Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective has experienced quite the resurgence over the past decade. In addition to multiple television shows and movies, Sherlock Holmes has also enjoyed moderate success in the video game world. 2009’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper was generally well-received and gave adventure aficionados a chance to play a thoughtful, challenging, intelligent title. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is essentially a sequel and the first such adventure to arrive on the PlayStation 3. Flex those mental muscles…?
Graphically, the latest effort is a definite step up. Previous installments looked considerably dated and even suffered from a few old-fashioned bugs and glitches that we don’t normally see these days. Testament cleans things up a bit and greatly enhances detail, character design, and environmental clarity. That all being said, the poor lip-syncing for the voices and rigid animations keeps the game from competing at a high visual level. In truth, this presentation is barely average. However, perhaps it isn’t fair to compare it to the heavy hitters with massive budgets, and we should remember that flashy effects aren’t a focal point.
The sound is solid, as we’ve got a classic, fitting soundtrack, surprisingly solid voice performances on the part of most major characters, and some light ambient effects that add to the overall immersion. Much like the visuals, the audio is subtle, as it should be. The music, while appropriate and even quite lovely at certain times, is never intrusive and the effects are never in-your-face; these are the opposite of explosive. Still, with lower production values, technical mishaps like an audio balancing issue are all too obvious. You just have to accept that the puzzle-solving takes center-stage, so being all anal about such drawbacks doesn’t make much sense.
For those who are unfamiliar, this is not a liberal spin on Doyle’s books, like the films with Robert Downey Jr. There are no guns, virtually no action, and no half-naked women who amazingly all want a piece of Holmes. Leave it to Hollywood to turn Sherlock into a gun-toting, fists-flying ladies man. No, Testament , like Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper , focuses squarely on the mystery, on being the master of observation and deduction. Therefore, some may find this game too slow, too ponderous, and too mentally taxing.
But for those who miss the old-fashioned point-and-click adventure titles of yesteryear, and those who want to test their problem-solving skills, this one has you covered. Holmes and his ever-present partner, Dr. Watson, must solve a series of complex crimes, some brutal in nature, some more mysterious and vague. The crime scenes vary greatly and linking each crime is an undercurrent of public suspicion. A columnist for the city newspaper continually accuses Holmes of being a fraud, of planting evidence, and even of being worse than the criminals he so ardently chases.
And in some respects, that columnist is right. Not about planting evidence, but about Sherlock’s amorality and his willingness to do whatever’s necessary to solve a case. He isn’t as caustic or arrogant as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock (and I wish he would be, because nobody has done it better to date, in my opinion), but he’s calmly determined. He’s not above threats and blackmail and as you progress, you start to wonder: “What won’t this guy do…?” But of course, all of this is secondary to the tasks at hand, which involve searching high and low for clues, meticulously analyzing the evidence, and drawing conclusions in your trusty notebook.
Control is fine, if a little awkward at first. It’s probably best to stick to the first-person view so you don’t have the slight tank controls to deal with; it’s also better for seeing certain parts of a crime scene. The puzzles and mysteries are intricate and well designed, but they’re not particularly well implemented. And this leads me to the biggest issue— I’m not a fan of hand-holding but one just feels too confused and frustrated when attempting to solve some of the puzzles. In some ways, the game is quite forgiving but in other ways, it’s infuriatingly restrictive and don’t offer much of anything in the way of help. In fact, excrutiatingly little.
It can be difficult to spot absolutely every clue, for instance. Then there are the facts you’ve gathered in your notebook, which lead to possible conclusions; there are three potential explanations but only one is correct. The problem is that you never know which one is right until the final solution is achieved. Furthermore, it’s not easy to figure out which of the three possibilities is correct because in all honesty, I often felt I didn’t have enough information. Then you factor in the confusing puzzles…look, it’s not that I don’t know how to solve them, it’s that I often have no idea how to even begin approaching them. I.e., “ What do you want me to do?”
If you screw it up enough times, you’re given the option to simply skip the puzzle and Holmes will solve it on his own, and you can move on. But why? Why not just give me one little hint? Why not just explain how I’m supposed to tackle the mystery? The only hint you might get is by pressing L2, which triggers Holmes’ special sixth sense of sorts; the game will point out a clue you’ve missed. But that’s all it does; it doesn’t help with any puzzles and if you try and ask Watson for help, most times he just says, “And what do you think, Holmes?” Gee, thanks, buddy.
I know I’m coming across as dense, and maybe I am. Maybe I just wasn’t getting it, and others will. I’m willing to concede that because while I can be exceedingly efficient at solving certain mysteries, others completely elude me from start to finish. And besides, one has to respect the level of depth and intricacy involved in this game’s puzzles. The style and atmosphere is another plus, and I liked the story as well. It feels a little bare-bones at times, but that’s mostly because we’re all a little spoiled by bigger-budget productions that are essentially movies come to life.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes will challenge you. It has clear technical issues and it can be awfully vague and frustrating, but it’s undoubtedly a must-try for adventure followers who miss the purity of older puzzle-based game. There’s a lot of reading (which I like), the mysteries can appear a little convoluted but they’re always entertaining and thought-provoking, and you’ll experience that ol’ familiar rush of satisfaction when finally solving a case. If you want a break from the hectic and edge-of-your-seat intensity found in the blockbusters, give your brain a chance to churn.
The Good: Well-written, nicely acted. Story is worth seeing through to the end. Complex mysteries that require all your attention. Simple and subtle with a focus on puzzle-solving. Success breeds hard-won fulfillment.
The Bad: Technical elements are subpar. Control isn’t always perfect. Inherent difficulty combined with little direction or assistance causes irritation.
The Ugly: “…okay, I have no idea how I’m supposed to do what you want me to do. Seriously.”