The latest Sherlock Holmes adventure from Frogwares does not, fortunately, have anything to do with Jonny Lee Miller or Lucy Liu.
Frogwares has been making Sherlock Holmes games for a decade, although unless you keep up with PC games, you might not be familiar with them. However, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes finds a home on the 360 and the PS3, and for an enticing MSRP of $40. Reviewing the 360 version this past week, I've had a pretty enjoyable time even though the game makes me feel like an idiot pretty regularly.
The overall plot in Testament revolves around increasing criminal events and evidence that makes Sherlock Holmes out to be the prime suspect. With the Scotland Yard and even Watson beginning to question if Holmes is guilty, it's up to you to help the detective clear his name and find the true source of evil. Gameplay mechanics and controls are straight-forward, with each case or scene involving some mixture of dialogue, hunting and examining clues, solving puzzles, and interpreting facts. An introductory case with Holmes deducing the events leading up to the attempted theft of a priceless necklace get things started, but soon after Holmes begins investigating the brutal murder of a bishop.
Handling this particular case puts most of Testament's gameplay on show. NPC conversations, hunting for clues, puzzles, and putting it all together are what you can expect. As a fan of adventure games and mysteries, that sounded good to me, but what I noticed with Testament time and again was that I found myself stuck and confused as to what the game wanted me to do next. There is often very little guidance, and Watson is generally useless, too. On multiple occasions when I had Holmes approach him for feedback, his only response was to ask Holmes what he thought about it all. Unfortunately, there was no 'punch your assistant button...'
Anyway, locating clues is pretty easy thank to Holmes' superior skills. You can press LT to reveal interactive objects in the area so you don't have to hunt too thoroughly like some adventure games I've played in years past. You can even get puzzle hints (although strangely, these aren't always correct) with LT which has a cooldown mechanic of about ten seconds. On Normal difficulty (it's either that or Hard), you can even Skip some puzzles entirely, which the game offers up quickly. More than once I had wished for more guidance, some kind of feedback, rather than an un-fulfilling escape key. Achievements are tied to actually solving puzzles too, so heads up.
In between puzzles, when you are exploring areas, Holmes' own feedback is usually less than helpful. A locked door, for example, that you know must be opened at some point isn't given much thought by Holmes until you have triggered the proper events. In other words, the game doesn't really allow you much freedom or ability to waiver from the plan, or script. Oh and don't forget to stop and save often; the game warns you often enough that it does not have any kind of autosave feature, a clear sign that this is a port of a PC game.
One major element of Testament is the Deduction Board, which is cool, but may be what makes or breaks this game for some folks. In each case, Watson notes down various facts and from these facts, it's up to you to deduce their meanings, and relations. So picture a vertical list of facts. From these, multiple choice deductions are presented to the right, and it's these that tie the facts together. With multiple facts and choices, it's a very lengthy and foreboding process to try and guess your way through, and for that I credit Frogwares because it forces you to try and make sense of the clues. This can be agonizing as so many options seem correct, but for those that prefer this sort of deliberate, thinking-man's adventure, it can work well. Still, as with the puzzles, I felt lost pretty regularly, but that may be as much on my apparent poor deduction skills as the game. Clues are hidden within conversations and text transcripts, or even subtly hidden in the environment, but suffice it to say after so many wrong attempts, I reluctantly resorted to Youtube videos to figure out what I was missing. Fortunately, you can be wrong as much as you "want" without penalty, but when you're stuck, you don't really have anywhere to go or anything to do but get unstuck.
As a fan of the old point and click adventures from Lucasarts and Sierra, I'm finding Testament to be a stout challenge. A challenge is fine, but what bothers me is all of the brick walls I hit. I'm sure a lot of it is on me and not understanding what the game is looking for in the puzzles and deductions, but the game could be doing a better job of communicating with the player and providing some feedback, too. As is, I'm intrigued by the story and characters, but the enjoyment of playing is severely tempered.
Despite all of that, Testament still gets a lot right and it's not a 'bad game,' although it isn't necessarily great either. The overall plot and the cases are interesting as are the environments that Holmes and Watson explore. The game is rated M and rightfully so given the grisly nature of some of the cases, and I think that mature theme fits the old time London setting and the tone of traditional Holmes nicely. The graphics present all of this well -- not AAA quality nice, but very nice nonetheless. Voiceovers, effects, and the subtle soundtrack are good, although Holmes' appearance and voice (and/or dialogue) come across as more arrogant than what I imagine him as being. For as troublesome as the puzzles and deductions can be, solving them can also be a real treat. And for as dumb as I felt during some of the puzzles and deductions, I felt satisfaction when I got things right quickly. Anytime a game can toy with your emotions, and it's not all just frustration, that's a good thing.
With that, to the summary...