Just about every video game lets us play as characters that are stronger, faster, and often better looking than us. But it’s much rarer that a game lets us be someone smarter. When players step into a game, they bring in their mind and leave behind their body, so it’s much easier to alter the latter than the former. The Testament of Sherlock Holmes makes a good attempt to turn the player into a lean, mean, deducting machine, but even if the game weren’t hampered by a number of inexplicably terrible tangents, Frogwares still hasn’t quite cracked the case of the genius avatar.
From the very first case, the game makes clear that it’s as enamored with Holmes the Victorian superhero as with Holmes the masterful logician, and its strongest aspect is its gleeful evocation of the buttoned-up insanity of 19th-century serial fiction. Psychotic laborers, tattoo-covered sailors, opium dens, yellow journalists, and gory yet rational murder all feature prominently in the story, as well as more realistic evocations of the grinding squalor, stuffy thoughtfulness, and scientific optimism that characterized the era and its entertainments. Once you get past the freakiest looking children in video-game history, the presentation is also quite nice, with some lovely graveyards, churches, and well-appointed sitting rooms nicely evoking the wood and stone of confident imperial England.
Unfortunately, there’s often a conflict between the game’s desire to tell a surprising story and its commitment to logical puzzle-solving. While the game admirably avoids the bizarre moon logic that makes so many inventory-driven puzzle games exercises in FAQ-searching, it’s still set in a world where it’s more logical to conclude that a locked room was burgled by a trained monkey than the guy with the key. The frequent use of the deduction board is a nice way to integrate Holmesian examination of the facts into gameplay, but the player is too often forced into amused induction instead of rational deduction, often based on what’s most entertaining rather than what’s most logical.
Still, there are worse things for a game to be than entertaining. When The Testament of Sherlock Holmes focuses on walking the player through a ripping yarn, it can be a lot of fun, like a less solemn Heavy Rain. Frogwares went all-out with a characterization of Holmes as a slightly sociopathic savant, leading to a nifty endgame where the player takes over as a Watson growing alienated from Holmes; it’s a nice way of literalizing generations of readers’ shameful secret identification with Watson as he gapes in awe at how unlike us Sherlock really is.
Unfortunately, the old-time adventure is too often stopped dead by busywork that will make you feel like a street urchin dragooned into a textile factory. There’s way too many moments when the player is tasked with walking across the room, getting a book, and bringing it back, or in one particularly egregious section, strolling through the world as a faithful but agonizingly slow hound. Wandering around a location looking for clues is a little tedious but appropriate to the fantasy; the frequent Professor Layton-style puzzles needed to open just about every container in the game are fiction-breaking yet enjoyable, but the tedious color-tallying of the chemistry minigame and the exceedingly frequent “go here, get that” tasks are just plain boring.
If you’re a serious Holmes devotee, you’ll find a lot to like in this game. Frogwares did a solid job of telling a story that takes the characters in new directions while recreating a world that’s fun for fans. Devotees of classic adventure games are also likely to enjoy many of the puzzles and mysteries, and overlook some of the game-play tedium. But it’s not quite compelling enough to be recommended for those players who don’t feel a deep erotic quiver at the very sound of an English accent. Assuming, of course, that such people exist.