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The Testament of Sherlock Holmes review: Trust your instincts


The Sherlock Holmes franchise has seen a modern reclamation of pop culture fame, in the blockbuster movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law; the British television series gaining Dr. Who levels of popularity overseas, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; and the latest re-imagining by CBS, with a female Watson played by Lucy Liu, and Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes.

Any Sherlock Holmes rendering now has, we can assume, at least one point of reference for any audience member – and if asked to equate one person with the series, most would likely say, "That guy who plays Iron Man" before "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle." Frogwares' The Testament of Sherlock Holmes now has to live up to this robust world of preconceptions, tell an old story in a unique way, and throw in engaging gameplay, beautiful graphics, smooth dialogue and spot-on voice acting.

If that sounds like too much to ask for, it is.

Gallery: The Testament of Sherlock Holmes (8/23/12) | 4 Photos

Frogwares has the added task of living up to (and surpassing) its own work in the Holmesian universe, with five games dating back to 2002 under its belt, the last being a dark gore-fest centering on Jack the Ripper's murders. Frogwares knows the lore, it understands adventure games and it has been doing this for a long time, which is why it's so disappointing to find fundamental problems in The Testament of Sherlock Holmes.

The gameplay is clunky. The Testament offers three options: First-person, third-person or point-and-click style, and all of them have similar shortcomings when carrying out the most pivotal action of the game, finding and piecing together clues.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes review Trust your instincts
Holmes has a "Sixth Sense" ability (no, not that Sixth Sense, although he often sees dead people) that uncovers all of the interactive clues in his field of vision. The Sixth Sense dings, clicks and rattles like a rattlesnake. I didn't know what those noises meant at first – and they weren't explained – but eventually I figured it out. The ding indicates Sixth Sense is recharged, the click means there's nothing to find on-screen and a rattle points to a clue, which is then highlighted with a hovering magnifying glass or hand. For the first few rounds, I thought the ding meant I'd found something and the rattle meant I was about to enter an Old West saloon. (My innate detective skills had no trouble discerning the meaning of the click).

Once that system is settled, we have item management to deal with. There is no way to view all of the items at once during gameplay. Rather, you scroll through the items in the top right corner, one by one. To peruse the inventory you must open the menu and then the briefcase. This isn't difficult to do, but it mirrors a lack of intuition that mars the entire game – every action takes one step more than it should.

Rather than being reminded of my inventory with an in-game list, I often forgot which items I had picked up, or became frustrated when assuming an acquired item had automatically been equipped, only to find that my scroll list had defaulted back to the blank spot. Again, scrolling through the inventory doesn't take long, as Holmes only holds a handful of items at a time, but this is a step that could have been removed entirely. The mystery should lie in the puzzles, not the gameplay.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes review Trust your instincts
Being yanked from the riddles gave me more time to focus on the dialogue and voice acting, which is not a saving grace. If a game has to begin with a grand exposition from a legendary character like Sherlock Holmes, the voice acting has to carry a cadence at least more interesting than the last Holmesian show the audience watched. "Standard British gentleman" doesn't cut it. (Bizarrely, The Testament's Sherlock also bears an uncanny resemblance to Lord Blackwood, the villain from the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film, which is all sorts of confusing.)

Once we get past the actual process of getting to the puzzles, they truly are exciting. The various boxes to unlock, chemical analyses and corpse dissections are well-constructed and exhilarating to solve. The deduction board adds an extra layer of sleuthing to each mystery and is a joy to work through.

In its initial form, the deduction board stores Watson's record of the events, with major discoveries plotted out and connected by Holmes' deductions. The player is provided the basic circumstances, and then must choose from a list of possibilities, mapping out a the most logical progression until the whole thing goes green and you get a warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart. The board emphasizes the thought, reasoning and subtlety of Holmes' conclusions, something that is absent from other parts of the game.

The Kensington Gardens mystery aptly demonstrates this collection of clunk and satisfying riddles: Holmes and Watson must investigate a backyard before gaining entry to the house, attempting to uncover the intentions of people caught lurking in the greenery. The initial search for items is captivating as I pick up a spade and a rake, find the trespassers' hiding spot, note the landlady's rudimentary alarm system and gather plenty of information – but it's not enough. I'm missing something, apparently, and I can't enter the house. I scour the garden for clues again.

And then I search again.

And again.

And again.

By the seventh search, I'm clicking the Sixth Sense button manically, spinning in all directions like a lunatic with a vertigo fetish. I'm convinced this is a bug, that the game has glitched and I'll be trapped staring at this patch of grass for the rest of the game. In desperation, I turn to the internet for answers.

The Testament of Sherlock Holmes review Trust your instincts
It's a stupid answer, it turns out. The Sixth Sense mechanic doesn't catch the missing item until I'm in just the right spot, looking in just the right direction. I then have to equip the correct item – taking a few steps longer than it should – and grab the clue, only to hear a few seconds of contrived dialogue. Looking back, I feel as if I should have seen the item sooner, but "should" doesn't always translate to reality in adventure games, as Frogwares well knows.

Strange spots are fine and hidden objects are dandy, but this frustrating lack of intuition – even regarding the game's own "help" systems – is infuriating. This item was placed as if the Easter Bunny got tired of hiding eggs, snorted a handful of cocaine and went wild in the Kensington Gardens, leaving me to pick up the haphazard pieces.

I find myself wishing that The Testament of Sherlock Holmes were more like a Professor Layton game than a free-roaming adventure, since the puzzles are where the game truly succeeds. The dialogue, story, voice acting and gameplay fall flat. The deduction board offers one of the simplest mechanics it the game, and that simplicity makes it effective. The rest of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes could have learned something from the deduction board – apart from who murdered the Bishop of Knightsbridge, that is.

This review is based on a final PC version of The Testament of Sherlock Holmes provided by Frogwares.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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