investigate in an Open World

During our interview with the developers of Frogwares, as you can read in the previous preview of Sherlock Holmes Chapter One, the team stressed that its purpose – and we quote verbatim – “is to never make the same game twice“. Considering that for some time the studio has been dealing with investigative productions and, above all, videogame transpositions inspired by the detective of Conan Doyle, we must admit that the company is not one of the most”elementary“And yet, it cannot be denied that the Ukrainian collective is committed to constantly vary, albeit in a far from radical way, the approach to its interactive experiences based on investigations and deductions.

After drawing on the Lovecraftian material with The Sinking City (here you can find our review of The Sinking City), Frogwares approaches again the works of Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes Chapter One: an episode intended to explore the young years of the great investigator, never explored in the stories and novels of the English writer. And what will the team have done to differentiate the play mechanics from those of the previous The Devil’s Daughter? The answer is twofold: on the one hand it has made the system that regulates investigations more elaborate, and on the other has broadened the scope of production by transforming it into an open world. We tried the first two hours of the new Sherlock Holmes adventure coming by the end of the year (on PC and on all consoles of the past and present generation), and we deduced that it could be a potentially very intricate “videogame thriller”. Just like the best cases of the Baker Street detective.

A young Holmes

Cordona is a fictional one Mediterranean island which represents an evocative encounter between different cultures: a small exotic paradise that, under the idyllic appearance, hides a rot made up of intrigue, classism and violence. As it happens, it is in this pleasant place that Sherlock Holmes was born, according to the reconstruction made by the boys of Frogwares.

We are in 1880, and our protagonist is not yet the detective empire we learned about in The Devil’s Daughter (want to know what we think of the game? The Sherlock Holmes The Devil’s Daughter review is just a click away): l investigator is a twenty-one with an immature character, yet gifted – as expected – with an out of the ordinary intuition. The desire to visit the grave of his mother Violet, who died years earlier, is an opportunity for Sherlock to return to his homeland accompanied by his childhood friend Jon, a namesake of that Watson that the detective would only meet much later. Together, the two will find themselves entangled in the twisted mysteries of the island, populated – predictably – by inhabitants of all types and social classes, many of whom have many secrets to hide. The visit to the maternal bedside is therefore only the starting point of a story that promises to be much more articulated than that of the previous episodes: although there will be cases of thefts and murders unrelated to the main mission, the impression is that Chapter One wants to be a more cohesive product compared to the team’s past work.

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Frogwares, on the other hand, intends to give shape to the “best open world detective game”, and to do so he sets up playful mechanics that do not guide the player to the resolution of cases, but rather leave him almost completely free to choose how to conduct the investigations. Clearly in the first two hours of the game, which act as a long tutorial, it is not possible to understand how much freedom is granted to the user, yet already in the very first cases we can see a greater complexity of the resolution mechanisms that leave us hopeful about the structure of the more investigations. advanced.

However, it should be noted that Sherlock (and therefore the player) will not really be completely left to himself: Jon is a companion often present on the scene, and every now and then he can give us some suggestions to guide us towards the correct choice to take, or offer us a different point of view on the situation.

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The relationship with his friend would seem to be one of the pillars of Chapter One’s framework, although at the moment it is not clear how much impact it will have on the unfolding of events: we know that Jon often chats with the protagonist, and that he notes in his diary both conversations with Sherlock and the progress of their relationship. At times it will also be possible to bet with our partner about the success of some deductions, including, for example, the ability or not to identify the right suspect at the first attempt. A sort of skill mini-game that, apparently, should not be an end in itself, but rather change the relationship between the two characters, with results yet to be discovered. It is very premature to be able to express oneself on the quality of the narrative component, but the preliminary impact allows us to predict a story with a broader breath, more intimate and psychological, the conclusion of which will vary, as per tradition, depending on the decisions made during the investigations.

More complex investigations

Frogwares’ approach with Chapter One consists of recovering the dynamic foundations of his previous titles and placing them in an open world context: in this way, the whole becomes more extensive and varied, and takes the definition of “global investigation“As in every other chapter of the series, once a case is accepted we will have to carefully observe the crime scene in search of clues, footprints and almost imperceptible details, then engage in conversations / interrogations with the other characters and try to formulate the correct hypothesis. to unravel the key to the problem.

Here, on this tendentially traditional structure, additional details are grafted, designed to make the investigations more stratified and less linear. In the course of our trial we were able to take part in only one main case and a secondary one, which – being among the first we will experiment – were quite contained in their possible outlets. In the main quest mission, on the other hand, there were only two potential culprits: we are hopeful that, with the continuation of the story, we will find ourselves faced with crimes with more variables to consider. Even with only two suspects, the tangle of the case presented a large number of evaluable details: as in any self-respecting investigative, the analysis of the environment is accompanied by the need to consider the various clues stolen from the dialogues and the possibility of eavesdropping on the conversations, not to mention the obligation to carefully scrutinize the details on the body of the characters and draw a behavioral profile, in the hope that it is as correct as possible. Sherlock’s different ways of viewing allow us to probe the territory with greater or lesser accuracy, and given the amount of elements on the screen and the extent of the crime scene, it is not at all obvious that some details will be stolen by our watchful eye.

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The case we took part in was set in a large hotel, split over several floors, and asked us to investigate first a theft during a séance, and then a murder. The skill of the writers of Frogwares, at least in this first investigation, has made sure that the motives of the two suspects did not appear too obvious. To make the experience more immersive, the team has also set up different degrees of difficulty, which add or remove, depending on your preferences, the icons for the objects to interact with, the notifications for the progress of the investigations and other details related to the minigames. (like that of chemical analysis).

By doing so, the user has the right to decide whether to experience an investigative adventure in which to rely only on his intuition and his memory, or to resort to some help in the game diary. The important thing is always to evaluate the clues at your disposal, try to ask the correct questions and make the right deductions within the now iconic Mental Palace, the place where the protagonist connects the evidence and reconstructs what happened, before accusing the culprit. In essence, the approach to the investigation is very similar to that of previous episodes, but the team has added some additional steps to make the investigation more substantial and elaborate. The dynamics of disguises are also of some importance: since relations with certain suspects could be cracked by our choices, Sherlock will have the right to disguise himself to change his identity and continue the investigation without being recognized, all to the advantage of a marked variety of approach which, we hope, will be as free as possible.

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Finally, in the demo at our disposal, other elements that will enrich the gameplay were missing, such as the combat system, the management of the Holmes’ abode and the ability to devote to secondary missions. The team has promised to reveal these aspects of the game soon, so as to provide us with a more complete picture of an adventure that promises to be as complex as it is vast and which, in the words of Frogwares, could commit us to more than 40 hours.

A world to investigate

As already widely mentioned, the biggest novelty of this new Sherlock Holmes is the open world nature of the project: you have to imagine Cordona as a large crime scene, to be freely explored and on which different types of crimes will take place, from the primary ones – to continue with the main quest – to the optional ones.

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The vastness of the game world is not astonishing, but we believe that the small size of the setting represents a good compromise in order not to make the “global investigation“. The test build gave us the opportunity to only slightly view some glimpses of Cordona which, although it does not shine from the graphic point of view or the animations (placing itself in line with the average of the other Frogwares productions), presents a direction rather flashy artistic, which we are curious to discover thoroughly by crossing every alley of the island and bringing to the surface all the pettiness that are hidden among its postcard landscapes.

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