Review: The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a frustrating acquired taste
The Sherlock Holmes series of hardcore puzzle adventure games has been hit-or-miss over the years, serving up decadent homespun tales involving the vigilant hero with ease but dumbing down the experience with awkward animations, obtuse puzzles, and bizarre design disasters. I took the plunge for the very first time with the atrocious Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper only a couple years ago, and was met with a rancid concoction of all of the above, cooked into an adventure that did little to entice me to continue. But I'd like to think we're older now, both developer Frogwares and myself, and so I returned to the Sherlock Holmes mythos with an open mind and renewed sense of wonder, and darned if I wasn't disappointed yet again.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes has a promising beginning, weaving a brand new tale to entrance superfans rather than revisiting a page from one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's many pre-written Sherlock stories. This time around, the seemingly indomitable Holmes is in a spot of trouble. He once again saves the day, recovering a stolen set of jewels. When word gets out in the newspaper that the jewels were actually counterfeit, the writer of the article turns an accusing finger at Holmes, suggesting that the master detective himself actually stole the jewels, replacing the returned set with fakes to reap the benefits.
Of course, the whole of London must subscribe to the theory that everything they read must be true, and thus the country's confidence in Sherlock is shaken. Even Watson, companion and sidekick, begins to question Holmes' motives, which seemed ludicrous to me -- after spending all those years at his side. In any case, the public has now turned against Sherlock, and it's up to the now infamous detective to get to the bottom of the situation while solving a multitude of cases along the way.
That's where you come in. You'll perform the greatest puzzle-solving feats and work out some embarrassingly intricate dilemmas to restore integrity to the Holmes name -- and that's just the beginning. You'll be exploring a variety of environments (gorgeously rendered, insanely detailed, I might add) across the cases you find yourself assigned to, collecting pieces of evidence and solving the mysteries before you. Scouring scenes for evidence can be quite frustrating on its own. Luckily, the build in "sixth sense" that belongs to Holmes seems to help when it comes to scouting out key evidence. It will highlight everything you may interact with per scene, including key acquaintances and other items you may need to examine. If you're familiar with L.A. Noire, it's quite similar, until you actually need to put your puzzle-solving skills to good use.
What makes this entry (and many of the rest of the games in the series) so frustrating is the fact that any and all progress you make must stem from your own ingenuity. There is no helping hand. You will not receive hints from NPCs to ensure you get back on the right path. If you can't figure out how, why, when, or what to do when it comes to solving a puzzle, then you're simply out of luck. If there are no strategy guides around for immediate use, you will be stranded where you are in-game until a lightbulb goes off in your head or the solution comes to you in a dream. The game has a cult following, so it's certain you'll be able to consult the internet for a solution, but the best puzzle games out there give you the tools and the guidance you need to make progress rather than pushing you to pull a solution out of thin air.
Fortunately, logic puzzles that appear in the form of the deduction board and the system Holmes and Watson use to determine the killer’s modus operandi offer some more challenging and easy to understand fun. They are the most interesting parts of the adventure in that you feel quite accomplished having deducted the “correct” answers via notes in your journal and previous conversations, and a part of the game that’s done well. The only downside to using the deduction board is the fact that some players may simply tire of being forced to put their reasoning skills through the wringer. It's tough stuff, and despite my familiarity with the series I still found myself frustrated and confused halfway through the adventure.
Do know, though, that the majority of your time in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is spent going back and forth from venues you’ve visited far too many times before and have little desire to actually return to. The incessant backtracking effortlessly rears its ugly head to further mangle this adventure. As previously stated you may travel from one area to another via map, but some require a bit of wandering to uncover, or unclear directions given to you from characters you’ve spoken to.
Without gameplay marring it further, Testament actually looks fantastic; a noticeable improvement over the previous series installments. Animations still feel wonky and unsettling at times and the looping background music would have worked much better muted (as I tended to do later on in the game), but at the very least environments and even character models have a much more believable look to them -- and that's a start.
At the very least it's easy to see a lot of love went into making the puzzler aesthetically appealing. I can't say the same for the varying quality of the voice cast or occasionally hammy lines, but Frogwares placed emphasis on the game's look and that's admirable, but it doesn't exactly improve on what makes the game so frustrating.
Perhaps the intention was to attract crowds who legitimately think and behave like Sherlock Holmes in terms of problem-solving and outlook on situations such as these, or perhaps Frogwares realizes there's a niche for near-impossible puzzles and an audience to lap them up like masochists. Either way, a game like this is really an acquired taste. It could have been a vast improvement over the previous games, but relying on the same archaic machinations isn't going to do this. Pass on this puzzler unless you're jonesing for some hardcore frustration.