The Sherlock Holmes series has gone on for quite a while and quietly pumped out new entries over the years. Steadily, it's grown more and more ambitious with each title and Sherlock Holmes Chapter One may be developer Frogwares' most ambitious title yet. While the series attempts to break into a more modern-day gameplay loop, it somehow feels as though it's still got its foot firmly stuck in the past. For everything that works, it's accompanied by something that doesn't, constantly roadblocking an otherwise enjoyable experience.
Sherlock Holmes Chapter One acts as an origin story to the titular character. There's no Watson, and any other iconic elements players may associate with the character are not always present. However, Holmes is not alone, accompanied by his bubbly imaginary friend Jon, who he can bounce off throughout the game's narrative. More so than any other Sherlock Holmes game in the series, it's a more personal story and gives Holmes a bit more personality than other entries.
While the main story is engaging, how it's presented is where the main crux of the problem lies. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One takes place on the island of Cordona, marking a change for the series in a huge open-world setting. Despite other games that adopt this method, there's no map filled with objective markers and instead, players have to decipher where they need to go via their casebook. Handy hints pinpoint where you need to go, allowing you to drop a waypoint on the map. It's a clever tool that allows players to feel part of the mystery, while not exactly being challenging tasks in their own right.
The problem is this sensibility ties into the whole game. There's never any direct indication of where the player needs to go, which would be fantastic if it didn't feel as though the answer was clear to the developers and no one else. You're never truly directed on where to go and are required to check your casebook for clues as to what to investigate with symbols hinting what that may be. These could range from investigating an area or talking to certain people. While it allows the player to discover things for themselves, there are far too many instances where you're roadblocked with nowhere to go.
When it works, it feels great and you honestly feel like Sherlock Holmes himself, piecing together a mystery, but as mentioned, far too many instances where that isn't the case appear. The open world ultimately feels pretty pointless, as it's nothing more than an obstruction for what the game excels in - investigations. It doesn't help that exploring Cordona is plagued with technical issues. Texture pop-in, characters glitching and a truly awful framerate that is all over the shop. It ultimately makes us wonder why this was included in the first place.
It does serve some additional purposes. You can visit traders to purchase items for your house and buy new disguises that can be used to interact with certain members of the public. Sometimes you may need to ask around for clues in specific areas, and if you're looking wealthy in a poor area, they won't discuss anything with you. Again, it's an interesting mechanic, but just becomes an annoyance when you're desperately attempting to progress the plot forward.
If the main story is stumping you, there are also side cases you can stumble across throughout Cordana which offer bite-sized narratives to complete. These range from tracking down someone's missing violin to a vampire-related mystery. They add a bit of fun to Sherlock Holmes Chapter One and all feel unique and engaging in their own right. There are even some hidden treasures to find around the map if you so desire.
It's not all searching for clues and investigating, as Sherlock Holmes Chapter One adds gunplay to inject a bit of energy into the gameplay. These sections are regulated to combat arenas - or Bandit Lairs scattered across the map - and are pretty barebones in their execution. Time slows down when aiming and you can hit a weak point to stagger an enemy to arrest them. If you want to, you can also kill them outright - which Jon disproves of - but it never really results in anything other than a simple interaction between the two characters.
There are a lot of things to admire in Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, and when it works, it all comes together in a fantastic new way. Unfortunately, there are far too many instances of clues that perhaps made sense to the team that made it, but not the player. Just when you start finding your stride, a roadblock appears as you struggle to figure out your next steps. The jump to an open-world setting ultimately feels unnecessary and adds to the confusion. Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is not a bad game at all, but the experimental gameplay feels like a missed opportunity that a sequel could perhaps refine.