After releasing a new Sherlock Holmes game every second year or so for the last fifteen years, the Ukrainian developer Frogwares gave the busy detective a well-deserved rest after the release of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil's Daughter back in 2016. Instead, they tried their hand at another classical author with The Sinking City; a game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
The Sinking City was the first time the developer experimented with true open world investigation, and while it had a few hiccups, it was in my opinion a truly remarkable experience perhaps only bested in its particular genre by L.A. Noire. In their upcoming adventure, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, you once again explore every corner of a relatively large open world, but instead of the dreary and decaying Oakmont, this time you get to visit the sunny Mediterranean island of Cordona. I was lucky enough to get a spare ticket, so I packed my bags and travelled with Sherlock and his new companion Jon to this interesting new place filled with murder and intrigue. But that wasn't my only travel companions, as I also got to speak with the game's Creative Director, Sergei Chervonnyi.
The preview build starts with a young Sherlock arriving at the port and checking in at a luxurious hotel. Sherlock actually grew up on the island (in this version of the Sherlock timeline at least) and he has travelled there to say a final goodbye to his deceased mother. This is a sort of origin story for the character, hence Chapter One: "The name represents that this is the start of Sherlock's story. The unwritten chapter that tells how Sherlock started down his path to become the world-famous detective we all know," Sergei Chervonnyi tells.
Within minutes of your arrival, the young and unknown Sherlock gets his first chance to prove himself, as he stumbles upon a murder mystery. A spiritual séance has gone horribly wrong, and both the con artist behind the spectacle and the victim's husband are among the suspects.
To find the culprit you need to examine clues, question witnesses, and make deductions in the "Mind Palace" - a staple of the series. But this being Sherlock Holmes, you of course also have some additional tools. You can enter a concentration mode to reveal hidden clues, or you can scan people for the tiniest details only a master detective can observe. There are some extra tools such as the ability to highlight all objects you can interact with or receive a notification if you are missing a clue, but these are purely optional, and you can disable them if you prefer a more authentic experience.
Sherlock Holmes: Crime and Punishment introduced a mechanic where it was possible to make the wrong deductions and ultimately condemn an innocent person. The first case in the preview was expertly crafted, and it was a huge relief when the suspect, I had chosen to accuse, finally admitted to his deeds. But even then, I still had a choice to make as I could decide whether the criminal faced justice or should be allowed to escape. "The law on Cordona is not black and white, just like in real life. Sometimes people do 'wrong' for the right reasons. These choices will also have some ripple effects onto other characters and how they see you," explains the creative director.
After solving the first case, I was allowed to explore the island freely. This is an early build, and so there were some glitches and wonky NPC's, but overall, the island looked beautiful with dusty sunbaked streets, detailed houses, and some beautiful lighting effects that helped create a great sense of atmosphere. And while the setting is new, the creative director promises we will also meet some familiar faces along the way.
With The Sinking City Frogwares proved they are able to create interesting, living worlds with a budget that is no way near that of their open world rivals. It feels even better this time around, as Cordona is an amazing melting pot of beautiful vistas and colourful characters from all over the world. During my brief visit I met uniformed British colonial workers, Kurds and Egyptians in local garments, French aristocrats who wouldn't even bother to look at me, and much more besides.
How do I know all these characters nationalities, you may ask? Well, it's actually quite elementary, as Sherlock have a brand-new ability that let him quickly scan people. It works a bit like in Watch Dogs, but of course the great detective doesn't need to hack into people's database to know their every secret. Instead, he just examines their face, clothes, bruises, and such, and he is instantly able to tell, not only their nationality, but also personal quirks such as if a person suffers from insomnia or have a drinking problem. Sherlock's ability to not only judge a book by its cover, but also to read it, so to speak, is one of the detective's most iconic abilities, and it is great to see it implemented in such a clever way.
Sherlock Holmes has never been a character with much psychological depth, but this game aims to change that, explains Sergei Chervonnyi: "It's not just a vaguely connected story at the end that gives you some meagre pay off like 'And that kids is why Sherlock likes solving crimes. Goodnight.' Not at all," says the game director. "With Chapter One we're digging into very specific things that define him - like how he became so fascinated with the violin, his signature dress style or even his addiction to drugs."
As mentioned, you are on a personal quest to make amends with the past, and you are accompanied by your best friend Jon. No, it is not his normal partner in crime John Watson, but instead a brand-new character designed by Frogwares. You quickly realise that Sherlock's relationship with this character is beyond complicated, and during my two hours with the preview, I couldn't really decide if I found Jon a compelling character or a major annoyance. Like the infamous teleporting Watson in one of Frogwares' early games, he always shows up nearby and is ready to give some advice (or more often a snarky comment). But once thing is certain. Jon is going to play a prominent part in both the gameplay and the story, so hopefully I will warm to him.
The preview ends on a major cliff hanger, and I already can't wait to explore further once the full game releases. There is still a lot I haven't seen, and most notably I didn't get to try the revamped combat mechanics that seems to be a major focus point this time around. Technical issues and the combat were the most glaring shortcomings of The Sinking City, so hopefully Frogwares has improved the game a lot in these areas. That being said, leaving foggy London behind for a bit and instead exploring this fascinating island filled with hidden wonders and political tensions could be just what the series needed.