"I think that I had better go, Holmes."
"Not a bit, Doctor. Stay where you are. I am lost without my Boswell"
"A Scandal in Bohemia"
Okay, so maybe blogs on Japanese detective fiction are a bit of a niche, so I shouldn't expect many more of them to just pop up. But what about something on detective games? Not just from the 'traditional' game reviewer's point of view, but also as a piece of detective fiction? Please?
The actions of Sherlock Holmes have not always been clear to John H. Watson, despite having worked many years with the illustrious detective. Sometimes things only make sense if you have a highly analytical mind like Holmes himself. But lately, Holmes' actions have seemed not only strange, but outright suspicious to Watson. The newspapers also seem to suggest that Mr. Holmes of Baker Street isn't all he seems: they seem to have evidence that proves that some of Holmes' best cases, were in fact set up by Holmes himself and that threats, blackmail and even murder aren't uncommon for him. Watson naturally does not want to believe the newspapers, but during the dynamic duo's investigation of the brutal murder on a Bishop, the good doctor can't but see that Holmes is indeed acting very strange, and he can only watch as his greatest fear slowly becomes true in the adventure game The Testament of Sherlock Holmes.
I reviewed Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes and the Silver Earring in March: The Testament of Sherlock Homes is the most recent entry in their longrunning series with Holmes. Previous Holmes games featured crossovers with Chtulhu, Arsene Lupin and Jack the Ripper, but Testament is a pure Holmesian affair. I have to admit though, after the grim reality of Sherlock Holmes VS Jack the Ripper, the plot surrounding the The Testament is a bit farfetched and slightly non-Holmes-like, with very exotic poisons and a rather explosive endgame, and there are some bad scene transitions and plot points left open at the end, but it is overall quite captivating, I have to admit.
The biggest problem of the game however, is that the developers didn't seem to be able to make up how to implement both Holmes and Watson. In the novels/short stories (except for those two), the role of Watson is clear: he is the narrator, and serves to give the reader a look at Holmes from the outside. Through Watson, we see Holmes making enigmatic utterances about dogs that don't bark and for who knows for what reason walking around measuring rooms, making him the more mysterious, and more impressive when he explains what happened.
In Frogwares' games however, you're usually controlling Holmes, even though the story is narrated by Watson. It's a very strange gap between narration, and actual point of view and it results in a very shizophrenic experience. The Silver Earring had the same problem (only a lot more extreme), where you're controlling Holmes to gather evidence, but you are not Holmes: the character of Holmes makes his own deductions seperate from the player, and actually withholds information from both Watson, and the player! So the game tries to accomplish two things at the same time: allow the player to 'be' Holmes, while at the same time being able to surprise the player with one of Holmes' genius deductions. But it feels so strange, because it is only achieved by dividing the player interaction in the two categories of narrative point of view, and gameplay-wise point of view. Most of the time, Holmes decides to go somewhere without informing Watson (the player point of view), then the player controls Holmes doing whatever without any explanation as to why, and then afterwards, Holmes (might) explain to Watson (once again, the player) what they just did.
Takumi Shuu correctly noted that the above two points, surprising the player, as well as allowing the player become a genius detective, are hard to accomplish within a game. His Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series therefore does not have a genius detective, and is more focused on short bursts of tht feeling where the player suddenly figures out everything.
There are some instances in Testament where you control Watson, but most of them are very tedious and meaningless jobs. There are instances where you first control Holmes, then ask Watson to get a book five meters away, after which you control Watson. You get the book, give it to Holmes, and the player control returns to Holmes. Useless perspective switches which don't add to the experience.
And that is a shame, because there are many instances where this could have implemented much better, especially as the story focuses on Watson's suspicions of Holmes. Early in the game, Holmes and Watson split up, and Holmes (accidently) causes a death. Watson arrives later and can't help but wonder what happened there (and this only helps his suspicion grow). But the players knows it was accidental, because he controlled Holmes up to that moment. Had the player controlled Watson and only seen the result, then the suspicion would be grounded. As it is now, it's just bad story-telling.
Another unsolved problem of The Silver Earring are the logic puzzles. Apparently, everybody in London used complex IQ puzzles to lock their belongings at the turn of the previous century, instead of just lock and key. Hidden love letters? Hidden in a chess puzzle. Vault? Locked with a Queens Problem. Little box with stuff for work? IQ puzzles. In the Professor Layton games, it is part of the setting to have puzzles literally everywhere ('oh, that reminds me of a puzzle'), but for a game striving to recreate 19th century London, these puzzles feel extremely artifical.
Is it all bad? No, actually, it is not. I might seem very negative about The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, but I actually quite enjoyed it. When it's doing things right, it's really doing things right. There are some deduction scenes where you gather evidence, and then have to logically combine the things you saw/heard, to arrive at a conclusion. While easy, these scenes really put you in the feet of a great detective logically figuring things out. One part in particular is very good, where you deduce what a man did in a room, by looking at the state of the room itself.
The atmosphere is also fantastic. Frogwares has been working for many years with the Sherlock Holmes title, and have archieved two things: they managed to replicate the world through attention to detail. Walking the streets of Whitechapel, really feels like walking through the streets of Whitechapel. 221b Street? Little details like VR shot in the wall, or a photograph of the woman in Holmes' night stand are not neccessary from a gamewise point of view, but add so much to the Holmes feel. But Frogwares has also introduced a slew of interesting locations and places to their Holmes world in the last few years, and while we don't have visit our favorite bookshops Barnes, we see some familiar faces in Whitechapel (from Sherlock Holmes VS Jack the Ripper) that really give us the feeling that this is indeed a coherent world.
The Testament of Sherlock Holmes is a decent game, and quite fun for Holmes fans. The overall design, from story to world view, is great, but it is the transition to game that doesn't always work that well. The split between narration point of view, and gameplay point of view (=Holmes vs. Watson) just doesn't work out that well and many puzzles feel very artificial. Frogwares' newest Holmes game, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, is scheduled for next year and I hope they manage to smooth out these problems.