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As the sixth primary installment in Frogware's adventure series centered on literature's greatest detective, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is also the first installment designed specifically for consoles. While many so-called serious gamers may be hesitant to spend money on a puzzle game, let us reassure you that Testament is far superior to the thin plots and static screens found elsewhere in the genre. Puzzles prove to be a challenge, but they're all solvable; unlike the Myst-inspired games that can leave you staring at a screen for hours without any clear indication of what you're supposed to do, it serves up challenges that are not mind-numbingly difficult. Each puzzle, from the clever deduction boards to bomb disarming and lock picking, is not only entertaining in and of itself, but it also advances the plot.
It's the story that really shines in Testament, something that makes sense when you consider the source material. This original tale which centers on the downfall of Sherlock Holmes nails the atmosphere and style of Arthur Conan Doyle's work, and it also embraces the mature nature of many of his cases. It's worth mentioning that this game is rated M for a good reason: the crime scenes investigated by Holmes and Watson are often quite gruesome, and the developers have been unflinching in their presentation of them. While the mobile graphics leave a lot to be desired—playing this after experiencing games like Heavy Rain just makes you wonder what the developers were thinking—everything else in this game is nearly perfect. If you enjoy a cerebral challenge, appreciate a great story, and have the patience to deal with the reticent personalities of Victorian England, then absolutely give The Testament of Sherlock Holmes a try.
This review was written using the XBox 360 version of the game.
A perfect choice for the cerebral gamer, almost all the puzzles are perfectly suited to the world—and intricate nature—of Sherlock. There’s not much else to the game, but then…does there need to be?
Puzzle games aren't exactly known for their versatility or depth. Any lunchtime gamer can attest that they typically amount to static screen shots filled with sometimes interesting, often frustrating, occasionally mindless puzzles that link a flimsy and poorly written plot. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, however, adds so much more simply by virtue of its source material. Arthur Conan Doyle's literary thoroughbred serves as the penultimate inspiration for a puzzle game: a genuinely compelling mystery serves as the framework for devious puzzles that need to be solved and gruesome crime scenes that need to be investigated. Sure, there isn't much else going on here—there is a small element of exploration, but it's little more than a slightly engaging means of getting you from one puzzle to the next—but remember folks: it's a puzzle game in which you step into the shoes of one of most cerebral literary characters ever created. It doesn't need anything else.
Puzzle games that require you to hunt for items in a field of random objects are a dime a dozen. Those gussied up "Eye Spy" tricks won't cut it for history's greatest detective, however, and the manufacturers are well aware of this. Since Testament is the sixth major release in this particular series of games, it's a rather elementary challenge for the developers to create a set of compelling puzzles that may not actually have been a challenge for Sherlock, but are a perfect fit for gamers trying to step into his shoes.
Some puzzles consist of relatively standard fare, such as elaborate locks that require you to shift tiles or group colored balls in order to get them to open. Others are more content-specific, such as the ever enjoyable deduction boards (which, in our opinion, occur far too infrequently). While we have no complaints about the simpler puzzles—in fact, many of them are encountered by Dr. Watson, and it makes sense that he would have a slightly more mundane set of tasks to tackle compared to the exploits his brilliant partner—it's the latter set that really makes this game shine. Deduction boards and their elaborate ilk are the things that will really make gamers feel as though they're stepping into the role of the greatest deductive mind ever to live. They tackle the challenge of translating a cerebral character's methods into an engaging, hands-on version that suits the gaming medium.
Some puzzles were unduly frustrating, as is the case with every game of this nature. We encountered a handful that simply didn't make it clear as to what we needed to do in order to progress. However, those annoying moments were few and far between, and in no way detracted from our overall enjoyment of the game as a whole. Unfortunately, there is no real in-game hint system dealing specifically with puzzles. You can initiate "Sherlock Sense" in order to find items in the environment that you're supposed to interact with, but actual puzzles are either solved or skipped.
After a certain amount of time and failed attempts have passed, you'll have the option of pushing a button on the controller that causes you to bypass any trouble spots. It's a decidedly unsatisfying approach to sticky situations, and we preferred to turn to a walk through in order to get a hint rather than just breezing past something without making an effort. On the whole, however, puzzles were satisfying, challenging, and perfectly suited to the methods of Sherlock Holmes.
The specific act of exploration is really a minimal aspect of Testament: it serves as a means to get from one puzzle to another. However, there are certain elements of it which can be differentiated from the puzzle aspect, enough so that it deserves a closer look. On one hand—and this is usually when the player is in control of Dr. Watson—players can roam around to interact with items that provide references to past cases. This is a treat for fans of the books and the games alike, and serves as a satisfying nod to the detective's pedigree.
The more substantial part of exploration involves certain environments more than others. While many locations are limited to a room or two, certain areas of the game require players to wander around larger locales such as the streets of White Chapel. Here, you can encounter NPC's which can be "interacted" with (you can get a canned line from each of them, nothing that comes even close to the scale of proper adventure games like Skyrim); they don't add much, but it is a nice touch compared to the barren landscapes of the Myst subgenre of puzzlers. These environments and the amount of exploration you can engage in within each of them not only sets the mood for that point in the story, but it also adds an engaging element that is often lacking in puzzle games. Rather than moving from one static screen to another, the developers have made a small effort to create an actual world that Holmes and Watson can—to a minimal degree—explore for a moment or two on the way to their next location.
The biggest issue here was the camera. Playing in third person is enjoyable at first—who wouldn't like to watch themselves controlling Sherlock Holmes when he's in his element—but the issues with navigation become a rather clunky detriment pretty quickly. Fortunately, the developers have included the option to view the game in first person, which makes everything infinitely smoother. If only they had made the default walk and run speeds just a little bit faster...
This is the first game in the Sherlock puzzle series that was designed specifically for consoles, and we're pleased to say that the developers have done a fine job crossing platform lines. True, we can't say as to whether it's a result of their engineering capabilities, or simply the fact that puzzle games don't have that many controls to deal with...but the point is, it all works. Everything in the game involves single button presses that allow you to interact with items, whether it's examining clues in a crime scene, adjusting the notches on a lock picking tool, or combining items in your inventory. Sure, what happens on the screen may defy the laws of physics (we're probably better off not knowing how Holmes managed to hide a large ladder inside his pockets), but as far as user interaction with onscreen activity is concerned, we didn't have any issues.
One of the major flaws in puzzle games is that once you finish...you're finished. There's no alternative difficulty, no post-plot open world exploration, no extra modes or randomized one-off puzzles to solve. Sure, Testament has the advantage of possessing a great story that you may want to go back and engage in again (people reread books for a reason, after all), but its a scant motivation at best as far as gaming is concerned.
At the time of this writing, there wasn't any substantial downloadable content available for purchase. We got the game the day it was released, though, so this is something that may change with time. If you really enjoyed the experience, keep an eye out for future content somewhere down the line. Given how often Holmes and Watson split up over the course of the game, we could easily see how some additional chapters could be created to flesh out the experience even further. Judging how tightly the plot is written, though, don't hold your breath too long.
Pacing & Flow
Let's be perfectly clear: this game is not for everyone. If you have a major dislike of cerebral, slow-moving Victorian crime drama (basically, if you don't like the books), don't waste your time. We absolutely loved it because it really was like acting out a Sherlock mystery, and hearing the somewhat stilted and flowery dialogue—perfectly appropriate for the style of the game and the source material—was like listening to poetry. We cannot emphasize enough, however, that this is not a game for those that like fast-paced thrills. If you have the patience needed to survive the deliciously tantalizing build up leading to Sherlock's big reveal and the exciting denouement, you absolutely will not be disappointed. You need a pretty sizable attention span, too; this isn't a game for folks who like to multitask, or for a gamer that wants to veg out after a long work week. This is Holmes we're talking about: the puzzles are definitely engaging, but the story involves explanatory cut scenes that sometimes can last for up to ten minutes, and the involved nature of the plot means you can't skip a thing if you want to make sense of what's going on.
The story isn't based on any tale penned by Doyle, but it might as well have been. We were held with rapt attention as the story of Sherlock's disgrace unfolded before our eyes; not once did it slow down or meander through a pointless tangent. Like every element of the original stories, not one facet of what we witnessed lacked purpose...though what that purpose is may not have been clear at the time. Occasionally it felt as though certain parts of the plot had fallen by the wayside, but just a puzzle or two later, there was Sherlock picking up the pieces. At various points we were elated, horrified, dismayed...the writers on this game should be commended for their brilliant work that captures the essence of Sherlock Holmes.
Past games in the Sherlock puzzle series focused on a case or a prominent villain. The last game in the series had the wits of Sherlock pitted against the brutal criminal mind of Jack the Ripper. Testament takes a very different approach, however; sure, there's a solid villain working on a suitably devious plot (we won't spoil it by telling you who it is), but this game is really more of a character study on Sherlock himself. Breaking with tradition, gamers alternatively control Sherlock and Dr. Watson at different points throughout the experience. This conceit is what really allows the writers to shine. Watson has always been the more accessible of the partnership, and his involvement in the story adds an emotional core that resonates with gamers in a way that Sherlock alone simply cannot.
Forcing the player to tackle things from a certain point of view (Watson doesn't always stay with his illustrious partner) casts a shadow of doubt over the actions of the world's greatest detective. It's true that Holmes doesn't like to waste time explaining his actions, but the story in this game gives the man's introverted nature a sinister edge. Does Sherlock truly fall from grace? Is he a dangerous psychopath who only solves crimes for the personal pleasure of feeling superior to others? Well, we'll let other websites spoil it for you, but just know that by the time you get to the final act, Watson won't be the only person involved in this case whose feelings about the great detective will have been shaken to their very core. The story's brilliance is reason enough to play this game, even if you're not a very big fan of puzzlers.
The catch with the writing itself is that it's done in a way that makes it less than perfectly accessible. Not everyone can read a Doyle short story and understand what's happening the first time around. People speak in a way that may seem unusually stilted or formal, especially compared to modern speech. The writers have done a very good job of walking a line between matching the style of Doyle while making sure gamers can keep track of what's happening, but it's definitely a style that will take some time to get used to if you're not already familiar with it.
Plot & Player Choices
As much as we love the story, Testament is no Mass Effect. Sherlock's England is buttoned up, straight laced, and full of rigid backs and stiff upper lips. In that sense, the voice actors absolutely nail it. Sherlock is cool, sharp, and incisive, everything you'd expect from the classic interpretation of the detective. Watson, while maintaining the formality of the time, exudes an air of gentle compassion—both for his dear friend, as well as all the other people affected by the case—that serves as a perfect foil to Sherlock. In fact, it's Watson's emotional core which provides the root of the entire story; without his personal connection to everything happening in the case, Sherlock's downfall wouldn't have felt so wrenching. The supporting characters are all unique and fully realized vocally; our only complaint is that the primary villain's performance proved to be just a tad anti climactic.
There are two sets of cut scenes in Testament. Most involve Sherlock, Watson, and the events pertaining to your actions in the game. These don't just serve to move the plot...they are the plot. They detail Sherlock's actions and his explanation of events, but they're more than just exposition. Since the game deals so heavily with Sherlock's private motivations and his becoming a wanted man, the scenes involving Dr. Watson also serve to amplify the emotional pain that the detective's downfall has on those who care about him. While they did tend to run on for quite a while, we never felt the urge to skip anything since all the scenes served a very specific and pertinent purpose.
The game is framed using short, interstitial scenes that depict three small children reading Dr. Watson's account of Testament in an attic some time after the in-game adventures have concluded. While they seem silly at first, the importance of these small snippets is revealed gradually throughout the course of the game, and actually depict the long-term ramifications of the case. We took issue with the graphics, but the scenes themselves were always enjoyable to watch, breathing life into a game that's part of a genre known for thin, pointless plots.
Excellent art design properly evokes the world of Victorian England, but the graphics…We have two words for you: Creepy. Children.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
Given the graphical leaps and bounds made by consoles in the recent past, it's rather disappointing that The Testament of Sherlock Holmes looked as rough as it did. The general art design and all the other sensory elements of the game were excellent, but it was somewhat painful to watch the dead eyes and out-of-synch mouths after seeing what was done in visual titans like Heavy Rain.
From the squalor of White Chapel to the warm and comfortable apartment that is 221B Baker Street, every location felt fantastic. Every environment was unique, distinct, and a treat to explore. (There wasn't a whole lot to explore, but that's an issue with the content of the game more so than the art design.) Nothing ever felt recycled or underdeveloped, and not having to spend a ton of time in any one location meant nothing ever started to get stale. On the whole, Testament is a very well designed game that matches the world of Sherlock to such a degree that gamers can tell the developers really have a sense of respect for the source material.
For all the heart and passion that was clearly invested in the game's overall art design, it makes it that much harder for us to tell the disappointing truth: the animated graphics stunk. Mouths never move in synch with dialogue, facial expressions look choppy or dead, and eyes appear glazed over. Static items, such as newspapers or environments, actually turned out pretty well. They don't have the detail found in Skyrim or any other graphically super-powered game, but they don't look bad at all. It's the humans that ruin it, and while that's not an issue for many puzzle games, that fact that this one has so many cut scenes involving dialogue and emotional expression makes it a glaring issue.
Particularly terrifying are the small children in the cut scenes that frame the rest of the game. They put one in mind of the old Renaissance paintings of an infant Jesus, in which artists often painted a small body with the face of an adult. It looked creepy, bizarre, and just plain wrong...and that's what happens with the children in Testament. It's a huge flaw, and given the high quality of what we've seen on other games that have been released recently, all the more disappointing.
Luckily, the puzzles themselves always look fantastic. As we mentioned, static items look great, so the puzzles themselves (which consist often of static scenes that can be interacted with) were always crisp and clear. Crime scenes are shown in all their gruesome detail, placing ripped flesh and and other bloody wounds front and center for close examination. If it weren't for the creepy children and the mouth movements that put one in mind of badly dubbed kung fu films, the game would be nearly perfect.
The music in Testament isn't ground breaking, but it serves to heighten the atmosphere admirably. Nothing ever blew us away, but at the same time, the music never distracted us from what was going on in the game itself. Lots of dark melodies and classical-light tunes kept us firmly grounded in the time period, as well. Mood was enhanced and nothing was detracted...in our minds, that qualifies as an auditory success.
Sound effects generally consisted of the occasional placement of a wooden plank or shattering of a bottle, more or less. The sound design of the game, much like the overall score, managed to do its job in a subtle way that serves its purpose without distracting the gamer. It's one of those things that you would notice if done badly; our attention was never drawn to sound effects, so we'd say the developers have done a good job here, as well.
Have you ever wondered what made the great Sherlock Holmes tick? The Testament of Sherlock Holmes tackles that issue, calling into question the motivations behind literature's greatest and most introverted deductive mind. A compelling story that outlines the fall of Sherlock (or does it?) serves as the backdrop to the latest puzzle game developed by Frogware for their Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series of games. This particular entry is the first designed specifically for console users (Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper was a PC port), and it's a truly masterful entry in the puzzle genre. With a wide variety of puzzles that prove to be challenging without being completely inaccessible, beautiful environments, and a stunning emotional story, this title is definitely worth the attention of any gamer that enjoys a more cerebral experience. True, the character graphics leave a lot to be desired (and that's putting it politely), and at the time of this writing there's nothing to do in the game after you beat it except play it again. Those two rather glaring faults aside, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant character study that walks a fine line between literature and video gaming. It's a rare treat that can be appreciated by both fans of the stories, as well as gamers looking for a more intellectual challenge.