Friday, January 4, 2013

“It needs careful playing, all the same” (SHOS): “The Testament of Sherlock Holmes”

"I play the game for the game's own sake… But the problem certainly presents some points of interest, and I shall be very pleased to look into it. (BRUC)

“…for you have never failed to play the game. I am sure you will play it to the end.” (MAZA)

“Look how close they play the game.” (3GAB)


“I was wondering what kind of person bought this game,” the clerk behind the counter said as he placed my preordered copy of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes in a plastic bag. “I couldn’t figure out the target audience.” I was running on fumes after a long day, desperate for my next dose of caffeine and a meal made from actual food – not a “food-like product” from the microwave, and something about his tone hit a raw nerve. I was beyond the ability to comport myself with grace, but I made an effort and tried not to look offended as I tightly clutched my purchase. Instead, I found myself asking, “And now that you’ve met the intended demographic?” The clerk shook his head, “I still don’t understand it. Or why someone would want to play it. But I hope you enjoy it. Have a nice day!” The last bit was tacked on, I’m fairly certain, because I was suddenly looking less and less like I wasn’t offended, and more and more like I was about to “accidentally” knock my purse into a nearby display of discounted “Pokémon” merchandise. Later on, as I listened to the voice of Sherlock Holmes tell me – with no little amount of venom – as I failed solve a puzzle for the fifth time in as many minutes: “No! That’s not correct! Start again!” – I, too, began to question my judgment. But I did not question the appeal.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, released in September 2012, is the most recent outing in the “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” series from the independent game development studio, Frogwares.  Previous adventures include: Sherlock Holmes: Mystery of the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, Sherlock Holmes Versus Arsène Lupin (also known as Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis), and Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper. All games in the “Adventures” line are available for Windows, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper – which is available for Windows and the Xbox 360 – and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes – which is available for Windows, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Frogwares also released a title for the NintendoDS in 2010, Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Osborne House, which—while featuring Holmes and Watson—does not appear to be a part of the studio’s “Adventures” series, as it is more of a casual puzzle game than a fully-plotted and complex exploit.

Now time for a startling confession: I’m not coordinated. Clutch your pearls, I know. I exhibit remarkable deficiencies in both depth perception and peripheral vision. Any command that requires more than, say, two buttons to be pushed at the same time is something that I simply will not be able to execute. Once Nintendo advanced beyond its initial “sidescroller” format, I was utterly lost. My husband once convinced me to try my hand at a game of “Halo” with him, only to get frustrated because I couldn’t find my way out of whatever room I was dropped into, or kept falling off whatever vehicle I climbed aboard. The games in the Frogwares “Adventures” line, however, are simply made for someone like me. Someone without any physical dexterity to speak of, but who is instead very, very patient and who enjoys a good story just as much as a good game.

Another day, another grave to unearth.
Wait, what?
(Photo Credit:

And the Frogwares games are brilliant in no small way because of their remarkable storytelling. The plotlines are intense, the scenes viscerally compelling, and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is no exception. After opening with a brief scene in which three small children find a manuscript hidden in the attic of an old cottage, the game begins with Sherlock Holmes retrieving a lost necklace (and thereby introducing the player to the basics of gameplay). It is soon revealed, however, that the necklace returned by Holmes is nothing but a brilliant forgery, and the Detective is the prime suspect in the deception. Over the course of the game, the crimes become more and more sinister and violent, and Sherlock Holmes’s behavior becomes more and more unpredictable and suspect. As gameplay switches between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (and for a brief period, every Sherlockian’s favorite canine, Toby), the player watches as Watson’s faith in his remarkable friend is slowly diminished by the Detective’s increasing madness, dubious behavior, and uncharacteristically volatile temperament. For those who have played other games in the series, the plot of Testament builds somewhat on the plot of Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, but it is not at all necessary to have completed the previous installment in order to understand the latest one.

Thank goodness this wasn't Baker Street.
Mrs. Hudson would have been so mad.
(Photo Credit:

Both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are rendered wonderfully in the game, with superb voice acting (despite Holmes’s remonstrations for every incorrect puzzle, which often made me doubt my abilities to perform even the simplest tasks) and careful artistic detail. The Holmes character appears to be inspired by Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone – although apparently slightly more weathered versions of the actors. And there is more than a little bit of David Burke in the Frogwares rendition of Dr. Watson (with all of Edward Hardwicke’s put-upon longsuffering intact). In addition, the game-board is immense. The city of London is expansive, with its varying locales and points of interest available for exploration. The Baker Street setting is filled with lovingly crafted minutiae. The game feels like a journey, rather than a trudge through a series of continuously repeating scenes, only slightly differing from one to the next. But, to be warned, the game is also violent, while the player does not actually perform any of the violence. The game is largely puzzle-based, but the investigations are gory. There is quite a bit of close examination of mutilated body parts, grotesquely disfigured corpses, filthy sewers and unsettling abandoned funfairs. It is atmospheric in the way any of the original stories might be.

A would-be King of England, previously speaking to a theater full of
mannequins dressed as "subjects," now threatens Watson with a gun.
One of the game's saner moments. I'm not kidding.
(Photo Credit:

Without a doubt, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes engenders compulsive and obsessive play. Not because there is a need to collect points or coins, to defeat another player, or unlock hidden achievements (although the latter is certainly a possibility on the Xbox platform), but because there is an uncontrollable need for the story to simply continue. The player is desperate for a conclusion to the plot, even as they are desperate for a solution to the diabolical puzzle with which they are currently presented (there is a particularly nasty one involving a word problem, a slew of zoo animals, and series of complex control options that still gives me night terrors). Without divulging any plot points, the conclusion of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes seems to indicate that this may be the final installment in the Frogwares series of Sherlock Holmes games, at least chronologically – although I certainly don’t know that definitively. It’s always a joy to see Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson come to life, and this particular format is a unique way to experience their lives in an interactively. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes tests the parameters of the Sherlockian universe – in a literal, if somewhat limited way – and finds that the universe is more than a little bit pliable, with the potential for a little more immersion.

You have been warned.


Vist Frogwares’s site dedicated to its line of Sherlock Holmes games, including The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, here.

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