use when you're lost. It's really just the old highlight hotspots key, but it sounds cooler.)
In Nemesis, the main course was the puzzles, all different types and levels of difficulty, including text parser ones. InTestament, the puzzle difficulty, overall, has been dialed down. But there are still loads of puzzles of quite a large variety. After I finished the game I discovered a normal/hard setting deep in the options menu. I replayed part of the game in "hard" mode but was unable to notice much difference. I did encounter one extra "search" puzzle but that may have been the result of a dialogue choice. In either case, the gameplay consists mostly of searching the environment, learning what needs to be done, then picking up and using the correct items in the correct order.
There's an amazing number of metal, wooden and other containers in Testament which have been locked with some version of an old chestnut puzzle. Even the Eight Queens chess problem turns up again, albeit cut down to 7 pegs on a 7x7 grid. I am rather fond of puzzle boxes, but even I thought it was getting a little out of hand at times. There's also something the game calls a "deduction board," which is really just a variation on the old dialogue tree puzzle. Designers have been trying since the dawn of adventures to turn dialog into a satisfying puzzle. The search goes on. The ones here are fresher and even a little tougher than usual, but it still boils down to just going through the few available combinations of sentences. What makes them better here is that you often have to find the elements in the environment before they'll appear on the Deduction Board.
Like Nemesis, Testament is long and involving with lots of rich, intriguing locations. It took me a week playing four or five hours a night to reach the closing credit sequence. At first I was disappointed that the overall puzzle challenge (if not the sheer number of puzzles) was less than in Nemesis. And then I realized the emphasis here is really on immersion, exploration and story. And in fact, there's so much exploration that the usually brainless act of going around collecting everything at times becomes itself challenging. Most of the game has you "controlling" Holmes, with Watson hurrying to keep up, and uncannily always blocking your likeliest next path. At times, you play as Holmes solo and as Watson solo, and in one scene you can switch between the two. Best of all, Toby is back! The true greatest sleuth in London, Toby the basset hound makes a glorious return here and you are him! In one of the game's best and most entertaining sections, you control Toby as he leads Sherlock. Not only does Toby smell out the trail, but he punches open doors, operates switches, rides in strange conveyances. Frogwares, in my opinion, should give him his own series.
As usual, the voice acting is superb. Sherlock in particular stands out -- charming, educated, yet with that unnerving clinical detachment. The music and the sound effects are, again, nicely calibrated. The music manages to be moody without being treacly. I wish I could say the same for the onscreen "help." It's bad enough that there's no way to turn off the tutorial mode in the first scene, but I was smack dab in the middle of the very last -- and very dramatic -- scene in the game when a giant blue panel flashed onscreen informing me that I could make my character run by holding down the left shift key. So much for story immersion. Why on earth isn't there just a way to turn these things off?
The Sherlock Holmes series from Frogwares is overall very impressive, offering the best production values of any modern adventure I can think of. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is no exception to that string of successes. I don't know if it's the best game in the series since I've only played Nemesis and Testament and the demos of most of the others, but it's certainly one of the best adventure games that will come out this year. Overall, I give The Testament of Sherlock Holmes a sterling A.